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Montessori Teaching Methods, Part 1

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

If you told me ten years ago that just about any kindergarten aged child on the planet, regardless of socio-economic status, is capable of not only easily learning and deeply understanding, but LOVING topics, (especially math concepts) usually introduced in 3rd and 4th grades, I would have thought you were nuts!


As a mom and elementary school teacher, I used to think the standards that dictate what concepts are taught to what grade level, and the methods used to teach them, were based on what children are developmentally capable of. I believed what experienced educators always said, that introducing “advanced, or difficult” ideas to young children was not only pointless, but could be harmful. I even laughed to myself inside when a teacher at a prospective Montessori pre-school for my son said he would learn geometry and grammar!


It wasn’t until years later that I understood and came to learn how over 100 years ago, scientist, physician, and educator, Dr. Maria Montessori discovered how to unlock the immense human potential in young children. By following Montessori teaching methods, children can learn years beyond what we think they are capable of!


This post is one of a series all about Montessori teaching methods. In this series, I will cover:

  • What the various Montessori teaching methods are

  • How to use them with your child or students

  • What makes them so effective in developing not only the human mind, but a life long love of learning

  • How they are vastly different from modern educational methods

In this post, part 1 of the series, I will focus on two components of the Montessori Method: Sensitive Periods, and Following the Child.



SENSETIVE PERIODS


Observation

When Dr. Montessori opened her first Casa dei Bambini, a daycare center in the slums of Rome, she was already a trained scientist, physician, and educator of children with special needs. She knew the power of observation and experimentation. By carefully noting how children in the Casa interacted with and responded to materials in the environment, she discovered they had special “sensitive periods”, or short windows of time when, if given the right tools, instruction, and environment, could joyfully, and without effort, learn incredible amounts. She came to call this first sensitive period The Absorbent Mind. She wrote a fabulous book about it that I highly recommend. Click on the link to get a copy of


TRY IT: Spend some time just observing your child or students. What are they naturally drawn to, or not interested in? What do they seem “fixated” on (not counting screens)?



Learning Can be Easy & Enjoyable

The sensitive period most of us are familiar with, is for language. If you immerse a child of a certain age in any language in the world, they will learn it perfectly. However, after this sensitive period has passed, learning language becomes difficult and imperfect.


A big part of the power and magic of the Montessori Method, and part of what sets it apart from traditional (public and private) educational methods, is that Dr. Montessori capitalized on not only the sensitive period for language, but on other sensetive periods that many of us are unaware of. These include sensitive periods for: order, grammar, manners (or Grace & Courtesy), fine and gross motor development, music, social development, and one near and dear to my heart, mathematics! It was when Dr. Montessori introduced teaching methods that were in alignment with the sensitive periods that she saw such incredible growth in children from all backgrounds, and gained world wide attention. She even had the Queen of Spain come to see the “miracle” of the impoverished children outperforming, by several years, those that came from the middle and upper classes.

TRY IT: Find where your child or students are on the “Sensitive Periods” chart. (There are sensetive periods beyond age 6, however, The Absorbent Mind stage of development has the most).



Explosions into Learning

Because Montessori teaching methods capitalize on natural sensitive periods for learning, or what modern day researchers re-discovering this truth call “critical periods”, they have the ability to produce incredible learning, sometimes referred to “explosions into learning”.


Not long after the first Casa opened, a 3-year-old child in the sensitive period for writing, who had access to a prepared environment, specially designed didactic teaching materials, and short one on one, and small group lessons, seemed to spontaneously “know” how to write perfectly! The story goes that he picked up a piece of chalk, and discovered he knew how to write a word. He was so elated, and filled with joy at this discovery, that he continued to write all over the place for hours to come, proclaiming, “I can write! I can write!” .


TRY IT: If your child or students are in the sensitive period for mathematics (4-6 years old), set up a shelf of authentic Montessori materials to introduce: Counting to 10, counting to 100, counting to 1,000 and beyond! CLICK HERE for videos showing how to teach these concepts. CLICK HERE for a list of beginning Montessori math materials.



FOLLOWING THE CHILD


Materials are Attractive and Available

Montessori materials and environments are designed to be simple, yet beautiful, and enticing to children. Curiosity is a powerful driver of learning. In the Montessori environment, materials sit out on the shelf, calling to children to unlock their secrets. When you notice a child shows interest in a material, that is when you can sit beside them and present a short lesson, showing them how to use it properly. Although a child may need to be shown, or gently reminded how to correctly use a didactic material, once they are proficient, they are given the freedom, and independence to use it again and again, as long as they please.


Dr. Montessori discovered that following the child’s curiosity by giving them choice and autonomy in their learning environments could have a powerful impact on the development of the intellect. This does not mean a free-for-all, but “freedom with responsibility”. In other words, a child may be given a lesson in an attractive material that they are drawn to, and can then repeat that activity when they choose, but they are not allowed to mis-use it. This would not aid their development, just as a music student is not allowed to bang a violin on a table to see what sound it makes. The Montessori method provides attractive scientifically designed learning materials in the environment, then follows the child, and capitalizes on thier natural curiosity.


TRY IT: Instead of thinking, “Today I want to teach my child or students how to ________.” Provide them with Montessori learning materials, and see what they are drawn to. CLICK HERE for a list of Montessori Math materials.



Concentration, or Flow

Another breakthrough discovery Dr. Montessori made was that young children in her schools seemed to display unusually high levels of focus and concentration, or what in modern terms is described as “flow”. This is where a person is deeply engaged in an activity, usually physical, that presents just the right amount of challenge, and often leads to feelings of satisfaction. In a flow state, people describe feeling that the world around them disappears, time slows, and focus narrows.


In the Casa, Children would choose to repeat activities over and over, sometimes for hours at a time, then suddenly stop with a look of restful contentment and satisfaction on their faces. Their focus was so great, that they could be picked up along with their chair and table, and seem to be unaware that they were even being moved! Dr. Montessori determined that in these moments (of flow), children were teaching themselves, processing, and internalizing new understandings, all on their own. This is why in Montessori schools, learning is often chunked into three-hour learning periods, to allow opportunities for uninterrupted focus. In addition, a child may work on a task as long as they like (within reason).


Lack of focus is such a pervasive problem in our modern culture, yet the ability to focus on a task is one of those executive functioning skills that gives advantages throughout life. Dr. Montessori recognized the importance of developing deep concentration and focus, and therefore made it a foundational part of the Montessori method. In modern classrooms, it is the schedule that determines what is done, and when, and it is often broken up into small chunks with things constantly changing in an almost frenzy of movement. No wonder children struggle with focus!


TRY IT: When you notice your child is engrossed in a positive task (again, not screens), do not interrupt them! Observe how long they are able to maintain that focus! You can also encourage them to complete a task and put it away before starting something new.



FINAL THOUGHTS

The Montessori method is unique, and different from traditional education. It capitalizes on sensitive periods. These are windows of opportunity when learning, if presented right, can come easily to a child. The method also follows the child, making learning a joyful experience that keeps curiosity alive!


HOW TO PRESENT MONTESSORI LESSONS

If you would like to learn how to present specific Montessori lessons, CLICK HERE for a link to free online Montessori teaching albums. CLICK HERE for FREE instructional videos, and CLICK HERE for Montessori math printables. If you want to learn more about how to use Montessori teaching methods in a homeschool or classroom setting, check out my other blog posts.


Comment below on what Montessori teaching methods you would like to learn more about!








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