How will you educate your child?

The ABCs of Montessori Education

by Jennifer Lacey

If it’s time for you to decide on the type of education you want for your child and you’re seeking an alternative to traditional modes of learning, you may wish to consider Montessori-affiliated schools as a viable option. Located throughout the United States, these schools may be able to provide the child-centered environment you idealize to foster your child’s learning and exploration of the world surrounding her.


Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in Ancona, Italy. In 1896, she attained considerable recognition when she became the first woman in the country to become a physician–a considerable feat for any woman living during that time. Dr. Montessori spent most of her time observing the learning methods of young children. Through years of observation and study she came to the belief that children teach themselves and build themselves from what they find in their environment.

In 1906, Dr. Montessori founded the Casa dei Bambini, or “Children’s House” in Rome, after giving up her medical practice to work exclusively with a group of sixty young children.

Dr. Montessori’s work gained attention in the United States during her visit in 1913, which coincided with the creation of the Montessori Education Association by the famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. She continued her work throughout her later years and received worldwide recognition when she became a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Montessori died in Holland in 1952, and her work continues through the Association of Montessori Internationale (AMI), located in Amsterdam, as well as in numerous schools around the world.

According to research published by the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association , (NAMTA), there are an estimated 4,000 Montessori schools located throughout the United States and 7,000 worldwide. Montessori programs mostly serve children between the ages of three to six, although they are not limited to early childhood education. Many such programs serve infants and toddlers to mid-teens. NAMTA claims that published studies show children who are educated through the Montessori method will be well prepared for their later life academically, socially, and emotionally.

Dr. Montessori believed in the concept of a “prepared environment.” This theory is based upon her observations that a child’s learning environment can be designed to optimize a child’s independent learning and exploration. Such an environment will facilitate a wide range of activity and movement in the classroom.

An example of a prepared environment can start in the home. “If your four-year-old wants to dress himself in the morning, place three sets of weather-appropriate clothing in a drawer that he can access and from which he can choose, because you don’t want the child to choose a T-shirt and shorts for a cold day! If he did the latter, you would have to correct his choice, thus hurting his sense of independence,” explains Frederic F. Catlin, Head of School at the Montessori Community School of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Learning materials in the Montessori classroom are designed to facilitate activity amongst children. Educational materials may consist of maps, puzzles, colored beads, as well as geometric shapes, all of which are located within reach of the children. “As a doctor, Maria Montessori designed her materials to fit the needs of any child, disabled or gifted. The materials can be broken down into individual pieces or combined,” says Cathy Kalkus, Primary Class Director of the Montessori School of Alexandria, Virginia.

This approach is far different from the traditional means of education and learning. “Montessori learning is child-centered; traditional learning is teacher-centered. In a traditional, teacher-centered environment, the teacher tries to control all aspects of the class. With Montessori, the teacher, whom we refer to as the ‘guide,’ creates a learning path for the child to follow, and also allows the child the freedom to pursue tangents of knowledge,” says Mr. Catlin.

Montessori Misconceptions

There are many opinions as well as misconceptions regarding the Montessori way of education. Some critics say that the classroom environment is unsupervised, with children acting up and doing whatever they want with little or no intervention.

“Montessori uses a multi-aged classroom,” explains Mr. Catlin. “Because the program adapts to each child, there is no rigid curriculum for each grade level, thus allowing the fluidity of a multi-age setting. This environment also allows older children to mentor younger children and for the younger ones to become motivated by seeing the more complicated works of older children.”

Most Montessori educators will agree that if a child is acting disruptively with the classroom materials, the teacher will intervene and encourage the child to use the materials appropriately.

Other concerns pertain to whether children educated under the Montessori system will be prepared for a possible transition to a school that provides a more traditional way of learning. Ms. Kalkus believes that this is entirely possible, since Montessori-educated children, “…tend to do very well when they transition to other schools. Mostly this is because they have learned how to learn. They are independent, resourceful, and socially secure. They tend to be excellent readers, and are very good at math as well.”

Words of Advice

“Parents who are interested in Montessori education should visit a school and observe a classroom. Watch to see if the children are moving independently and purposefully, and be sure that it is a child-centered, and not a teacher-centered environment. Most Montessori guides receive their certification from a MACTE (Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education) training program that is affiliated with either the AMI or the American Montessori Society (AMS),” says Mr. Catlin.

Ms. Kalkus agrees. “Parents should absolutely, without exception, visit the Montessori School they’re considering and observe. Schools can vary within a certain framework and the parent should be completely comfortable with their child’s school. A well-functioning class can be breathtaking to watch. Children learning, laughing, socializing, and helping each other speaks for itself.”

Further Information about Montessori Education

The Association Montessori International-USA (the U.S.-based counterpart of the Association Montessori Internationale)
410 Alexander Street
Rochester, New York 14607
Phone: (716) 461-5920

American Montessori Society
281 Park Avenue South, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010-6102
Phone: 212-358-1250

North American Montessori Teaching Association
13693 Butternut Road
Burton, Ohio 44021



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