ES 3219: Early Years Education 

Week 9/10: Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

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Last updated 14.03.14.





‘Nurturing the Love of Learning: Montessori Education for the Early Childhood Years’


Film uploaded on 31 October 2006

"Nurturing the Love of Learning" was produced by the American Montessori Society. It shows how Montessori education nurtures learning for children who are 3–6.



Introductory Perspectives

Montessori attempts to establish a set of educational precepts of universal validity. She first concentrated on working with very young children, and only later extended it to include older children and the family.


She sought to integrate theory and practice in the form of the Children’s Houses and her didactic materials. Röhrs (1994 – UNESCO reading) writes that ‘No other representatives of New Education put their theories into practice on the same scale; she initiated a varied programme on an international scale that remained without equal.’ (p. 1/169)


Montessori had a very strong personality, and was not prepared to simply fit into an Italian patriarchal society, and she became a key figure in the international Women’s Movement of the early twentieth century. In 1896 she became the first woman in Italy to finish medical school with a study on neuropathology, and before this as age 13 she chose a technical education route eventually focusing on engineering – almost unheard for a middle class woman in those times.


From 1896–8 she then worked as an assistant at the University of Rome’s Psychiatric Clinic, being responsible for the care of mentally handicapped children. Strong influences on her emerging thinking at this time were the pioneering French doctors Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and Edouard Séguin (e.g. see Séguin’s book Idiocy: and its Treatment by the Physiological Method).


MM became involved in the modernisation of a slum quarter, San Lorenzo in Rome, taking responsibility for the children’s education. She set up a Children’s House (or Casa Dei Bambini), where children learnt about the world and developed the ability to organise their own lives – work which was hugely successful. The many Children’s Houses that were established in the following years became places to which educators made educational ‘pilgrimages’, as they were seem by many as examples pointing towards the solution of educational problems. According to Röhrs, she was regarded as ‘a kind of high priestess of the rights of children in an antagonistic world’.


Montessori and the New Education

A true proponent of the so-called ‘New Education’ international movement of the time, MM was concerned with a remodelling and renewal of life. She was very heavily influenced by J.-J. Rousseau, echoing his criticisms of the adult world in Emile, and the wrong-headed approach to getting children to walk too early; Rohs (p. 3) quotes her thus (a crucial quotation, this): ‘It is essential to let nature have its on way as far as possible; the more freedom children are allowed to develop, the quicker and more perfectly they will attain higher forms and functions.’


Pedagogical Perspectives

MM’s basic educational concept is that of providing children with a suitable environment in which to live and learn. Importantly, her educational programme places equal emphasis on internal and external development, such that they can complement one another. The consideration of external education is testimony to the scientific ethos in her work, and heralds a move away from the idealism of other educational approaches, like that of Froebel.


The thinking behind Rousseau-like programmes for training the senses, founded on the idea that it is possible to form and sculpt human beings by means of manipulating the sensory input to which they’re exposed, is also visible in Montessori’s theories.


Montessori introduced the education process by means of a set of standardised learning

materials, being very much concerned with the experiential aspect. She also placed significant emphasis on introducing the process of comparison and abstraction (which for her is of paramount importance for intellectual development) in a controlled and intelligently planned manner, so that it would not be left to chance. How this squares with her strong conviction for a natural unfolding learning experience (quoted earlier) perhaps needs further interrogation.


For MM, success of her approach depends upon awakening a feeling of responsibility in the children. Röhrs (p. 4) claims that this was ‘her truly original contribution: she not only gave consideration to the inclinations and interests of the children…, but also sought to encourage responsibility and self-discipline on the part of the children’.


The Children’s Houses

The Children’s Houses were living environments specially adapted to children – houses

in which everything was adapted to the children and their specific attitudes and perspectives: not only furniture but colour, sound and architecture. Children were expected to treat this environment in a responsible way, and to create and keep order, such that they were helped on the path towards self-realisation. There is an ‘interactive tension’, perhaps, between freedom and discipline, with neither being achievable without the other. So MM had her children participate actively in the shaping of their living environment, as well as in the shaping of its rules and principles of order, thus staying true to the idea of moral autonomy.


MM also systematically developed the logical implication of these ideas, viz. their application and practice in real-life situations. Thus, her ‘exercises in daily living’ included exercises in patience, exactness and repetition, all intended to strengthen the children’s powers of concentration. Exercises were done daily, and always (importantly) within the context of some real/meaningful ‘task’, and not as mere games or artificially ‘bolted-on’ abstract activities. The practice of being still and meditating was also part of this picture. Indeed, reflection and meditation played an important part both in MM’s personal life and in her educational programme.


MM emphasised the importance of developing attitudes (or what we might call ‘dispositions’ today) instead of mere practical abilities; she wrote that ‘disciplined behaviour becomes  a basic attitude… The principal achievement of the Children’s Houses has been to instil discipline in the children’ (quoted by Röhrs, p. 5).



The didactic materials

The didactic materials were an aspect of the ‘prepared environment’ in the Children’s Houses, methodically planned and standardised so that a child who freely chose to occupy him- or herself with one of them, and would thus be entering a predetermined situation, and thus be faced with unwittingly having to deal with the intellectual aspect/challenge of the activity (there is a stark divergence from the Steiner approach here, of course, for whom intellectual activity was not in any way encouraged until the change of teeth at age 6). A good example is the cylinders of different lengths and sizes which needed to be inserted into appropriate holes, with only one solution being possible for each cylinder.


