Small steps

June 9, 2012

My first year teaching is REALLY REALLY hard. We are a fledgeling Montessori school, grades 1-7. I have 9 children, almost all of whom have come out of mainstream schools and have ‘issues’.  I have really been struggling to help them develop independence as they are completely unused to this way of working.

Last week, one of my “problem” students had work to do that she was stuck on. I was busy and couldn’t attend immediately, and by the time I got to her, she had chosen other work to do that she could manage on her own. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s something that I have been working on for six months. A child choosing to keep being productively employed despite a challenge and my lack of attention – that’s an Oh Wow! Montessori moment for me.


Allowing concentration

September 15, 2011

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember not to break their concentration.

Like when my 2 year old, who usually grabs the sun cream and squirts out great blodges of it all over everything he can reach, finds a mini-muffin tray, and carefully fills up each tiny space – with my sun cream!

Mathematics – beautiful, elegant and fundamental

July 13, 2011

Since it looks like people are actually occasionally reading this blog (thanks!), here is another one of the introductions I wrote for my preprimary diploma course last year. This one is long, because my initial tertiary training is in Mathematics, so it’s the subject I probably have the deepest emotional ties to.

Also, at the moment my mom and I are putting together a series of hands-on maths and science lessons for junior primary school learners (6-8 years old) to supplement my own daughter’s learning, so I’m really thinking about the maths again and about how to bring across some of the abstractions that children have to learn to deal with in a concrete and experiential way. We are extremely fortunate in that our first class of 4 are all Montessori preschool graduates, so we can confidently work with the whole number system. In particular, we can explore up to 1000 without worrying about whether or not they will be intimidated, because they’ve all done golden bead work in preschool. It’s fantastic!

So here you go, my Introduction to Montessori Mathematics (preschool level)




September 19, 2010

When I read Maria Montessori’s books, as well as some of the other books for my course, I feel incredibly inspired. I feel as if this is just the most sensible method out, and like I’m definitely doing a good and important thing. Then I think of how much I would love to discuss the philosophy and methods with people who really understand it, and can clarify points, and I wait hopefully for my next lecture.

But, in lectures, I don’t feel as if there is anyone there who can help me in the way I want to be helped. I feel as if I am just being given a surface skimming of the method.  I’d like to have Maria Montessori herself  visit us briefly, so that I can actually ask her what she meant by some of the more obscure passages.  Also, in none of the schools that I have visited or observed in, do I see the phenomena of repetition, spontaneous discipline, peaceful children etc that so astonished visitors to the first Montessori schools in the early part of last century.  I have obviously seen some instances of children concentrating (notably a 2 1/2 year old working on a cutting exercise, oblivious to the world around her, for 45 minutes – that’s a looooong time for a little one), but in general, not.

Why? What is different today? Did Maria Montessori (blasphemous thought!!!) exaggerate the improvements and behaviours that she observed in the children in her schools,  are children today, with their wealth of toys, educational playthings, television and various other sensory bombardments, in need of different materials, or are all the environments I observed somehow “getting it wrong”?

I guess that I’ll find some of my answers when I have time to participate in some of the many Montessori forums out there, but in the meantime it’s all damn frustrating!

Introduction to the Sensorial Area

June 16, 2010

So, my sensorial file is handed in – whew.  Here is my introduction to Sensorial.   I have added in a section I wrote on the modern terms for senses and how this relates to what I’m learning in my Montessori course.  I’m finding the lack of a glossary of terms to relate Montessori philosophy to current child-development or literacy or other child-related sciences frustrating.


The child is introduced to the Sensorial area of the Montessori classroom after he has worked in practical life, become familiar with classroom rules and correct handling of materials, and is used to the idea of a full cycle of activity. While the sensorial exercises no longer involve familiar objects, they are working with skills the child uses every day- his senses.

The child’s senses are his link with the world around him and his only means of exploring his environment. The formative years, from birth to six, are a time of great sensory exploration for the child. Since birth, the child has been absorbing impressions from his senses. Now, through the Sensorial materials, the child is given the tools needed to sharpen and refine his senses, as well as to understand, order, name and classify the various sensations he receives. The child passes through a sensitive period for the refinement of the senses between the ages of 2 ½ and 6 years old. The Sensorial area assists the child to educate his senses. While much of this type of education occurs naturally in the child’s life, the didactic materials in the Sensorial area help to isolate and further refine specific sensory impressions in an ordered and methodical way

The Five Basic Senses

The senses that are educated through the Montessori sensorial education are shown in the table below, broken down into their different areas, along with the examples of corresponding exercises and materials.

