No two Montessori schools look exactly the same. Each will be responding to the needs of individual children and to differences in the society and culture they are part of; teachers will also bring in their own special skills and interests.
On a first visit to a Montessori school parents usually recognize some well-known pieces of equipment like the Pink Tower but what they are really looking for is more elusive: the essence of Montessori which lies in children's freedom to learn and develop.
There are a few outwardly attractive Montessori schools with the most expensive equipment where the philosophy has been pushed to the back of the shelf.
There are others with a set of knobbed cylinders and a Pink Tower with a few blocks missing which operate like playgroups but use the name Montessori as an attraction to middle class parents. There are others in remote parts, making their own materials and mending old ones in a church hall, where the spirit of Maria Montessori's teaching shines like a beacon in everything they do.
In a true Montessori classroom the child's freedom, dignity and independence are of paramount importance; in many ways what the staff of a school should not be doing is almost as important as what they should.
Your first impression should be of a classroom where all is orderly, clean and inviting, with all the activities displayed so the children can reach them. Although some children will work in small groups, occasionally with a teacher, you should see most children working alone for most of the session. Montessori believed that three hours were necessary for the child's 'work cycle' a period of self-directed activity when concentration was at its peak. Because sessions are shorter in present-day Montessori schools most aim for two and a half hours.
There should be a general atmosphere of children doing things for themselves carefully and competently - carrying furniture, setting tables, pouring drinks and washing their hands - and following activities which absorb and interest them.
The very first activities in a Montessori classroom develop the children's ability to look after themselves and their surroundings.
They can practice dressing skills on specially made frames which allow them to try zippers, buttons, bows and buckles. They use little jugs filled with beans or rice and water to practice pouring; they spoon, scoop, or use droppers, tweezers and even chopsticks to transfer from one bowl to another.
Other activities use scaled down versions of real equipment: brushes and brooms, wash-up bowls and cloths, show cleaning and polishing kits, even a tiny safe iron and ironing board. There are also varied opportunities for pairing socks, folding and sorting clothes, setting a table, painting and sewing - even packing a tiny suitcase.
One mother of a Montessori child discovered exactly what her daughter was capable of when they both went to help at a mixture sale. Her little girl set to work pairing shoes, folding clothes and attempting to impose order on the huge piles of mixed bag.That's an example of the confidence as well as the competence which children gain through practical life activities. Their added purpose is that children who work on real tasks which involve the hand and the mind together develop a great capacity to concentrate, which is the best possible preparation for the intellectual work to come.
One of the first pieces of sensorial apparatus children use when they come into the preschool is a set of solid geometric forms called the geometric solids which they explore with their hands, matching identical ones and sorting into sets according to their geometric properties. At first they are presented in baskets, each basket having one type of solid: semi-regular solids curved surface solids and so on. As they get older, children become fascinated with words and are given the names: pyramid, dodecahedron, ellipsoid. Another piece of material uses flat geometric shapes - circle, square, triangle, rectangle, rhombus which are fitted into spaces on a tray, rather like a jigsaw puzzle.
On the Sensorial shelves there will be specially designed materials to encourage development of the senses, such as a tower of pink blocks; sets of cylinders gradiated in size; cylinders with knobs which have to be fitted into the right holes in a block; rough and smooth tablets in boxes; smelling bottles; fabrics to sort by touch; puzzle blocks called the binomial and trinomial cubes which are interesting in themselves but later turn out to be a physical illustration of mathematical formulae. Each of these is used to stimulate and refine one of the ten sensory areas and each will be presented to the child to be used in an exact way to aid his development. The sensorial materials also prepare the child for reading and writing.
Some materials, like the cylinders of the geometric insets which are held by their little knobs between finger and thumb, prepare the muscles of the hand for writing, others prepare the ear for hearing fine differences in sound (to prepare for, among other things, distinguishing between letter sounds) by listening both to silence and to sounds which are presented as 'noise' with the sound boxes and as musical notes with the bells. Sorting tablets according to subtle difference in shade and color sharpens the child's perception of slight difference, another prerequisite for recognizing letter and number shapes. If each step is taught by itself, one step at a time, the child will gradually, at her pace and in her particular learning style, integrate the different skills and will emerge, often seemingly effortlessly, as a competent reader and writer. Teachers are aware of how much has to happen to enable this and that only the child, through active manipulation of the materials, can make it happen.
Listening, Speaking, Pre-reading, Writing, Reading, Penmanship
Writing often comes before reading in a Montessori classroom with children building up their first words phonetically using cardboard letters.
The reading program progresses through three levels: pink, blue and green - reading materials are color coded for each level. Inside a small pink box a child finds a tiny toy dog. She takes it out, says the word, listens to the sounds in it and then seeks out the letters which make those sounds to build the word. Writing skills are learned by coloring intricate shapes drawn with insets, and sandpaper letters are experienced by touch as well as by sight and sound. A wide range of story and reference picture books are always available in the classroom.
Symbols, Quantities, Simple Operations Facts, Decimal System and Memorization.
Children gain a physical impression of size and quantity long before they begin to manipulate numbers by handling number rods, counting out beads, counting spindles into boxes and arranging colored counters in patterns - odd and even numbers. Numbers are built up using glass or wooden beads and their sandpaper symbols traced with the fingers. Pie-shaped frames with inset pieces give concrete grounding in fractions which the child can refer back to for years to come.
Children begin with globes and then study maps using jigsaws. They can trace and color the shapes of each continent as well as placing them in the right place in the puzzle. They go on to name and put the shapes onto blank maps of the world and to recognize flags. Looking at countries individually they will use picture cards of mothers and babies, families and their daily lives and handle and examine artifacts from other cultures - a Japanese fan, chopsticks, a sari or an African drum. We have cultural boxes, one for each country, filled with all the exotica teachers can find to bring new places alive. On festival days we celebrate with tastes of exotic foods, learn songs from other countries or invite a guest or parent to show and tell about special costumes and celebrations.
The land forms teach geographical features. They are a set of models showing islands, bays, capes, peninsulas and isthmuses and lakes for children to fill with water and perhaps float a little boat or put an animal on the land. Many classrooms now have wonderful scale models of the planets and the solar system and a take-apart model of the earth which reveals its layers and core.
Science materials give opportunities to experiment with magnets, light, air, and even build simple circuit boards to light a tiny bulb. Most classrooms have a nature table or pets corner and in many areas of the cultural curriculum children use classification cards for naming, matching or identifying anything and everything from leaf shapes to different kinds of stone to different stages of a tadpole's metamorphosis into a frog. The breadth of children's knowledge of their world when they leave Montessori school can be quite astounding.