There are many differences between Montessori schools and traditional preschool programs. One of the more noticeable is the implementation of mixed-age classrooms rather than age-based classrooms. Visit a good Montessori school and you’ll see three, four, and five-year-olds working together, rather than being separated by age. What are the benefits and what’s behind the philosophy? Why are Montessori classrooms mixed-age?
An Interesting Backstory: Children Running Amok!
Maria Montessori opened the doors of the first Casa dei Bambini (“Children’s House”) in 1907 in San Lorenzo, a low-income sector of Rome, Italy. In this poor, run-down part of the city, it was common for both parents to work long shifts, while a grandmother or other older family member tended to the children. During the day, while the older siblings went to school and the babies were home with a caregiver, the younger children were sent outside to occupy themselves. They did this by essentially running amok on the streets of Rome!
Vandalism was a problem and the children were a nuisance to the building landlords and business owners. They approach Dr. Montessori about finding some way to get the children off the streets and out of trouble. Dr. Montessori was already starting to make a name for herself through her work with intellectually disabled children and their educators. She had made impressive advancements in the field of special education and accepted the challenge to work with these unruly youngsters!
And so it was that the first Montessori school happened to be a mixed-age classroom: the older brothers and sisters were already in school and the babies and toddlers were being cared for by their grandma and aunties. The three, four, and five-year-olds were put in a one-room school with Dr. Montessori and the rest is history!
Benefits of Mixed-Age Classrooms: Ways of Learning
Dr. Montessori was a scientist. She considered her method to be a scientific approach to education; one based on observation, implementation, and revision. She was constantly looking for cause and effect, adjusting her responses, and learning from her mistakes and, most importantly, from the children.
Dr. Montessori recognized very early on that the mixed-age classroom had a number of benefits and applied this information to her method moving forward. She observed that children learn in different ways and that a mixed-age grouping was a critical component in this learning.
She noted that children learn through:
- Observation: Younger children learn by watching older children as well as adults. In a mixed-age classroom, older children who are completing challenging lessons are an example to the younger children; they show what is possible.
- Practice: In a mixed-age classroom, children stay with the same teachers for three years, giving them plenty of time to repeat lessons, practice skills, and advance at their own pace; they are not rushed.
- Teaching: Older children are viewed as role models in the Montessori classroom. They teach by example and it is not uncommon to see a five or six-year-old sitting with a three-year-old and giving them a lesson! In teaching something to a younger child, an older student deepens their own understanding of the lesson. In teaching, we learn.
Benefits of Mixed-Age Classrooms: Continuity and Confidence
As children stay in the same classrooms with the same teachers, there is minimal change from year to year. Older students age out of the program and new ones are introduced, but the continuity of the classroom more or less remains the same.
This consistency builds confidence. Older children become leaders and step into their role with delight! They are finally the big kids! For children who might be the youngest sibling at home, you can imagine how exciting it feels to be seen as a leader in your classroom “family”.
The final year of this three-year-cycle is typically a child’s kindergarten year. Rather than starting at a new school with new teachers and a whole new set of expectations, they enter their kindergarten year with confidence; excited for what lies ahead!
Benefits of Mixed-Age Classrooms: Repetition and Advancement
For a Montessori child who is four years old and still working on learning their sounds, a mixed-age classroom offers plenty of opportunity to practice. They are not rushed to meet an invisible benchmark before the end of the year and they are not sent off to a new classroom or a new school. They have the benefit of added time and can work and learn at their own pace.
Their teacher works with them at the level they need and provides opportunities for that child to work with older students AND younger students to help that four-year old succeed. As time moves on, he or she will have the chance to observe children writing and reading and will want to work on mastering their sounds, so that they, too, can write and read! They will see new classmates who are just beginning to learn their sounds and will sit with them and do the sandpaper letters all over again, because this time they are the teacher.
In a mixed-age classroom, children can work at their own pace in a natural way. Whether a child is more advanced or needs additional time, the Montessori classroom is designed to meet them wherever they are.
A Natural Way to Learn
What Dr. Montessori observed all those years ago is still true today: children of various ages, working together, will learn from each other, both as students and as teachers. Just as siblings learn and grow together, so do children in a mixed-age classroom environment. Our little Children’s House is very much a family!
- The History of Montessori The American Montessori Society website
- Mixed-Age Grouping: What Does the Research Say, and How Can Parents Use This Information? by Debbie Reese
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