A basic principle of the didactic materials was that the activities were methodically coordinated so that the children could easily judge the degree of their success in the given task. For each of the child’s senses there was an exercise (and which could be made even more effective by eliminating other senses). The various activities were also intended to interact (‘holism’ here?), with the various didactic materials functioning ‘like a ladder’, as Montessori herself expressed it many times, thus allowing the children to take the initiative themselves and make progress towards ‘self-realisation’. Interestingly, too, the materials were argued to be permeated with a particular spirit and intellectual attitude, which would be communicated to. and ‘mould’, the children. Here is Montessori herself (in Röhrs, p. 6):


[T]he sensory materials should definitely be regarded as ‘materialized abstraction’ ... When the child is directly confronted with the materials he applies himself to them with that kind of earnest, concentrated attention which seems to draw the best out of his consciousness…. [T]he materials open new doors to their understanding which otherwise would remain locked.


A question could perhaps be raised here as to whether the actual content of the procedures is far less important than the process of engaging with them, and also the environmental/cultural context in which they are relatively seamlessly embedded.


MM intended her didactic materials to be so constructed that they would point the way beyond the immediate situation, and actually encourage abstraction (completely contrary to Steiner’s approach). For Montessori it was vital that the materials encouraged generalisation.


This approach means that the teacher is not at the centre of the educational process, and can operate from its ‘periphery’. For MM, the teacher’s most important task is to observe in a scientific manner, with children being responsibly directed in keeping with the scientific spirit underpinning the work.


The scientific basis of MM’s work

What is fascinating about MM – and something she shares with Steiner – is her deep respect for both modern science and the spiritual; not least, she considered childhood to be a continuation of the act of creation. She was, however, strongly committed to the empirical science of her age (positivism being very influential in Italy at the time) in a way that Steiner never was. (Interestingly, I can find only one very passing reference to MM in Steiner’s works, despite the fact that they were Europeans, leading pedagogues, and contemporaries.) Thus, MM pursued precise experiments and observation in the spirit of empirical science, and a key intention of her work was to provide education that had scientific validity, ongoingly re-evaluating it through practical experiments. Yet at the same time, she regarded the far less tangible ‘existential’ qualities of faith, hope and trust as the most effective means of teaching children independence and self-confidence. Speculatively, perhaps at least part of the great success and longevity of both Montessori and Steiner education is that both of its founders were equally respectful of both the spiritual dimension and of science.


Montessori envisioned a ‘new type of teacher’: she wrote, ‘Instead of talking he must learn to be silent; instead of instructing he must observe; instead of presenting the proud dignity of one who desires to appear infallible he must don the robe of humility’ (quoted in Röhrs, p. 7). This is crucial, and coheres closely both with Steiner’s view of the role of the Kindergarten teacher, and also with Winnicott’s (much later) views on impingement, and it provides a very powerful picture of the non-intruding teacher, which contrasts sharply with England’s EYFS curriculum. For MM, this kind of faithful, non-intrusive observation from the periphery is not a natural ability (not least, such a ‘less is more’ ethos goes directly against notions of teacher expertise); such an ability has to be learned.


Note that according to Röhrs (p. 7),


[Montessori’s] experiments neither possessed a solid theoretical framework nor were they carried out and evaluated in a way that would allow them to be objectively confirmed. Her descriptions were not free of subjective impressions and her conclusions were often biased in her own favour or even dogmatically phrased. …If she is judged by her own standards for scientific and theoretical work in education, even though they were formulated in a vague and generalized way, then she hardly passes the test. The success of her work was due to other factors: her humility and patience and her (often-mentioned) fascination with the wonder of life.

MM was exceptionally adept at constructing learning/educational situations, more the expression, perhaps, of her inspiring personality than the result of careful thought and planning. Röhrs again: ‘she was possessed of a very personal and unique talent for dealing with and interpreting educational processes’ (ibid.)



MM developed a theory of perception that has much in common with Pestalozzi’s

approach. Just as he had warned, MM also warned against neglecting the forms of direct perception. She wrote, ‘No description, no picture, no book can replace the real life of trees in the context of all the life which surrounds them in the forest’ (quoted by Röhrs, p. 8). She also wrote. ‘the realization of truth is not made possible by evidence but by an act of faith’ (ibid.); and for Röhrs, ‘There can be no doubt that she succeeded in linking this form of faith as inner knowledge and improved vision with her concept of science’ (ibid.).


Some Key Montessorian Concepts

  • Independent activity
  • The ‘absorbent mind’
  • Normalisation


Self-realisation through independent activity

MM also referred to the related idea of ‘self-creation’, applying this to all the dimensions of humanness involved in the development of the personality. Crucially, for MM this process can only be successful if it takes place in freedom, whereby ‘freedom’ is understood as going together with discipline and responsibility (cf. earlier and below). She also spoke of the high degree of satisfaction shown by the children stemming from their independently achieved self-realisation. For her, such self-realisation leads ultimately to self-education, or autoeducatione. which is the real goal (cf. Steiner on this). For her, then, reflection and meditative concentration, together with intense effort, are a pre-requisite of attempting to solve the problems posed by the didactic materials.



The absorbent mind and normalisation

The ‘absorbent mind’ is another key concepts of MM’s educational system, together with ‘normalisation’. Here is MM again (ibid.: p. 9):


The first task of education is to provide the child with an environment in which it is able to develop its natural functions. This does not mean that one should merely satisfy the child’s needs and allow it to do what it likes; we must also be prepared to co-operate with a command of nature, with one of its laws, according to which development and growth proceed by means of interaction with the environment.



