Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Montessori Theory Part II - The Prepared Environment

The Prepared Environment

Most children do not have the luxury of entering a world prepared to meet them with caregivers prepared to fulfill their needs.  Most children enter an artificially altered world with adults who do not actually understand what their needs really are.  A newborn’s needs are more readily understood than a child of one year or eighteen months.  Once a child is mobile we become guarded against what she might do to all the things around her.  We are weary of her hands that grab, her feet that go in unwanted directions and the mouth where everything enters that she comes across; from dirt to precious houseplants and pets.  We say that we must baby-proof a house for this child, but in reality we want to change as little as possible and then not deal with the frustration that comes with not really preparing for the child in our lives.  Because they are weaker, less able to tell us what they want, and smaller we choose for our wants trump their needs – if we know what those are at all.
Once the child moves out of the unconscious level of living and into the realm of ordering her subconscious for conscious living, the adults in her life can become more baffled about the support that she needs for proper and normalized development.  Anxious parents are easily guided this way and that as they try to do the right thing; frequently entirely missing the mark.  Personal difficulties and issues stemming back to their own childhoods can make it even more difficult to see their child for who they are and what they are trying to accomplish.  
If we look at the difference between a typical American home environment and a Montessori Early Childhood classroom we will see several stark contrasts.  First, the home environment is usually outfitted for the comfort of the adults.  Frequently there are a limited number of rooms that are geared toward the child.  Take the kitchen for example, the counters are high and out of reach for the child to use.  The tables and appliances are proportioned to the adults.  Even the chairs in most kitchen/dining areas are one size, the fully grown adult.  The milk in the refrigerator is large and heavy.  The young child has great difficulty in pouring from it without spilling.  If we let them try, and they do spill, they are often scolded.  The playroom of the typical American home is filled with many things to occupy the time of the child, but that do not necessarily fulfill the developmental  needs they have.
In contrast, the Early Childhood Montessori environment is filled with natural sunlight, neutral colors and beautiful surroundings.  There so much to draw they eye and interest.  The walls are adorned with a few lovely paintings at the eye level of the child, the low shelves are adorned with flowers that the children arrange themselves.  This classroom is specifically made to the child’s measure with low sinks and tables and they, the children, are the central focus here.  There is no teacher’s desk, you might not even readily be able to find her since she is probably on the floor with one or a few of the children. 

The Tenets of a Prepared Environment
There are six basic tangible and intangible tenets of the prepared Montessori environment.  They include freedom, structure and order, reality and nature, beauty and atmosphere, the Montessori materials, and the development of community life.  I also include the prepared teacher as one of these tenants, making in actuality seven.  Each of these components is incredibly important to the development of the child.  With even one element missing the whole child struggles in his education.  There can be many dropped stitches that continue to affect him throughout his life.1
Four year old Skyler enters the classroom and says goodbye to his mother.  He immediately heads straight for the peace corner.  He takes the thumb piano off the peace shelf and sits to play it quietly.  After about five minutes he puts it away and retrieves the water tube with the tiny beads and shaped sequins.  He lays down sideways on the pillows and watches the beads float back and forth.  He likes and needs his alone time in the morning and tells May, who is coloring in a chair near the peace corner, that he doesn’t want to talk to her yet.  His life at home can be somewhat disorganized with changes between parent’s homes and styles.  After about fifteen minutes he puts things away and heads across to the other side of the classroom.  He walks the line and then lays out a rug, gets the pink tower and broad stairs, and proceeds to work with them for about twenty or twenty five minutes.  This routine has been repeated by Skyler every school day since the beginning of June.  Once he puts away the tower and stairs he will choose any number of things.  Today he asked if we could use the ending sound mat together.  The beginning of his day is always the same.  He needs to take time in the peace corner and he needs to use the tower and stairs every day.  If someone else gets there first he will wait in a watching chair until he sees that it is free to use.  He chooses to work with friends and alone.  He stops to chat with other children from time to time.  He prepares his own snack; sometimes early in the work-cycle, sometimes much later.  He is progressing nicely through the language and math works of his own volition.  He is highly interested by what his older friends are doing and wants to do them as well.  He particularly likes to sweep under the shelves with the broom to look for any missing pieces of classroom works that might have rolled under there.  He is really beginning to come into his own at school, and makes friends easily.  Several new children have started coming in our classroom and he is enjoying the chance to show them how to do things.  He is confident and happy; a considerable change from the scared, boogery, and undirected little one he was when he first started in the fall.