Sense Quality of the sense being educated Example of material or exercise
Visual Sense Visual perception of dimension (size) Knobbed cylinders varying in either one or two dimensions, pink tower consisting of cubes from 1cm3 to 10 cm3 and more.
Chromatic Perception (colour) Colour boxes, starting with only 3 primary colours, and progressing to grading colours by shade.
Form perception Geometric cabinet, consisting of precise 2-dimensional geometric shapes grouped into families.
Auditory Sense Volume perception Sound cylinders that make sounds of various volume due to the different media inside them. Children must match and grade the sounds.
Pitch perception Bells – an introduction to pitch and music.
Tactile Sense Surface touch, texture perception Touch tablets showing gradations in rough and smooth, and a Fabric box to give experience in more varied textures.
Stereognostic perception Stereognostic bag, containing matching objects that the child must identify or match through manipulation alone, without visual cues.
Thermic (temperature) perception Thermic tablets or bottles that allow the child to experience different temperatures.
Baric (weight and pressure) perception Baric tablets, wooden tablets of varying weight that allow the child practise in matching and grading different weights.
Gustatory Sense (taste) Taste bottles containing different tastes for matching and grading
Olfactory Sense (smell) Scent bottles containing different scents for matching and grading.

(There are some nice pictures and summaries of the equipment here. Just select the sensorial tab.)

Modern Definition of the Senses and Correspondence to Montessori Sensorial Education

The five basic external senses are sight (the visual sense), hearing (auditory sense), touch (tactile sense), smell (olfactory sense) and taste (gustatory sense). The classification of these external senses is ancient, and has been attributed to Aristotle. Modern neuroscience generally also identifies a number of internal senses, those of pain (nociception), balance and orientation (equilibrioception or vestibular sense), temperature (thermoception), joint position, motion and acceleration (proprioceptive and kinaesthetic sense) and our sense of time. (Thank-you wikipedia 🙂 )

Although the terminology is different, Maria Montessori did not neglect the development of these hidden senses (except of course, pain!). The proprioceptive sense and thermic senses are included in her definition of the tactile sense, including not only surface touch, but also the awareness of form through proprioceptive muscular and visual feedback (the stereognostic sense), as well as the baric sense which educates the perception of weight and pressure through refining our proprioceptive impressions of how hard our muscles must work when lifting or applying force.

The education of the vestibular sense takes place indirectly, through the large amounts of movement intrinsic to the Montessori environment and learning experience. Children educate this sense when they learn good balance and co-ordination, for example, in the “walking the line” activity of Practical Life, carrying equipment to and from tables and mats, as well as by the movement experiences they are able to have in their outdoor prepared environment. The child’s sense of time is indirectly developed through the order of the day, the consistency of the environment and the awareness of nature and natural rhythms, and explicitly nurtured through the Montessori History presentations and other classroom activities and discussions e.g. birthday ring.

Education of the senses in the Montessori environment generally proceeds in the same order:
First, the child must recognise identities by matching something with it’s corresponding pair (through visual, tactile, smell, weight etc). Next, the child progresses to a recognition of contrasts. These are presented as the differences between two extremes e.g. rough, smooth, dark / pale, heavy / light. Finally, the child is ready to perceive, recognise and discriminate between fine differences, and they practise this by grading the various materials. The sensory stimulus that is being presented is, as far as possible, presented in isolation so as to better fix the child’s attention on that particular impression. This helps to order the senses in the child’s mind.

Qualities of the Sensorial Materials

Like all Montessori equipment, sensorial materials are aesthetically pleasing. They are attractive and engaging. The child wants to look at, feel, smell, manipulate and work with them. Materials are concrete, graded from simple to complex and sequenced. This helps to develop and refine each individual sense fully. Most sensorial materials have a built-in control of error, allowing the child to work on his own, and to notice and correct his own mistakes. This promotes independence and helps to develop concentration and sharpen perception. The materials are designed for mathematical precision and are based on ten (e.g. ten broad stairs, ten red rods). This provides the child with indirect preparation for understanding the decimal system. Solid geometric shapes and the geometric cabinet, containing an array of precisely graded flat shapes, give the child the experience of form and shape essential for later learning of geometry. In general, the sensorial area provides an essential intellectual preparation for the learning and understanding of Mathematics, and thus the child is always exposed to this area before moving on to the other, more traditional “school” areas of learning like Mathematics, Language and Cultural subjects.

Sensorial Education as an aid to the Child’s Development

All materials and exercises require manual handling and movement. The activities in the sensorial area promote both gross motor and fine motor skills and coordination. The child is actively involved in exploring the materials. By observing, comparing, judging and categorising the concrete materials, the child refines and heightens his senses. By using his senses in many various ways he also broadens his range of sensorial impressions. He is able to order and name the impressions he is receiving and this is the basis for his understanding of himself and the world around him. The concrete exercises and experiences lead the child into the formation of abstract concepts. Concepts and shapes in the sensorial area are presented by the directress using the correct and precise language e.g. a narrow prism, an isosceles triangle. This enriches the child’s language development, and is an aid to precise, ordered and detailed thought.