The ‘absorbent mind’ also signifies the ability and willingness to learn, with the mind being directed towards the events in the environment and in tune with them. MM also says important things about developmental appropriateness, for for her, ‘the demands placed by the learning process correspond to the natural sensitivities and tendencies of each phase of development’ (Röhrs, p. 10).


The notion of ‘sensitive phases’ is also relevant here, and to MM: these are periods of enhanced receptivity in relation to learning through interaction with the environment. Thus there are argued to exist specific phases during which the child is naturally receptive to certain environmental influences; and these must be made use of to master innate functions and sp achieve greater maturity. There are argued to be such sensitive phases for learning to speak, mastering social interactions, and so on, and these phases can be exploited to promote periods of concentrated and efficient learning. And if this does not happen, the opportunities can be irretrievably lost.


For Montessori, then, within each individual a vital force is believed to be active which directs the child towards realisation of self. And faith in human potential is a cornerstone of her pedagogy – and this is of course a very humanistic notion, too. The last word goes to Röhrs, p. 10):


She sought to influence the world in a controlled way through the harmonious combination of theory and practice; she looked for the confirmation of her theories in practice and shaped her practice according to scientific principles, thus achieving perfection: that is why Maria Montessori’s educational concept has been so successful.







[If you wish to use any of these, you can quite the lecture notes.]


  • “The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.”


  • “Plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his mission.”


  • “The environment itself will teach the child, if every error he makes is manifest to him, without the intervention of a parent of teacher, who should remain a quiet observer of all that happens.”


  • “Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.”


  • “Only through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to occur.”


  • “To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.”


  • “The things he sees are not just remembered; they form a part of his soul.”


  • “When dealing with children there is greater need for observing than of probing”


  • “Little children, from the moment they are weaned, are making their way toward independence.”


  • “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”


  • “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”


  • “The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”


  • “Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.”


  • “The child becomes a person through work.”


  • “To aid life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator.”


  • “To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”


  • “The child, in fact, once he feels sure of himself, will no longer seek the approval of authority after every step.”


  • “To give a child liberty is not to abandon him to himself.”


  • “But an adult if he is to provide proper guidance, must always be calm and act slowly so that the child who is watching him can clearly see his actions in all their particulars.”


  • “The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self.”


  • “The child can develop fully by means of experience in his environment. We call such experiences ‘work’.”


  • “Such experiences is not just play…. It is work he must do in order to grow up.”


  • “We found individual activity is the one factor that stimulates and produces development.”


  • “Of all things love is the most potent.”


  • “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence…. The human hand allows the minds to reveal itself.”


  • “Since it is through movement that the will realises itself, we should assist a child in his attempts to put his will into act.”


  • “Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes through his movements.”


  • “Imitation is the first instinct of the awakening mind.”


  • “These words reveal the child’s inner needs; ‘Help me to do it alone’.”


  • “The child builds his inmost self out of the deeply held impressions he receives.”


  • “The prize and punishments are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort, and, therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them.”


  • “Character formation cannot be taught. It comes from experience and not from explanation.”


  • “Growth comes from activity, not from intellectual understanding.”


  • “The essential thing is to arouse such an interest that it engages the child’s whole personality.”


  • “Education should no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentials.”


  • “The child is an enigma… He has the highest potentialities, but we do not know what he will be.”


  • “The child should live in an environment of beauty.”


  • “The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth.”




Additional Material

Let’s look at the Montessori viewpoints on fantasy and play, as both can sometimes be seen as controversial. Here, we draw on

(1)    Marion O’Donnell’s book Maria Montessori (Continuum, London, 2007; Lib. ref.: 370.92: MON);

(2)    Cathleen S. Soundy, ‘Young children’s imaginative play: is it valued in Montessori classrooms?’, Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 2009: 381–3

First, O’Donnell shows how Montessori had a by no means positive view about the role of fantasy for young children: she quotes Montessori thus (p. 62): “Fantasy involved unreal mental images and allowed the mind to wander rather than become ordered”; and the child’s mind “escapes and loves to wander in the fascinating worlds of unreality… a tendency of savage peoples”. And elsewhere, Montessori writes of “…the mind that should build itself up through experiences of movement flees to fantasy” (ibid.). Here, then, it seems clear that MM is making a strong value judgement about the place of fantasy and its role. O’Donnell is emphatic: she writes, “There was to be no place at all for fantasy in the three-to-six year Montessori environment… Fantasy did not help the child gain a realistic view of his environment and hindered his perception and understanding of the world”. A bit later, although we find that Montessori did distinguish between ‘fantasy’ and ‘imagination’ (O’Donnell, p. 63), nonetheless she said that “active children left to themselves [i.e. with no Montessori materials] have rarely a good result because it does not aid development”. Or in other words, the active child “needed help to develop the formation of his person” (ibid.). And a bit later still, we read that for MM, “imagination was to be used for the ‘real’ things…” (O’Donnell).

This all seems to be a very realism-dominated, scientific approach, which not only seems potentially to contradict MM’s views about leaving the child freedom to learn (does the Directress simply stop the child who is freely fantasising of her/his own free will?), but also is weighted far more in the direction of ‘real’-world empirical experience than in the direction of children’s imaginative elaborations about ‘reality’. We could speculate about whether this viewpoint of Montessori’s is more an accurate pedagogical insight, or is more fuelled by her own unintegrated biographical history and associated belief system. 