We do not know who a child is when they come into our lives and classrooms.  They must reveal themselves to us.  Freedom in the Montessori classroom is of the utmost importance to this revelation.  I have worked in both traditional and Montessori environments.  The most apparent difference in a child’s day is the freedom they have in its construction.  Instead of a teacher who chooses what the entire group of children must be doing, and where they must be at any given time, the child has the power, within proper boundaries, to make those choices.  There are guidelines and a schedule, but even those have plenty of wiggle room to accommodate for the ebb and flow of any particular day.  If, at the normal time for cleanup, a child is not ready to put away their work they may scoot out of the line area – if needed –   and continue.  There have been plenty of times in the classrooms where I have been a lead guide when a child has worked straight through outside breaks and even, a few times, lunch before being finished.  No one is required to have a snack and no one is required to go to the garden, movement, or the library.  This freedom develops an incredibly important inner discipline and drive.  The responsibility of the guide is to make the materials in the classroom speak to the child, and to discover the ways in which she will control the environment and not the child.  
“It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.”2
Reality and Nature
Near the beginning of the school year we were outside in the yard area when a little garter snake came to visit.  Several of the children were spooked by this little creature and started screaming and running around.  I have a bit of trouble with snakes myself because of being bitten when I was young, but I knew that this was a rare opportunity in most of these children’s lives to learn to have respect for all life.  Most of them had never seen a snake up close, in real life - AND we just happened to be studying reptiles.  As children came over to look at the snake, who was doing its best to hide, we chatted about how big we were to this snake and how scared it must be.  The children became quieter and more fascinated.  They understood what it felt like to be small and scared sometimes by the big people in their lives.  I modeled using a quiet tone around the snake so as not to scare it.  Pretty soon more and more children came to observe, with the child who first spotted the creature telling everyone to be careful not to hurt the snake or scream because it was really scared.  I had 17 children looking and speaking in hushed tones as they asked questions about the snake.  Allen was particularly scared of the snake and would dash over to take a peek, would grab my hand, and then dart back up to the top of the hill.  As we continued our quiet discussion he kept coming over for longer periods.  The snake moved and he stayed still, content to hold my hand.  We eventually agreed that we should let the snake go and hide, and went back in the school to watch what he would do.  He slithered away while the children all talked about how exciting it all was.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the real thing is priceless.  The young child learns best by their senses.  The Montessori environment and guide, inside and out, take this precious knowledge into account in every bit of planned, and unplanned opportunities that present themselves.  Because of the freedom to adjust the curriculum for the day, a visit from a turtle in the gardens (which we have also had) or the robins outside actively building their nests above the fire bell are not an interference; they are the choice experiences the children are naturally drawn to.  We can then utilize this practical knowledge to create interest in all sorts of areas of the curriculum now and later.  After our visit from the snake, Gretta (the girl who first spotted it) wrote a story about it for writer’s workshop, and the reptile nomenclature cards and booklets became a more interesting work on the shelf.  Some of the children asked to look at pictures from the internet at snake scales and drew freeform pictures of snakes with many scales.  The addition snake game was remembered by some of the children who had used it previously who took it out to practice with it together.  This experience was also expressed sensorially when some of the children created a rainbow snake with the third box of colors, and another created snakes from the knobless cylinders.  Just last Friday (nearly 9 months later) I was asked if we could go out and look for “garden” snakes again by May.  I could never artificially create something as valuable as the snake did just by being itself, and our class valuing the chance to observe it and let it go on its way.  We have had visitors with snakes and reptiles, and the children have loved them so well, but finding that little snake out in his natural home has remained in their consciousness this whole year.  They still talk about it with each other sometimes.
