What’s the Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool?

Some of the most common questions parents have when looking for an early childhood program focus on the difference between Montessori and traditional preschool. Parents want to understand how Montessori differs from other programs, why those differences matter, and which is the right fit for their child.

There are many factors to consider when selecting a program for your child and, depending on where you live, your options might be few and far between or overwhelmingly abundant. Understanding the core differences between Montessori and traditional preschools will help you narrow your focus and find the program that makes sense for your family.

The Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool #1: Child-directed vs. Teacher-directed

A common misconception about Montessori is that the children “get to do whatever they want” with no structure or boundaries. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it certainly might look that way, if you are used to a more traditional school model that places the emphasis on the role of the teacher.

In a traditional preschool, the teacher is the central figure in the classroom. She is guiding children through various station activities, group activities, and through the schedule of the day. She is responsible for making sure that everyone participates in different activities and for ensuring that all the children meet the guidelines set by the school or determined by the curriculum.

In a Montessori classroom the teacher follows the lead of the child. Children learn at their own pace and are guided by their own interests. This means that children are free to make choices about how they spend their time, but not without some boundaries set by the teacher. The role of the teacher in a Montessori classroom is multifold:

  1. She prepares the classroom environment to appeal to each child’s innate curiosity.
  2. She observes a child and determines which lessons would be a timely fit — one that appeals to their interests and teaches a new concept or reinforces a learned concept.
  3. She invites a child to a lesson, shows him how to use the materials independently.
  4. That child is then free to select that material again on his own.

In a traditional preschool classroom, the teacher is the leader of the pack. In a Montessori classroom, she is the guide.

A child works with math materials. Difference between Montessori and traditional preschool.
A child learns her teen numbers with this interactive math material.

The Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool #2: Work vs. Play

Traditional preschools are generally play-based, meaning that a child will spend much of their day playing with toys and in familiar settings. A typical preschool classroom has “centers” designated for different types of play or skills. There’ll be a dress-up area for social and imaginative play, a block area for building, an area for puzzles, etc. Children will have time during their day to choose different activities, but much of the schedule is pre-determined, so children will rotate through centers, as well as participate in group activities, like story time or art.

In a Montessori classroom, the materials on the shelf are called “work,” not “toys,” and after receiving a lesson from the teacher on how to use a work, a child is free to select that material at any point throughout the morning or afternoon work period. At any given moment in a Montessori classroom you can observe children engaged in math, language, art, and geography studies. Because they have chosen the work themselves, they are invested in it. They are excited about it and they’re learning something!

Maria Montessori believed, through observation and years of working with children, that children were like little sponges: capable of soaking up incredible amounts of knowledge when given the right environment. She designed her materials and precise techniques to maximize a child’s desire to learn. Children love to learn and do challenging things — it is fun for them and feels a lot like play!

A child writes words with the Moveable Alphabet. Difference between Montessori and Traditional Preschool.
Learning to read and write is fun with colorful manipulatives, like the Moveable Alphabet!

The Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool #3: The Classroom Environment

A traditional preschool classroom is filled with colorful toys, brightly colored posters and wall decorations, colorful rugs, tables, and chairs. The shelves are filled with toys, games, and other familiar items. A child has access to blocks, dolls, cars, puzzles, etc. For a play-based center, you can expect to find lots of color!

A Montessori classroom will look a little different. There will be more muted tones and less visual stimulation. Any wall art or decorations will be placed lower, so as to be at the children’s eye level, and all furnishings will be child-sized. The classroom might be busy and active, but it should also feel calm and peaceful.

The Montessori classroom is divided into different curriculum areas: Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language, and Cultural (Art, Science, Geography). There might be a reading corner or a peace corner, and there should be a variety of seating options and work spaces available. Children spend their morning moving through the classroom at their own pace, selecting work that appeals to them, receiving lessons from the teachers, and having fun with their friends. At the end of the morning, the class gathers for circle time and prepares for the next part of their day.