The sensory input a child receives is vital to his intellectual and mental development. The impressions and experiences that the child is exposed to in his environment help to form and develop his mental abilities. As his mental abilities increase, the child uses these same sensory impressions and experiences to build up his mental representations of the world around him and to develop concepts. A limited sensory environment has a negative impact on the child’s ability to develop fully. Through the sensorial area, the child is methodically exposed to the variety of stimuli needed to fully develop his senses. Sensorial education enables the child to make sense of what he is experiencing, not only in the classroom, but in his wider world. Sensorial education in the Montessori classroom occurs as part of a total activity which involves both intelligence and movement.

Maria Montessori said, “The senses are the keys to the doors of knowledge” (The Absorbent Mind)

Both neurological and physical development rely on the ability to learn in an orderly manner, as well as the balanced education and use of all the child’s available senses. The prepared environment for sensorial education includes love, security and consistency. The orderly arrangement and careful design of the materials, the precision and consistency of the directress’ actions, and her deep love and concern for the child provides the ideal environment for the refinement and education of the senses. The child feels secure and can work at their own pace, finding the right level of challenge in the graded activities available. Every child is unique, with a unique way of perceiving and understanding the world. The Montessori sensorial equipment and area, through the methodical and thorough approach to sensory education, allows the child to fulfil his individual sensory needs, and to develop a solid sensory foundation and framework for life.

Preserving the future that we educate for

April 28, 2010

This is not directly a montessori post, but we know that Maria Montessori was deeply concerned about the future of humanity. In my limited reading, I have encountered more her social concerns than environmetal ones. It is clear she felt that the highest aspiration of human civilisation was “a harmonious and peaceful society, and the elimination of wars” (The Absorbent Mind, chapter 1). Yet there is no doubt that she would have been, especially through her uncle Antonio Stoppani,  aware of some of the earliest research / writings about ecology.

As educators, especially those of us who work with infants or preschoolers, we are guiding the children who will live in and make the humanity and the society of the future, and so, for us, even more than for adults in general, the future is a real and present concern. If we profess our love for children, we have to be guided by that love to not only safeguard for the child the opportunity and means to develop to their full personal potential, but  also to actively work to preserve and create for them the best possible future environmental and ecological conditions.

The article below is a beautifully written piece about how we need to take back our future, about how, despite the crises we find ourselves in, we HAVE to look forward and make good choices, about how industry and political machinery use the language of fear and doom to avoid making responsible choices about the future to safeguard present prosperity, and about how we need, as a society, to avoid the trap of putting our heads in the sand because of our fears, and instead to firmly face the opportunities we have to make a positive difference.

It is a piece of writing about hope instead of doom.

Go and read it:

Introduction to Practical Life

April 14, 2010

For each section that we do in the course, we have to write a short introduction that we research from class notes and other sources.  I’m not posting anything directly from our notes,  only from the writing that I have personally done.  I will also be posting some of the exercises, extensions and materials that I design, write or produce for the course as those remain my property. Here is the introduction that I put together for Practical Life.


The area of practical life is the first area that children are introduced to in the Montessori classroom. This area contains an orderly arrangement of exercises involving familiar objects and the activities of daily life. These will be things that the children have already seen and wished to imitate, including pouring, spooning, various cleaning exercises and others. The practical life exercises are designed to encourage independence and assist in the development of concentration and inner discipline. They introduce children to the idea of a full cycle of activity, and help the child to develop the mental and muscular control necessary to succeed in other areas (both in the classroom and in the wider social environment). The exercises are ordered and graded, with earlier exercises providing all the skills needed for the more advanced ones. The orderliness of the area helps children feel secure, orient themselves in the classroom, and develop the inner order necessary for clear and rational thought. The grading of the exercises ensures that children frequently experience success when attempting new exercises, thus fostering self-confidence and self-esteem, both necessary qualities for fulfilled and successful living.

All materials used are real, and often breakable. This acts as a built in control of error, puts children in contact with the realities of their environment and teaches responsibility. Every exercise involves voluntary movement, not just to perform the exercise, but to fetch it, find a workspace, and pack it away afterwards. This satisfies the young child’s innate need for movement. As the children develop increasing control over their movements, these movements come under the conscious direction of their will, aiding the development of the will, which in turns leads to increased independence and self-esteem. All the exercises in the practical life area are purposeful activities, engaging both the mind and the hand, allowing them to work together, as is necessary for integrated development. Because the children’s hands are busy, their minds focus, allowing them to develop concentration and spontaneously repeat exercises. This repetition indicates that they are engaged in inner work, growing and developing both mentally and physically.