Careful planning of the indoor and outdoor environments should be made in order to support the child’s experience with real, appropriately proportioned things, and with nature.  No pretend sink or refrigerator could ever be as exciting to a child as a real one with real things to use them with.  When I first witnessed a lesson on a real tea party my heart sang at how beautiful it was to give this chance for loving grace and manners to a child.  Children don't just want to play pretend, they really want the chance to do what they see their parents and other adults in their lives doing.  They would much rather really polish shoes and mirrors, sweep and mop the floor, wash cloths and sew a straight line than to pretend to do these things.  The indoor classroom is extended to the outdoors by carefully planning which activities can be done outdoors and by the installation of components that will engender the exploration of the natural world along with large motor development.  Trails, trees, flowers, bushes, quiet spaces, and gardens are complimented by playgrounds and works that encourage the care of the environment and large motor development such as playgrounds.
Structure and Order
“If there is one feature more than another which should characterize the prepared environment it is order.  Order should pervade the Montessori classroom down to the smallest detail, being present wholly and completely in each part, as a spirit is present in very part of the body which it informs.  This order expresses itself in many different ways, and on different mental levels, according to the degree of development of the children who are helped by it.”3
A child is not free to do whatever he pleases.  He may not destroy or misuse materials, hurt others, or misuse the environment.  There are rules of grace and courtesy that we all follow in the classroom, and they are the benchmark for behavior.  The more we practice and reinforce how to respect another’s space, the classroom, and the works, the more in tune and connected all the children become with our environment.  In this way we become a community caring for our special “house”.
As a lead Montessori guide, I spend a great deal of time planning for our time in the classroom.  I usually begin plans for a school year in about February.  I have had enough time during the current year to know the things I didn’t spend quite enough time on this year and start researching how to improve for the following one.  Planning out the year is just a sketch of mostly cultural lessons and focuses for each month.  There are the weekly and daily plans and then the individual lesson presentation with follow through tracking and planning.  There is so much planning and preparing in a Montessori classroom.  I visit my local thrift shops at least a couple of times a month to look for all kinds of things from creamers that get broken now and then, to knick-knacks from faraway countries, books, science and art materials, and in short anything that will fit into our curriculum.  My co-teacher and I spend some of our planning time reviewing which things in our classroom are not getting used anymore and deciding what will inspire interest and activity based on observations of the children and their individual stages of development.  I might have made an observation that one child was using a clothes pinning work for stacking instead and my co-teacher may have seen her trying to balance on the edge of the playground and therefore bring out a balancing and stacking work for her; while at the same time increasing the interest in the water works by introducing colored water they can make themselves.  I might spend an entire weekend pondering a behavior that a child is displaying and trying to work out what might help him; what might I be missing?  I re-read portions of books and articles that are particular to a question about myself and my approach to the classroom or children that might need an adjustment.  I prepare and make many, many materials while focusing on what I believe, from some experience, will make the children go crazy with delight and therefore entice their to work and focus.
“It is one of the main duties of the directress to maintain this order in the environment; and be ever on the watch lest it be impaired in the smallest degree.  Every piece of the materials - down to the smallest cube in the pink tower, the points of the pencils, the accurate folding of the towels, the exact position of the materials in the cupboards, the correct tally of the words in the grammar boxes, the right number and order of the decimal system number cards, the soap in the soap dish, the shoe polish in the cleaning outfit - everything must be always and absolutely in its right place.”HL&W 271

The Montessori Materials 
The Montessori materials are beautiful and appealing.  The classroom is equipped with low shelves that the child can easily access and retrieve the work they love so well.  They are sorted into the following areas of the curriculum:
Practical Life -  The child is in contact with his world, but he needs assistance with how to live in it.  Most adults are confused or weary about how much their child knows and how to give them independence without making too much inconvenience or mess of their home  The practical life exercises are designed to assist the child with this living by isolating a specific practical skill and putting it into the hands of the child to practice and perfect.  Pouring, spooning, polishing, scrubbing, weaving, sewing, sweeping, dressing, folding, wrapping, washing; all of these and more give the child independence.  These exercises are easily extended into the daily function of the classroom and outdoor environment.  Each of these activities has a practical purpose and develops in the child a love of his environment and fosters care for his space while at school and extending to home. Preparing the tables for lunch and serving your friends, washing the windows of the classroom, sweeping under the shelves to keep the classroom clean, dusting the works and shelves to maintain a lovely atmosphere, cleaning plant leaves and arranging flowers for the shelves, gardening and sweeping walks gives purpose and independence to the child.