A teacher leads circle time. Difference between Montessori and Traditional Preschool.
Gathering for circle time at the end of a busy morning.

Choosing Between the Two

Knowing some of the key differences between Montessori programs and traditional preschool programs is the first step. Once you get a feel for the different options in your area, ask around! Recommendations from friends and online reviews can help you get a sense of which programs are a better fit for your family.

Once you’ve narrowed it down, take a tour. Websites can only do so much. To get a better feel for a school you have to visit. Ideally, a tour will take place during a typical school day and you’ll get a sense of how your child will spend her day.

Take your child’s needs into consideration. Will a bright, colorful, noisy classroom overwhelm your sensitive child? What about your high energy child? How does the program take into consideration different needs and personalities? There are no wrong questions, so be sure to ask as many as it takes to get the answers you need. Happy school hunting!

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Our Vision: How CHMS Interprets Maria Montessori’s Philosophy

“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from children, for children are the makers of men…”
-Maria Montessori

At the heart of the Montessori philosophy is the teacher’s understanding of the nature of the child. Maria Montessori knew that the groundwork for intellectual, spiritual and moral development is laid in the first six years of life. The potential in each child to become an adult of peace and understanding was foremost in her mind; this is especially evident in the writings of her later years. Here at Children’s House, we also have a vision of the Montessori child, what we want children who spend three years in our caring environment to grow up to be. Collectively, we have developed our own Vision of the Human Potential:

At Children’s House Montessori School, we strive to assist the children to become the adults who:

…feel self-empowered to reach their fullest potential

…lead with strength and follow with respect

…tolerate difference and respect diversity

…appreciate all cultures

…preserve our environment

…think independently

…experience wonder

…promote peace

…care for others

…love to learn.

May they know how to let their spirit sing!

Authentic Montessori: The Importance of the Three-Year Cycle

One of the best ways to learn something, is to teach it! At any Montessori school with authentic, mixed-aged classes, the role that the oldest children serve can not be undervalued: it is a key component in what sets Montessori schools apart from traditional schools and a very important part of the success of a classroom and a school in general.

During the first two years your child is at Children’s House, he begins to develop an understanding of mathematical and language concepts. He learns letter sounds and begins to read simple books. Golden beads introduce the concepts of the decimal system and place value. But it is usually in the kindergarten year that a real concrete and sound basis in math and language are formed.

The children study phonics in more depth, with many opportunities for reading and writing for those who are ready. They practice mathematical operations with the golden beads and the stamp game, which gives the child a hands-on and concrete understanding of the decimal system and place value.

The child forms mental pictures of how to exchange ten “units” for one “ten,” or how to take one number many times, thus accomplishing multiplication. Your child needs the kindergarten year to internalize these early concrete experiences which form a strong foundation for the years ahead.

An enormous amount of learning can take place in the kindergarten year in an environment as rich and varied as ours. Kindergarteners are sophisticated; they deserve a sophisticated learning environment where they can blossom and grow to their fullest potential.

Moreover, Montessori kindergarteners are highly motivated as they learn to be organized, to focus, and to begin to develop a work ethic that will last their whole life. They are self-directed, independent learners, and discover how to learn while they develop a love of learning.

Because our classrooms have an authentic three-year grouping of a true Montessori school, the kindergarten children take on a leadership role in the classroom. They have spent two years observing, learning from, and looking forward to becoming the “big kids” in the classroom. Now it is their turn to shine and to take on the responsibilities of helping younger children, leading discussions, and in many ways running the classroom.

Their self-esteem soars as their confidence in themselves increases. Everything they learned in their first two years with us falls into place.

Understanding Montessori: The Teacher

The Montessori teacher is trained to observe carefully, to know the different needs of her children and to provide a properly prepared environment for the children’s maximum growth. She demonstrates the correct use of the many complex classroom materials, and guides without interfering with the child’s experience. She ensures that each child progresses through the activities of each curriculum area in the classroom. She encourages the hesitant child, engages the wandering child, and sets limits for the adventurous child, all while keeping enthusiasm and curiosity alive in the classroom. She is there when she is needed, but “invisible” when she is not.

