Over the past 8 weeks, I have been enrolled in the fabulous Montessori Assistant course at the Maria Montessori Institute in London. I genuinely loved every minute of the course and it has led me to explore a whole new career path. But, every time I mention it to friends, relatives, random parents at the park, I often get quizzical looks and the inevitable question “So, what is Montessori?”.
The final essay topic for the course was free choice, so I decided to answer that very question. I have copied my essay below to share what I have learned and hopefully answer the question for a few more people. Enjoy.
So, What is Montessori?
I have been talking about Montessori a lot recently. And the response I get from most people, usually coupled with a raised eyebrow, is: “So, what exactly is Montessori?” I have struggled to answer this question and I stumble through a nonsensical answer that makes the questioner even more confused. To help end this confusion, this essay, I hope, will be my clear and understandable answer to the question; so, what is Montessori?
Any description of the Montessori method has to begin with the lady herself, Maria Montessori. In today’s social climate of fourth-wave feminism, leaning in, and “glass cliffs”, Maria Montessori represents an incredible role model for women everywhere. Montessori was the first female recipient of a medical degree in Italy and she was nominated for the Nobel peace prize four times. It was, however, her work in the field of education that cemented her legacy around the world. Using her scientific background of observation and experimentation, she began working with children with mental health disabilities, and later children living in poverty, and made some startling discoveries about how children learn and how adults need to respond to the child. Over many decades, these discoveries evolved to become ‘the Montessori method” of education. Montessori travelled the world to share her theories and continued to work each day until her death at the age of 82. Today, her legacy is vibrantly alive in the thousands of Montessori schools found globally.
So, undoubtedly an incredible women, but what exactly were her “discoveries” of the child? Primarily, she understood the child to possess the power to “teach himself” Montessori equated the traditional education system, that still dominates schools today, “like an island, where people, cut off from the world, are prepared for life by exclusion from it.” In this environment, a teacher, qualified or not, dictates the learning of the children and spends much of the time in a fight for control of the room. In stark contrast to this, Montessori realized that education needs to follow the child’s inner drives and interests starting at birth as “(e)ducation is not something that the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.”
What, then, does following the child look like? Initially, Montessori had no idea. Through careful and precise observation of children from varying backgrounds, Montessori opened the first “Children’s House” in 1907 in an Italian slum with no resources. Starting with basic skills such as hand washing and care for the environment, Montessori slowly developed more and more materials guided solely by the needs of the child. This space was unlike any other school. It was filled with beautiful, natural materials that are carefully designed to aid the development of the child that meet her where she is and challenging her just the right amount to move her on her journey of development. Children in this environment seem to learn without effort, not because some kind of magic has occurred, but because Montessori was able to design materials that prepare them for these leaps in development; when they do occur, they occur with ease. Reading and writing for example, in a Montessori classroom, are skills that occur almost spontaneously (there is not a worksheet in sight) because all the preparations for the skills, such as mastering the pincer grip and internalizing the sounds of the letters, have been practiced for many months. If given the right preparation, the potential is unlimited; the child can learn effortlessly and “if culture can be learned without effort, let us provide the children with other elements of culture. And then we saw them absorb far more than reading and writing; botany, zoology, mathematics, geography – and with the same ease spontaneously and without getting tired.” 
Montessori, therefore, understood that children want to learn, but she also realized that they want to work, not just to be left to play. She understood that “the child’s nature is to aim directly and energetically at functional independence.” This quest for independence begins at birth, as the child for the first time has to breath for himself. After that point the child gains more and more independence as they learn to eat solid food, walk, and talk. At 18 months, a child is ready to be toilet trained and dress herself in simple clothing. By the time she reaches the Children’s House at two and a half, she enters an environment filled with practical life work such as sweeping the floor, polishing mirrors, washing dishes and folding napkins to extend her burgeoning independence. Additionally, she is free to choose whatever piece of work she wants, whenever she wants to do it. She is not held to any timetables or structured activities; like life, the activities occur spontaneously and organically.
As a parent, this aspect of Montessori’s theory is very obvious. My children want to do know how to do it themselves, they want to feel that sense of achievement and confidence that comes from being independent and I very much recognize that “the more independence you have, the more independent you get.” Montessori also recognized, however, that in many ways the main force against the child’s internal desire for independence is the adult. Too often, I have stepped in and interfered with my children when I was not needed; my daughter was struggling to button her dress or my son poured water into his glass. I can, and so can other parents, fight this urge to “help” and instead give the child the chance to do it themselves at home. A stool at the sink allows the child to get her own water, wash her hands, and wash dishes. Serving the dinner family style allows the child to serve herself, and others if asked. Organizing the child’s wardrobe clearly with spaces for each type of item allows the child to easily choose her outfits and to help put away the laundry. The possibilities are endless and with a little planning and preparation the rewards can be great for the child, and the rest of the family.
“So, if the kids are working on their own, when do they interact with others?” is another question that frequently comes up in conversations about the Montessori approach. Instead of structured group times, playtimes, and teacher-dictated buddies, the social interactions in the Montessori environment happen entirely organically and with little interference from the adult. The children are taught, through grace and courtesy demonstrations, the basic social rules for the classroom, such as how to move a chair quietly and safely, how to say please and thank you when required and how to put a work away so another child can use it. These lessons provide a foundation of respect and responsibility in the room, but it is the children themselves who begin to help each other to learn and look after the environment. If a child is working on an activity, other children may watch to learn from their peers, or two children can create a game together with another activity. These small informal groups come together and disperse throughout the day. Also, Montessori schools have mixed aged groups: the infant community is 0 to 3 years, the children’s house is 3 to 6 years and the elementary group is from 6 to 12 years. Each room, therefore is filled with children with very different abilities from the oldest child about the move to the next room to the youngest that has just started. In this situation, an older child will teach a younger child how to do something. All the time, however, the directress is observing all the children and will, if she feels it is completely necessary, intervene.
So, what is Montessori? This essay now represents my long-winded answer. But, what would be my brief at-the-park answer? I think it would be this: Montessori was an incredible, inspiring woman who gave us an educational approach that honors the child. In a Montessori school, the child drives her learning – not a teacher, a curriculum, or a government. She is able to thrive in an environment that challenges her at her stage of development and allows her the freedom to explore the power of independence and the joys of organic social interaction. Montessori has given us an educational philosophy that, in my opinion, should be available to every child. The importance of giving our children the best possible start cannot be overstated, as Montessori herself rightly said (in 1949) “we serve the future by protecting the present.”
Montessori, M (1949) The Absorbent Mind Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company (2007):The Netherlands
 M. Montessori The Absorbent Mind p. 5
 M. Montessori The Absorbent Mind p. 10
 M. Montessori The Absorbent Mind p. 7
 M. Montessori The Absorbent Mind p. 7
 M. Montessori The Absorbent Mind p. 67
 M. Montessori The Absorbent Mind p. 177 (italics included in original source)