Sensorial -  The young child makes sense of the world through his senses.  The Sensorial area isolates one area of a sense to develop and educate it.  These very didactic materials leave a sensorial impression on the mind of the child that he can draw on later.  These exercises include the visual, auditory, thermic, gustatory, olfactory, baric, tactile and stereognostic senses.
Language - The language area trains the child to use the hand in preparation for writing and reading first and then moves on in a step by step process to teach competence in writing and reading skills.  The child writes words with the moveable alphabet before he can read them and then begins to learn how to read.  Again each difficulty is isolated in order for the child to focus on one thing and master it before moving on.
Mathematics - The Montessori math materials are by far the showiest of all areas in the classroom.  They are beautiful and attractive.  When I began reading lessons and practicing them in order to teach my own children, suddenly I understood math in a way I had never before.  It is the most frequent comment I hear from assistants and leads in the classroom.  They really wish they had learned this way.  Math is such an abstract concept in the traditional school but in the Montessori early childhood classroom they are hands-on physical representations of abstract ideas that become part of the child.  They can again, in later life, draw on these physical experiences with the works as their understanding of difficult concepts.  At a young age children are understanding the concepts of large numbers, fractions, time, addition, multiplication, subtraction and division.
Most schools also include science, geography, history and art in the same hands-on way that is so compelling and brain developing as the other areas.
Beauty and Atmosphere
Every day I strive to arrive at school at least an hour before the day is scheduled to begin.  At the end of each work cycle our class cleans and straightens pretty well and we of course, as guides, clean and prepare the room, but after we leave there is aftercare in our room.  Things might not be as well in order as they could be and I want to do everything I can to make certain they are ready to go for the coming day.  Are the metal inset papers stocked?  Do the watercolors need to be replaced?  What about the bathroom (one of the aftercare children tends to pee behind the toilet) and under the shelves?  Are the cloths and dusters for cleaning ready to go?  Are the trays clear of sand from the sifting work the aftercare children have a difficult time not touching?  Over several years of working with young children I have come to honor and appreciate the difference that a clean and prepared environment makes in their lives at school.  I may have some small influence on the home lives of some of the students in our classroom, but certainly not any control.  I do, however, have control and stewardship of the environment that they step into, and an expanding knowledge in how to foster our little community.
“It goes without saying that we should make this prepared environment as beautiful as possible.  ‘The best for the smallest’ was always Dr. Montessori’s motto.  A well-equipped Montessori classroom is indeed a beautiful sight, with its many low windows adorned with bright curtains, its gaily painted tables and cupboards decorated with vases of flowers.  Even the materials themselves are beautiful.”4
The beauty and atmosphere of the Montessori environment is created from more than just materials.  There are curtains in the windows, the shelves are made of wood, if possible.   There are plants dotting the shelves that the children care for.  The children take pride and care of the classroom and adorn it with lovely flowers that they cut and place themselves.  The peace corner or area is a quiet and beautiful space where a child can go to escape or calm down.  There is also a peace table where the children work out their differences.  This adds to the peaceful and inclusive attitude in the classroom.
The Development of Community Life
At the end of our worktime today I gave the music box to Charles to carry around the room.  He walked by friends without announcing the end of worktime.  The music box does that job with no words.  Many of the children cleaned up their work and started helping others who were still putting things away.  Some children still wanted to work and they left them alone.  We have spent a few weeks working up to a great cleaning of the classroom.  Five or six children get out the little finger dusters and dust works and shelves, others want the full hand duster or the wand dusters.  Other children use the brooms and the small dustpans to sweep under shelves and floors.  A couple of children take out the crooked rugs and make them straight, while others wash the tables and the sink.  My assistant helps a couple of children straighten and edge works, and I help a couple of others to put some of the practical life exercises back in order and fix some of the aprons.  After the tables have been washed we set the napkins and name tags at the tables to get ready for lunch and then ring the bell to sit for the circle.  This is a real community effort, but there is no jobs list.  No one is assigned any jobs before hand, but everyone keeps busy, or is invited to help one of us.  During our afternoon circle, arnold wanted to read a book that he had written to the class.  He sat in the author’s chair and counted down the five scoots toward the middle of the circle.  Once his story was finished the others in the classroom clapped for his success in writing and he again counted the five scoots back to their spots on the line.  When that was finished it was time for the silence.  They children encouraged a couple of the younger children to be extra quiet today for the silence.  They said that they really wanted to see if they could be silent for three minutes today.  One of the boys said he didn’t feel like he could be quiet today and slipped into the neighboring room.  It was very thoughtful of him to not want to disturb or ruin everyone else’s silence today.