Certainly, the contrast between MM’s view on fantasy and that of psychoanalyst and founder of British nursery education, Susan Isaacs, couldn’t be more marked, with unconscious ‘phantasy’ and more conscious ‘fantasy’ being essential for Isaacs, in terms of the child’s working through of a whole range of experiences that more realism-oriented approaches would simply fail to provide for children at such a young age. Steiner, too, was very clear that it is appropriate, indeed crucial, for young children to be allowed to stay in ‘dream consciousness’ at this young age, not least because they are recapitulating the evolution of human consciousness in their own childhood development journey.

It would make an interesting discussion to have, on whom we think is right about this – Montessori or Isaacs/Einstein/Steiner... (Albert Einstein once famously said, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.")



Secondly, let’s look briefly at Soundy’s paper ‘Young children’s imaginative play: is it valued in Montessori classrooms? (2009). Soundy writes (p. 381), ‘Play is believed to be an immediate and natural tool for generating and expressing ideas in many early childhood classrooms, but it is often not supported or encouraged sufficiently in Montessori settings’ (my italics). She continues, ‘Montessorians are entrenched in the time-honored position that a young child’s imagination develops from a sensory base and from real world experience’ (my italics). Thus, we are told that typical Montessori settings lack a designated role play/dressing-up area. But Soundy detects a possible shift occurring in emerging Montessorian pedagogy: thus, she quotes Montessorian Dorothy Ohlhaverthus: “My years of observing 3- to 6-year-olds inside and outside their classrooms convince me that their imaginary life is rich and varied and that adults who limit young children’s experiences to only the ‘real world’ are missing a truly sensitive period”. Moreover, Soundy writes (p. 382) that ‘conventions, personal observation, anecdotal teacher reports, and recent Montessori-based publications suggest heightened awareness of the benefits of play’.


Foucault himself would heartily approve on Soundy’s next observation! – namely, that ‘In classrooms where play is not sanctioned, children are good at finding alternative stages to playact their fantasies’ (ibid.) – Soundy evocatively refers to these as moments of play as occurring in “small, precious spaces of time when the integration of language and imagination blossom into dynamic engagement with an idea”. Having given a detailed case example of play in a Montessori setting, Soundy cautions that ‘Changing teachers’ beliefs about the importance of pretend play for 3- to 6-year-olds in early Montessori environments will take time’ (p. 383), further pointing out that circumstances have changed since Montessori’s time, and that the importance of dramatic play in the child’s development is now well attested to by more modern research. So this is perhaps a classic example of the way in which no pedagogy can ever claim to be universal across time (and perhaps across space too), as social and cultural conditions change historically, sometimes markedly and dramatically. Another useful article on this issue is William Crain, ‘Editorial: Montessori’, Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 17 (2), 2004, pp. 2–4 (available via Athens e-journals).



And finally, some possible critiques of the Montessori approach to consider:


(1)    Overly realism-orientated – see above.

(2)    Relatedly, imaginative, make-believe play can be undervalued.

(3)    Tension between the alleged freedom of the child, and the very carefully structured and chosen materials to which s/he has access; the view that the environment is too structured.

(4)    Reading/literacy at age 4, and the associated use of phonicsis this a ‘natural’ development whereby a naturally occurring ‘sensitive phase’ is caught and then simply elaborated by the approach? – or might it be that the very nature of the Montessorian approach itself serves to ‘artificially’ accelerate a process in the child, which then  renders them ‘ready’ for literacy learning at an age which looks to the Montessorian to be ‘natural’? (remember that Steiner argues very strongly for no literacy learning till age 6). In other words, the ‘constructed environment’ is a long way from being a ‘neutral’ backdrop to the child’s natural development.

(5)    An adult-defined work ethic is arguably imposed on to the children, which is a long way from being the child-centred approach that is commonly claimed (cf. Valerie Polakow’s book The Erosion of Childhood, 2ndedn,University of Chicago Press, 1992).Polakow went as far as calling Montessori education ‘the bureaucratization of childhood’! (Alas, this book isn’t in the library, but it’s very cheap 2nd hand on Amazon.) Yet remember how often Montessori very strongly condemned adults intruding into the worlds of young children – so these are complex issues; and it may be more an issue of what particular teachers who have a designation of ‘Montessori’ are doing, than it is the approach itself laid down by Montessori.

(6)    The Montessori materials are overvalued, relative to the rest of the possibilities in the setting.



Articles on Montessori from Nursery World magazine: Excerpts


Maria Montessori's post-war lectures inspire a new generation

Lectures given by Maria Montessori when she visited London in 1946 are the inspiration for the Montessori Schools Association conference on Saturday.


More than 900 people are expected to attend the annual event at the Institute of Education, with Montessorians from as far afield as Nigeria. Germany and Sweden.


The 1946 London lectures have recently been published with a new translation and index to help readers re-visit important topics of Montessori philosophy.


The lectures were the basis of Maria Montessori's first training course in London on her return from exile in India during the Second World War.


The conference will also be an opportunity to debate current issues of early years policy. The MSA questions the Government’s push for more two-year-olds in schools.


‘Of course there are some Montessori nurseries in premises on school sites. The problem come if staff are not qualified or experienced enough to work with two-year-olds.’


The MSA is also ‘very wary’ about the development of childminder agencies. Montessori-trained childminders are very concerned’ about whether they would be able to keep their Montessori identities, and whether agencies would understand the educational philosophy.