Becoming a Montessori teacher is a lengthy process, that involves specialized training at a certified training center. Students participate in hands-on experiential learning, get a greater understanding of the philosophy behind each and every material in the classroom, write papers, and create original lessons for the different curriculum areas. They also need to complete a year-long internship in a qualified classroom, and are observed in the classroom by visiting instructors and mentors.

The training year, however, is just the beginning. A Montessori teacher knows that she, herself, is a lifelong student and she will continue to learn for many years to come. She will attend professional development conferences and workshops, but some of her greatest learning will come from her very own classroom. For the Montessori teacher understands that while she may be the guide, the child is one of our greatest teachers.

Dr. Montessori believed that learning is an individualized experience — each child is encouraged to learn for himself — and that children are motivated to learn by a natural curiosity and a love for knowledge. Therefore, early childhood education should cultivate the child’s own natural desire to learn — to teach him how to learn, rather than memorize and recite. The Montessori teacher is charged with the task of watching a child for signs of readiness, guiding him to the materials that will meet his developmental needs, and introducing him to concepts that will build on his established foundation for maximum success.

Each child is different, therefore each child’s classroom experience is unique. It takes a trained teacher, with a love of learning, to ensure that each child’s needs are met. To learn more about the teachers at Children’s House, click here.

Understanding Montessori: The Learning Environment

Dr. Montessori believed that learning is accomplished by the individual himself. The child learns by means of the materials and his own active experience with them. He also learns from others in the environment. Each Montessori classroom has an age range of three years, which allows older children to teach the younger ones and provides the younger ones with a model for future learning. The teacher prepares the environment and gives the child lessons on how the materials are used, guiding the child through a progression of the activities in each curriculum area of the environment. Given the necessary minimum of stimulating interest in the materials, the child begins to manipulate, discover, and learn for himself.

Exposure to the physically and mentally prepared environment causes a balancing of behavior to develop. As the child becomes absorbed in meaningful work that he chooses himself and which thus meets his needs, he works with continued concentration and inner satisfaction. When we see this in a single child, we call it inner discipline. When we see it in a whole classroom, we call it normalization. It is truly impressive to see children working together peacefully, helping each other, sharing and caring for one another.

“The hand is the chief teacher of the child,” said Dr. Montessori. Montessori classrooms are the epitome of the “hands on” experience for the child. Children learn best by doing, and Dr. Montessori’s didactic materials are designed to achieve sensory, motor, and intellectual development through a graduated system of learning in which children master simple, concrete concepts before progressing to the abstract. This can be seen in the classroom in several ways. Within the curriculum areas of the environment, children begin in the concrete areas of practical life and sensorial, and progress to the more abstract areas of math and language; within each curriculum area of the classroom, the children begin with the most simple lessons, and progress to the most difficult; and for each piece of material, there often is a simple and a more complex version of use. Many of the materials isolate one fundamental quality, such as color or dimension, so that the child learns to discriminate individual qualities in an object. Many of the materials are self-correcting, which provides the child with a control of error so they see their mistakes and are able to correct them without being afraid of making a mistake. Many of the materials are for self-discovery and do not require a lesson from the teacher; this encourages children to become independent of adults in seeking knowledge. Children have the freedom to choose and repeat any lesson they have been given, which allows them to satisfy their own desire to learn.

Understanding Montessori: The Child

Like many other educational philosophers, Dr. Montessori believed that human beings pass through stages in their development. She called the first stage of life, from birth to six years, the stage of the absorbent mind. This is when children literally absorb impressions from their environment through the “pores” of all their senses as a sponge absorbs water. During this period, for example, children learn their mother tongue far more easily than an adult who struggles to learn a foreign language. The opportunities available in the environment will, therefore, be a major factor in determining the child’s intellect.