The real story of community life exists in the very day to day activities of the classroom.  With a few guided lessons on the respect and love we show to others children take care of each other when they are not feeling well, are sad, or afraid.  Because of proper training, children need much less of our interference in their small disputes everyday.  They really love the peace rose talks and frequently take care of issues without any adults being aware that there was ever a problem.  They take turns to share their feelings and declare friends when finished.  Once in a while they will ask for a mediator to help with a big problem.  Sometimes that is a guide and sometimes it is another student.  I have watched children spend a great deal of time making lovely pictures and notes only to give them all away to their friends.  The way they care for the classroom is a show of love for the classroom and develops their sense of community.  
The Prepared Teacher
If there is one incredibly valuable thing I have learned in the years leading up to and since the beginning of my formal training is this: You can have a beautifully crafted and organized room with the most expensive materials from the best companies, and you can have an incredible facility with the best intentions, but place an untrained and unprepared teacher in that space and the children will be the ones to lose out.  Montessori philosophy and methodology, not to mention the use of the materials, takes a long, long time to understand and perfect.  It is a beautiful thing to watch the prepared teacher at work.  Her classroom is calm and orderly, the children are happy and busy with good things, the works are treated with respect, and she is warm and understanding.  The directress of a Montessori classroom must have the ability to focus in on the one she is working with right now, while her antennae are out with a pulse on the rest of the children at the same time.  She must learn through practice when to intervene and when to stand back and observe.  She thinks and thinks about what a child is doing and what it may mean and then observes more to try to determine how to help that child.  Her real work is to remove the false notions, and shackles of of her own prejudices in order to see the child for who they really are.  She must remove pride from herself continually.  She is overjoyed when her necessity in the classroom shrinks; when the children are acting as if she is not there.
“In addition to maintaining as close a contact as possible with the children’s parents and family life, the Montessori teacher has an important role to play as an interpreter of Montessori aims to the community at large.  There is a demand to know more about Montessori education on the part of parents and teacher, and Montessori teacher must be capable and willing to meet their requests for lectures, demonstrations, and visits.  They do this as a part of their commitment to the child and his education, a commitment that extends beyond their own classroom.”5
In Summary
I am aware of how far I have to expand in the knowledge of my craft.  I am excited about the perfecting of my work as a guide and preparer of the classroom.  People always say that they can tell how much I love my work, and it is so very true.  At first it was difficult to hear where I was wrong or taking missteps, but now I really watch and listen to try to pick up on the little things I can change.  It wasn't until I visited and observed one of the classrooms at a beautiful facility last spring that I saw enough of a good cleanup routine demonstrated that I could understand the process well enough to put it into practice with such great success in our classroom.  When I read, study, ponder and journal about the classroom and how it works, I learn with leaps and bounds.  I don’t just want a good classroom and I am not interested in being just a good teacher.  I have this quote that is carved in stone on my bookcase that I strive to live my life by: Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it - Autograph your work with excellence.  This phrase calls me to humility.  If I am to be an excellent teacher, and provide and excellent environment, I must be absolutely open to correction and change.  It has only been since I have opened by heart and mind to change that things have begun to improve for myself, and my family in all areas of life.  I get a great deal of satisfaction from what I do; from creation to implementation to revelation.  There is so much room for improvement, and I feel like every year brings greater ability to prepare the correct environment.  

1 - Montessori A Modern Approach Paula Polk Lillard (1972) Random House, NY p.51
2 - Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook Maria Montessori (2013) p.55
3 - Maria Montessori Her Life and Work E.M. Standing (1957) p. 270
4 - Ibid p. 268

5 - Montessori A Modern Approach p. 86


  1. Thank you for sharing the thoughts and details of your day. I truly appreciate reading this!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful input! So glad to hear from you again!

  3. This is definitely an incredibly rich resource that you have spent so much valuable time developing, I'll recommend it to parents at our school as well as link to it in our Montessori Resources section so that our teachers can take a look. Thanks! Check us out too at C'e Montessori Preschool in Brooklyn