Montessori can lead way to education re-think, says neurologist

Montessori teaching shows the way forward for educators in the 21st century and 'School 2.0', according to a leading neuropsychologist.

…Talking to Nursery World before speaking on education and parenting in the 21st century at the Maria Montessori Institute in London last weekend, Dr Hughes said, 'At the end of the day we know far too much about children's brains to keep doing this. The idea that children should learn the same thing at the same time flies in the face of how cognitive learning works for children.'


He said Montessori was a good example of what school 2.0 could look like because it focuses on how children develop, as well as having mixed age classes.


School 2.0 was less teacher-directed 'less about content and more about capabilities', with the teacher acting as a facilitator.


It was generally agreed that children need to develop a broad range of skills, but the way schools traditionally operate was not conducive to this, Dr Hughes said.


The developing brain is dependent on experimental interactions with the environment. 'A developing brain and its development needs vary with age. One of the things people don't necessarily understand is how important self-control is for the developing brain.' Inhibitory control, developing a working memory and cognitive flexibility were key.


'Early development of these functions is a better predictor of academic skills than getting academic skills early on,' he said.


Early years foundation stage: Montessori guides users to EYFS practice

The Early Years Foundation Stage was endorsed by Montessori leaders at the launch of the organisation's guidance booklets for practitioners last week.

At a joint conference held by Montessori Schools Association and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, keynote speaker Ruth Pimentel, the national director for early years at National Strategies, emphasised parallels between the EYFS and Montessori practice. She said they both put 'the individual child at the centre of practice from birth'.


The Joint Government and Montessori Conference on the Future, held at the Institute of Education, attracted more than 200 delegates. The guidance booklets were financed by the DCSF. Barbara Isaacs, principal of the Montessori Centre International training college, told the conference, 'I believe that (Maria)Montessori could have written the principles (of the EYFS) herself, in a different language'.


Ms Isaacs urged delegates to work in partnership. She said, 'It's paramount that we use the EYFS document as a means of communication. Leave the Montessori jargon in your Montessori classrooms when you're with colleagues in other settings. It's about the importance of having a shared language. The guide has been made so it is accessible for everyone, including Ofsted and local authorities.'


Practical resources to help adapt to the EYFS were introduced and explained to conference delegates. Ms Isaacs described the EYFS CD-Rom as 'a mine of information', and said that Montessori would launch a 'one-stop e-shop' directing users to these resources.


However, delegates raised concerns about the EYFS during a question and answer session. One said, 'I see a contradiction between the principle of the unique child and having a statutory framework that requires children to reach a certain level of development.'


In response, Ms Pimentel said that 'the Early Learning Goals are there as an aspiration, as a goal, not as a requirement'. Other issues raised by delegates included the 'unacceptable' gap between girls and boys, and the need for further guidance about supporting children learning English as an additional language.


- Further information:  'Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage in Montessori Settings' is available free by e-mailing Queries about the EYFS are welcomed by Ruth Pimentel

The test of time

As celebrations get underway for the centenary of Montessori education, Montessori St Nicholas chief executive Philip Bujak tells why he believes that all young children can benefit from schooling that follows its principles and why its popularity has grown worldwide. When Dr Maria Montessori opened her first school in San Lorenzo, Italy in January 1907, little did she know that her beliefs in the inner abilities and goodness of each child would lead to an educational movement that has now spread to more than 150 countries across the world or that her approach to education would still be practised 100 years later.


As celebrations get underway for the centenary of Montessori education, Montessori St Nicholas chief executive Philip Bujak tells why he believes that all young children can benefit from schooling that follows its principles and why its popularity has grown worldwide.


When Dr Maria Montessori opened her first school in San Lorenzo, Italy in January 1907, little did she know that her beliefs in the inner abilities and goodness of each child would lead to an educational movement that has now spread to more than 150 countries across the world or that her approach to education would still be practised 100 years later.


In the UK Montessori is largely taught in small private nursery schools, with an ever-growing number catering for primary school-aged children.


However, the Montessori principles are open to everyone. Currently there are two state primary schools converting to Montessori, believing in its benefits for their pupils.


Montessori is an approach to early education that focuses on the immense capacity of children to absorb information when given the freedom and independence to learn at their own speed. Maria Montessori's approach to education from the child's perspective was inspired by her belief in the potential and uniqueness of all children.


Maria Montessori was the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Italy. Breaking new ground and old stereotypes was nothing new for her. So it was with her observations of disadvantaged children - how they learned, how they interacted with each other, how they saw the adults around them and how their actions educated them in the ways of the world.


Her insights and approach to child development have been enormously influential all over the world, both through what has become known as the Montessori movement and through mainstream education, which has gradually accepted many of her principles.


Joy in learning

Montessori developed her own teaching and learning techniques, based on her understanding of the way children learn - through choosing, trying and doing themselves By observing how children learn, and providing them with tools and opportunities tailored to the way they experience the world around them, the Montessori approach allows children to learn through understanding, rather than through being told. From understanding comes confidence and a joy in learning.


At the same time there is a strongly physical dimension to many Montessori activities, encouraging dexterity, balance and appreciation of shapes, colours and sizes. In its approach to language and mathematics in particular, Montessori begins with concrete examples to illuminate abstract concepts, gradually building to a deep and permanent understanding of what most adults take for granted.