Dr. Montessori believed that during these early years of development, the child passes through sensitive periods, or times when he becomes attuned to acquiring particular knowledge or skills. He will work on gaining that knowledge or skill with an interest and concentration he can never again display for that particular kind of work. Because the child learns more easily during these sensitive periods, Dr. Montessori developed specific didactic (learning) materials designed to correspond to these sensitive periods and to meet their needs. We all know well the 3-year-old’s desire for order in his environment and need for a daily routine. This is his sensitive period for order manifesting itself.

Recent advances in child development have taught us the importance of respecting each child as an individual. Respect for the child was key to Dr. Montessori’s philosophy a century ago and still is today. She advocated respect for the child’s individuality by allowing freedom of choice of activity within a specially prepared environment, a natural and beautiful environment created to suit the nature of the child. The prepared environment allows each child the freedom to learn and develop at his own pace, according to his own capacities.

Since the child chooses his own work, he is never pushed into something he is not ready for, or bored by something too elementary for him. In our classroom, we attempt to create a non-competitive environment where the child feels at home and can work according to his own tempo and unique nature. The teacher prepares the environment to meet the specific and ever-changing needs of the children in it. We respect the child’s inner rhythm when we allow repetition of activities and give him the time to work at his own pace. Only the child knows when he has satisfied his need for that activity, or has absorbed it. When we “follow the child,” as Dr. Montessori urged, we have the best chance of nurturing the child’s natural curiosity and love for knowledge.

Montessori Best Practices

Here at Children’s House we are proud to provide our families with an authentic Montessori program by following “best practice” guidelines as advocated by the American Montessori Society (AMS), of which we are a Full Member School.

“Best practices” require schools to constantly review their philosophies and procedures, and to make changes when necessary to meet the standards put forth in the AMS affiliation and accreditation guidelines. During the 2005–2006 school year, Children’s House completed the affiliation process. All facets of our program were reviewed, including financial, administrative, and classroom practices.

Guidelines for parent and staff handbooks are provided by AMS, and are reflected in our own Parent Handbook and website. Some of the “best practices” that we incorporate in our classrooms are:

  • multi-aged, heterogeneous groupings 
  • the Great Period – 2½ to 3 hours of uninterrupted work time 
  • five days a week for early childhood programs 
  • gradual transition from concrete to abstract concepts 
  • emphasis on Grace and Courtesy lessons 
  • opportunities for concentration is a priority 

We continually strive to improve our environment by scheduling training sessions, attending conferences, and planning staff meetings so all the staff can come together to share and learn from each other’s experiences.

Who was Maria Montessori?

Although Dr. Maria Montessori is best known as an educator, she was a medical pioneer as well, becoming, in 1896, the first woman doctor in Italy. She began her work with children in psychiatric hospitals and in the slums of Rome, but soon came to believe that the educational principles she was developing applied to all children. She opened the first “Casa dei Bambini” or “Children’s House” in 1907 in San Lorenzo, Italy. 

Her revolutionary ideas spread quickly, and training centers opened throughout the world. The Montessori Method came to the United States in 1912, but didn’t experience rapid growth until the early 1950s. This was largely due to the efforts of Nancy McCormick Rambusch, an early childhood educator and founder of the American Montessori Society, who was moved by an increasing concern over the quality of American education.

For a complete history of the Montessori educational movement, click here.

Montessori Philosophy in a Nutshell

At Children’s House Montessori School, our program is based on the philosophy of Maria Montessori, who felt that the purpose of formal education was to “learn how to learn.” This means that we: 

• Allow your child to make choices for his own learning, thus encouraging independence and self-initiative. 

• Respect each child’s uniqueness and in turn inspire each child to develop in his own way, to his fullest potential. 

• Provide an atmosphere that nurtures an early enthusiasm for learning and promotes your child’s work ethic. 

• Allow plenty of uninterrupted time for the children to work with the materials in their own unique way, independently or in small groups. 

• Foster each child’s curiosity and creativity by empowering him to ask questions, try new ideas, and think for himself.