The practical life exercises fall into four broad areas: Preliminary exercises and elementary movements allow the child to practise the movements and skills necessary for the more advanced areas, as well as ensuring their awareness of safety in the environment. For example, carrying scissors and rolling a mat would be preliminary exercises, and spooning or tweezing exercises would give practise in elementary movements. The care of the environment activities allow the child to practise the skills needed to manage daily chores in their home environment. This includes both indoor activities such as scrubbing or sweeping, as well as outdoor skills, again fostering independence, responsibility and respect. Care of the person exercises allow the child to become independent in caring for themselves, practising dressing and personal hygiene skills and nurturing the child’s sense of personal dignity. The final component of the practical life area is the development of grace and courtesy. This is often addressed by the directress(es) with a group of children, using role-playing and group discussion, allowing them to absorb societal expectations, appropriately express emotions and behave with dignity and respect towards others.

Maria Montessori said “A man builds himself through working”, (The Secret of Childhood). This illustrates the extreme importance of children’s active participation in purposeful activity (i.e. work) on their environment. Only through this type of work can children build and develop their characters, skills and personalities. The area of practical life is uniquely suited to introducing children to purposeful work, and continues to fulfil an important role in their development throughout the preschool years.

Montessori and Occupational Therapy

April 14, 2010

While reading up on Practical Life information, and trying to summarize the book “The Secret of Childhood” for my course, I was also reading “The Out-of-Sync Child“, and was struck by the strong correlation between many of the ideas presented in Maria Montessori’s philosophy and the goals of both modern SI Occupational Therapy and child-directed play therapy for children. I explored this a little in one of the essays I had to hand in in the first term, and am reproducing it here because I thought it was really interesting.

One of the main ideas behind the Montessori Method is that children have a deep instinct to “work”. Work in this sense is defined as purposeful activity on the environment. In other words, intelligent, goal-directed activities.  Children work in order to develop and grow as they carry out their instinctive drive to gain independence, and to develop themselves physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

According to Maria Montessori, children who do not feel an attraction for their environment, or for whom the environment appears hostile and threatening, will not develop independence as they should. They will withdraw from interacting with the environment, and seek others to wait on them. These children must be helped by providing them with the best possible environment, in order to reawaken their natural interest (in it). Engaging activities that encourage the child to become actively involved in exploring the environment can assist the child.

That this is still a valid approach to helping children who perceive their surroundings as threatening can be seen in the modern example of Occupational Therapy for sensory defensive children, or children with certain types of Sensory Processing Dysfunction. Such children struggle to make sense of the sensory impressions they receive in daily life, and must use much of their energy defending themselves from a sensory onslaught that can, on occasion, feel life-threatening. They may resort to very rigid behaviour, and often avoid new experiences. In order to experience less fear and more independence, such children must develop the ability to respond actively and purposefully to new circumstances (a skill known as adaptive behaviour). One description of the effects of occupational therapy is as follows:
“When the child actively engages in meaningful activities that provide the intensity, duration, and quality of sensation his central nervous system craves, his adaptive behaviour improves. Adaptive behaviour leads to better sensory integration. As a result, perceptions, learning, competence and self-confidence improve.” (The Out-of-Sync Child, pg 34).

This description of occupation therapy tallies with the Montessori practise of allowing children (within certain limits) to choose a meaningful, or purposeful task to work on, and then respecting their need to carry out that task for as long as is necessary for that particular child. Maria Montessori speaks of the power of such exercises in facilitating the child’s development when she says that “activity concentrated on some task that requires movement of the hands guided by the intellect” is like a “magic wand for opening the gate to the normal expression of a child’s natural gifts.” (The Secret of Childhood). With regards to the power of purposeful activity to improve behaviour and functioning, she says: “From inertia to work! This is the path of cure”. (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind).

The link to some of the goals of child-directed play therapy comes from the Montessori practise of “following the child”. In other words,  while children are guided towards the work that the teacher (directress) feels that they are ready for, children are basically free to choose the activities that they want to work on. The idea (in Montessori), is that children have an inner guide that allows them to choose the activities best suited to their level and area of development, and that they will naturally choose work that enhances their development.  When my daughter was in play therapy, I did a course on providing filial therapy at home, and one of the points that was emphasized to us was that we have to trust that the child will choose to play in a way that allows them to overcome their emotional difficulties and to regain their natural balance.

I find it fascinating that we are “rediscovering” these principles in the modern context of helping children with physical, sensory or emotional problems, and yet they were elucidated (perhaps with not as much rigid science and controlled experiment) at the beginning of the 20th Century. It fascinates me that the Montessori Philosophy seems to have so many points of contact with modern child development theory, and yet seems to still be ensconced in this little box labelled “alternative”.