What all these elements have in common is that they are providing the building blocks of future learning, hardwiring a child's capacity to engage with new material and information and providing the tools with which to manipulate it. Montessori is, literally, learning for life.


Today much of what is now thought of as established orthodoxy in how children learn has a Montessori route. For example, phonics - the approach to reading and writing that focuses on letters and syllables - is now accepted by many as one of the best methods for developing early literacy.

It has been used for 100 years in Montessori settings.


The absorbent mind

The Montessori approach works because it is driven by the developmental needs of children, rather than the ever-changing educational policies of government.


For Maria Montessori the most important age of learning of all was between birth and six years. In this period, the child absorbs everything around them - known as 'the absorbent mind' - and has the greatest appetite for knowledge.


It is what we, as adults, do for children during these critical years that lays the foundations for all their future learning, and Montessori felt it was vital for the both teachers and parents to not only be there, but to know how to act as a guide to the world and to try to give that most important thing of all to their child - time.


Some Montessori principles are:


* Children learn from what you put around them. So, for example, show them the differences in music, ask them to help in the garden or cooking, show them how to play - why expect them to know what play is? Children are not born to play - they are learning through play and have a thirst for knowledge.


* Respect the child as an individual. They will each have their own unique character and possess immense potential. Find out what that character is and then nurture it - don't try to change it. Follow and learn about them - don't make them follow you.


* Give the child independence. 'Help me to do it by myself' is one of the greatest mantras you can live by in helping a child to learn independently. Show the child how to learn and then let them do it - they will quickly realise it's fun to learn.


* Contrary to perceptions of Montessori as schools where chaos reigns, a Montessori environment is in fact very ordered. Montessori gives children the freedom to make choices and to pursue them without interruption. It encourages them to respect the choices of those around them, and to take pleasure in their own accomplishments. Ultimately, children come to understand that nothing anyone says about what they do is as important as what they themselves feel. Such confidence and self-belief, going forward in life, is priceless.


* Try to see the world from a child's perspective. Something as simple as putting up shelves in their classroom that are at their eye level rather than adults' can make a huge difference and show that you care and understand about their world.


* Children are naturally curious, so give the child the time to work with you on things that they are interested in. They will want to know about everything if you give them the chance to explore art, books, music, numbers, colours.


* Discipline should be gentle and positive. Avoid conflicts by looking ahead. Use a calm but clear voice - it's often not the child's fault that you are stressed. Use positive behaviour techniques - explain the results of bad behaviour on others, offer choices and let the children select.


We live in exciting times for Montessori in this country. Not only do we have more than 700 schools educating over 30,000 children, but we also have two state primary school projects running where Montessori education is now being used very successfully: Gorton Mount Primary School in Manchester and Stebbing Primary School in Essex.


Our bespoke equipment helps children learn about complex ideas with ease.

They also learn how to help each other and respect the important place that a school is in their lives. In a world where individuality is so prized, there is no better time to educate a child in becoming an individual.


Montessori has been doing that for 100 years.


Further information:  For further information about the Montessori approach to education, log on to the Montessori St Nicholas charity website at and take a look at the 'About Montessori' section.

Contact details for Montessori Schools Association member schools can be found in the 'Find a school' section. For information about training as a Montessori teacher, see or phone 020 7493 0165. NW

Tips from Montessori

As a Montessori directress I introduce the alphabet phonetically and then start forming consonant-vowel-consonant words, for example 'hat'. We then proceed on to more complex phonetic words, for example 'frog' and 'clip', and then introduce look-and-say words.


Meanwhile the child is made aware of capital letters, full stops, basic sentence structures and exposed to books. This is done through hands-on exercises, individually or in small groups. There is no set time or specific age range when we introduce these activities - only when the child shows an interest and willingness to explore. As a result, I have had children as young as four years old constructing simple sentences.


Early years workers should look at Maria Montessori's method of teaching.

It has stood the test of time, whereas mainstream schooling still can't quite get it right!

Nicola Stead, Montessori directress, London

Montessori phonics

Strong opinions are voiced about synthetic phonics, as an innovation that helps young children and improves their future literacy levels (News, 9 June).


Maria Montessori was reluctant to teach letter-sound combinations at an early age, but found that children loved learning the sounds if introduced playfully, with the help of simple sandpaper letters. Montessori schools have been working with sandpaper letters and a phonics approach to learning writing and reading ever since.


Montessori schools have no formal literacy hour and little or no whole-class teaching. Most phonics work is done one-to-one or in small voluntary groups. In this system learning is self-chosen, so children 'work' when they are motivated and interested. Voluntary phonics is a joyful activity, as part of a day that is created by the children and not imposed by timetables, or politicians' or statisticians' agendas. They learn to make choices at an early age and have their choices respected by people older than them. Likewise, they are required to behave respectfully towards peers, elders and their learning environment. If they spill something, they learn how to tidy it up, if they are hungry they can have a snack, if they are tired they can sleep, without the need to disturb anyone.


If children experience what it is to be respected at an early age, they will naturally behave respectfully towards others as they grow up.


Thea Bredie, Horsham Montessori, Sussex

Help children to make a choice

I applaud and encourage any early years setting which fosters individual children's independence and autonomy ('All by myself', 17 June). Maria Montessori first saw the need to observe children and build on their interests and skills in 1907 when she opened the first Children's House in Rome. Since then, children in Montessori schools all over the world have been following her essential principle of 'help me to do it myself'.


Using her observations of children, she provided activities that continually developed their independence. She placed resources on low shelves to enable children to replace their activities once they had finished using them.


Dressing frames helped children to practise tricky shoe and coat fastenings, sandpaper letters created a multi-sensory approach to learning sounds and number, carefully designed concrete maths materials enabled a sound understanding of number.


A calm and purposeful atmosphere is created when children are permitted to make their own choice of activity.


Montessori schools encourage children to dust, polish and scrub, which not only develops their large and small movement and co-ordination but also gives a sense of responsibility and helps independence. Children come into school, remove their shoes and coats and put on slippers and are then ready to choose from a variety of activities for at least two-and-a-half hours.


They are purposeful and focused and maintain deep concentration while engaged in a myriad of activities, including matching sounds, textures and shapes, painting, gardening and practical life skills, including pouring and polishing. Children who are able to use a mop and brush and pan are not afraid of trying new activities that might create a mess, another area highlighted in the Foundation Stage curriculum.


* Sue Briggs Principal, Montessori Little Cheverells, Redbourn, Hertfordshire and trustee, Montessori St Nicholas Charity and eastern area regional chairman for Montessori Schools Association

A historical perspective

Events in history and the need for social change have influenced the way early childhood approaches have developed. The concept of citizenship, and all it entails can be found at the heart of various approaches to early years education. Each focuses on aspects of developing self-awareness, relationships, rights and responsibilities, and personal wellbeing.



Maria Montessori lived from 1870 to 1952 and was Italy's first woman physician. She established her first Children's House for children aged four to seven years in the slums of Rome, but was forced to leave Italy when her educational methods were denounced by the Fascists.


The Montessori approach places great value on children's freedom, dignity and independence. From an early age, children's confidence and competence are fostered through the mastery of practical life skills while they work individually on the activities that interest them. The teacher's role is to help and encourage the children, allowing them to develop self-confidence and self-discipline, so there is less and less need to intervene as the child develops. From the age of six to 12, children explore a wider world, developing co-operative social relationships and complex cultural knowledge.

For more information, see


Steiner Waldorf

Rudolph Steiner founded the first Steiner Waldorf school for the employees of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart at the end of World War I. His vision was that a new kind of school would educate human beings in such a way that they would create a just and peaceful society.

The pedagogy and philosophy of this approach emphasise the development of the whole child through cultivating emotional maturity, good judgement, creativity, initiative and moral responsibility. Imaginative play is very important and is the means by which the child grows physically, intellectually and emotionally.


Social inclusion is fundamental to the Steiner Waldorf ethos, and education is seen as the responsibility of the whole school community - the teachers, the parents and the administrator.

For more information, see


Reggio Approach

The Reggio Approach is based upon an image of the child as a strong, competent member of society, who is social from birth.


The Reggio pre-schools and infant toddler centres have their origins in the period immediately after the Second World War, when educators, parents and children worked together to reconstruct society and build a better future.


Since the 1960s there has also been active civic involvement from the municipality, and the children are valued as citizens of the city of Reggio Emilia.


Active parental participation remains fundamental to the Reggio Approach.


Children's ideas are valued and respected and they are encouraged to develop their own theories about the world and how it works. Adults listen to the children and help them to develop and refine their theories by providing opportunities for discussion, reflection and representation. In this way, children learn to value their own ideas, to listen to and respect the ideas of others, and to negotiate, co-operate and participate.

For more information, see High Scope

Montessori: Tried and tested

The Montessori approach to early years education is nearing a century old. Mary Evans looks at why it has stood the test of time


Maria Montessori was a true pioneer. After be-coming the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Italy she founded an educational philosophy which spread rapidly across the world.


She drew on her observational skills as a clinician working with children in the slums of Rome in the early 1900s to develop the fundamental principles of her approach to early education: given the right tools and stimulation, children would teach themselves.


In putting her ideas into practice, she also proved herself to be a great innovator. A Montessori classroom has equipment specifically designed to support all areas of a child's development. Many of her radical ideas are now accepted as standard in mainstream education. For example, Dr Montessori was the first person to think of providing child-sized furniture in a classroom.

Leading practitioners argue that because the Montessori method is rooted in the young child's development it stands the tests of time and is not subject to the vagaries of educational trends.

Barbara Isaacs, chief executive of Montessori Centre International, says, 'I find it extremely refreshing that because it is based on observations of the child and because it is based in meeting the individual needs of the children, you are meeting the needs of the child today. It is timeless.'

Rosie Pressland, principal of Pocklington Montessori School, says, 'The methods do not dictate to the child. The child does not have to rely upon the teacher to learn. It is the child who calls the shots.'

The Montessori approach is a beautiful triangle of the child, the teacher and the prepared environment, says Claire Ash Wheeler, proprietor of Chagford Montessori School, Devon, and Devon co-ordinator of Montessori Education UK's early years forum.


'Montessori requires that the teacher is always looking at herself, reflecting upon herself, re-assessing herself in relation to the child. It is a creative process.'


She adds, 'With Montessori, you have a curriculum, so your record- keeping is straightforward. You know what you are doing with the children, what your goals and intentions are. The staff knows where it is going sequentially.'


Critics commonly hold one of two views. Some say it is rigid while others argue it is laissez faire. 'Neither is true,' says Ms Isaacs. 'You cannot have true freedom without having some kind of responsibility for the choices you make and some ground rules for the well being of the group.

''The adults need to be skilled and need to know how to support the individual child in its learning which requires very good powers of observation and sensitivity so the child trusts in her own ability to learn.'


In the past, it was said that anyone could buy the kit and open up as a Montessori nursery. No longer, says Ms Isaacs. 'The requirements of the Children Act and Ofsted's regulation of the national standards means it is no longer possible to open a Montessori school without having trained Montessori teachers.


There is now a Montessori accreditation scheme which is administered by Montessori Education UK. We launched the scheme because we were concerned to maintain quality. To gain accreditation schools have to be fully equipped, have qualified staff and have to adhere to the fundamental principles of the Montessori pedagogy.'


The Montessori teaching qualification has been recognised by Ofsted and the DfES but is not on the QCA framework. Ms Isaacs adds, 'Montessori is an international movement but the QCA framework is only relevant to England and not even the whole of the UK, so it is pretty limiting. We have formed a consortium of Montessori awarding bodies which has agreed to meet the requirement of the framework.'


Case study

Many early years settings operate from church halls but the West End Montessori Pre-School, in Glasgow meets in a room attached to the city's Episcopalian Cathedral.


The school, owned by Denise Guthrie, offers morning and afternoon sessions for 20 children at a time and is staffed by five teachers.


'Our large open-plan room is set out into different areas. In the practical life area the children do threading, stitching exercises, juicing oranges, pestle and mortar work and lots of activities that are good for hand-eye co-ordination.


'As the children become more confident, we have the sensorial area where they use the pieces of equipment people know: the pink tower, the knobbed cylinders, the knobless cylinder, the broad stair.


'When they build the tower they learn about size, how you have to place a smaller cube on a bigger one and they learn about shape. They go through a natural progression as they become more confident.


'The children explore the materials. They will maybe look at the colour or feel the texture. When they start exploring colours they will start off with a box of bold primary colours and progress to secondary colours.


'In the language area, the children start tracing letters in sand trays. They also have sandpaper letters to feel and explore. They are not expected to be holding pencils. Before they do that, they have to be ready. They do an awful lot of groundwork.

'The children work at their activities until 10.30am when we come together in a circle. We have grace and courtesy where they learn skills like how to blow their nose and the children learn to respect each other.


'We have a snack table set up from 9am. It is a good time for them to socialise. We use proper glasses and ceramic plates. It is a controlled area and if there is a breakage it can be cleared up without any problems but the children learn to be careful. They help prepare the food, put it out and wipe the table.


'Group activities can be quite spontaneous. When we have group time we will have songs and stories and then we go out into the garden for about 30 minutes. If it is a beautiful day we can be out for nearly an hour because there are lots of things to do. We have a sandpit and plant areas, and a big tent too.


'We have a computer area but the children are limited to ten minutes. The computer is such a solitary thing. We want to see the children interacting and socialising.'


The afternoon session follows a similar pattern with activities, story time, play in the garden, grace and courtesy as well as crafts or dressing up.


Further information

·                     Montessori Education UK represents the UK Montessori training organisations and provides a schools accreditation programme and examination monitoring system. Tel:020 8946   

·                     Full-time, part-time and distance-learning courses are available around the country but to qualify to work as a Montessori teacher the student must undertake teaching practice.

Montessori Education UK members are:

·                     Bournemouth Montessori Centre, tel: 01202 780010

·                     Montessori College Wimbledon, tel: 020 8946 8139

·                     Maria Montessori Institute, London, tel: 020 7435 3646

·                     Montessori Centre International, London, tel: 020 7493 0165

·                     Oxford Montessori Centre, tel: 01865 358210

·                     TIME, Barnet, Hertfordshire, tel: 020 84471565

·                     The Montessori Partnership, Winchester, tel: 01962 715675

Let children set their own timetable

Reading the eight-page pull-out ('All about Foundation Stage units', 3 October), it would seem that Maria Montessori's vision of a truly child-oriented environment is now closer to being realised on a wider scale.


Montessori environments have always striven to achieve an integrated or seamless education for children through a vertical age grouping, experiential-based (rather than age-based) progression in all areas of learning, and through uninterrupted 'work cycles', whereby the children's needs and interests dictate the timetable.


Carefully graded materials support individual progression across the curriculum. Continual observation by sensitive practitioners, who are trained to recognise the needs of all within the mixed-age setting, enables the type of responsive planning advocated by the Foundation Stage guidelines.


Freedom of choice from a wide range of carefully prepared resources and activities has always been fundamental to a Montessori environment. This freedom of choice is set within the clearly defined boundaries of the social unit, which provides a secure framework for each child's overall development.


Montessori maintained that snack time, outdoor play and group activities should be subject to the same 'free choice' principle as any other activity, allowing children to develop independence and social skills at their own pace.


While many nurseries are setting up units to meet the 'new' demands of the Foundation Stage, some well-established Montessori nurseries may well serve as useful models for their efforts.


Maggie Tait, Pocklington, Yorkshire

The Montessori approach

Under the Montessori method, children are motivated to practise and refine their motor skills in many everyday, real-life situations. Practitioners sometimes disregard basic activities which promote motor development, as they do not view them as either play or learning. It is important to realise the potential of tasks such as washing-up, tidying and re-organising.


Maria Montessori (Hainstock, 1986) was very specific in her approach to teaching motor skills, and included everyday activities as part of the curriculum. These included:


* polishing shoes

* washing hands

* sweeping

* dusting

* folding

* setting

* tables

* sorting

* scrubbing

* peeling

* washing and drying dishes

* cutting and pasting

* pouring rice and water.