Understanding the Montessori Practical Life Curriculum

The Practical Life curriculum is the cornerstone of the Montessori experience. It lays the foundation for the independence that unfolds in the Montessori classroom. The lessons and materials within this area of the classroom vary widely; some are easy to spot and others are more subtle. Let’s take a look at the Montessori classroom, and the many opportunities that children have to practice the daily living skills that make up the Practical Life curriculum.

Four Categories of the Practical Life Curriculum

The four categories of Practical Life lessons isolate different key concepts that are all part of the child’s journey towards independence. Together they help a child learn self-awareness and to become conscious of their language, behavior, actions, and impact on others. The four categories are:

  • Grace and Courtesy – getting along well with others
  • Control of Movement – being aware of your body in space
  • Care of Self – learning to care for your own needs and to help others who need it
  • Care of Environment – cleaning up after yourself and being responsible for your actions
Two children using practical life materials at Children's House Montessori School of Reston
Practical Life is more fun with friends!

Grace and Courtesy

People often wonder how we can have three, four, and five year olds together in the same classroom and maintain a calm learning environment. Lessons in Grace and Courtesy make our mixed-age classrooms possible; they are central to creating a peaceful and harmonious classroom.

In layman’s terms, Grace and Courtesy means polite manners and respectful behavior. The expectation is that everyone in the classroom is worthy of respect and that polite manners are one of the ways we can show that respect. Teachers model Grace and Courtesy by speaking politely to their students and their colleagues. Children are always watching and learn so much from observing the adults in their lives. 

Children learn to

  • politely interrupt 
  • wait their turn
  • have patience with friends
  • greet teachers and friends politely
  • welcome newcomers to the classroom
  • disagree peacefully and speak respectfully
Child raises her hand at circle time at Children's House Montessori School of Reston.
We all have exciting things to share at circle time, but we need to learn to wait our turn.

Control of Movement

Between the ages of 3 and 6, children need a variety of opportunities to develop their balance, coordination, and fine motor skills. There is a connection between physical order and internal order. A child who can control their body, can better control their mind and their impulses. It’s an ongoing process that the Montessori classroom addresses in different ways. 

  • Balance – children walk along a marked line on the floor, placing one foot in front of the other. They might hold a small bell, taking care to walk carefully and keep the bell from ringing. They learn balance, and strive to complete the line without misstep. 
  • Coordination – many of the Practical Life materials are arranged on small trays, which the children must carry to their workspace. Children learn to carry items one at a time, to place their things on the table before pulling out their chair, and how to move carefully through the busy classroom.
  • Fine Motor Skills – from transferring small beads carefully with a tiny spoon to learning how to thread a needle in preparation for sewing, the Practical Life shelves are filled with fine motor practice opportunities. 
The materials on the Practical Life shelf are easily changed out to reflect different holidays and seasons.

Care of Self

In order for a child to gain independence, they need to be able to care for their basic needs: using the bathroom, washing hands, using a tissue, getting dressed, etc. There are plenty of teachable moments in daily life, but children also need time to practice these skills without a time constraint. The Montessori dressing frames isolate the fine motor skills needed to work a zipper, manipulate a button into a buttonhole, close a snap or buckle, and tie a bow with laces. 

Once a child has mastered a technique, they are often quick to help others who are still learning. This makes it so much easier to get ready to go outside in the wintertime! Zipping coats, tying shoes, and buttoning jackets is a lot faster when most of the class can get the job done themselves and are willing to help those who can’t.

Care of the Environment

When you are in a Montessori classroom, you are part of a community. Every person in the classroom, from the most experienced teacher to the youngest student, has an important role to play in keeping the classroom in order. Montessori children learn that they are capable of doing real work and that their work is valued and important.

Children learn to clean up spills and messes, using child-sized brooms, mops, and dustpans. They have access to the tools they need to wipe up splatters of paint, sweep up sand that was tracked in from the playground, or clean fingerprints from the classroom windows. They learn how to water the classroom plants, help feed the class pet, fill playground birdfeeders, and use small rakes to clear leaves in the fall. 

The Montessori Practical Life curriculum is a combination of specific lessons and real life experience. They teach the children the steps to take, the materials to use, and the skills they need to “do it myself.” 

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“Where’s the dress-up corner?” Montessori and Imagination

When you walk into a Montessori classroom you might notice something missing. There’s no dress-up corner or play kitchen. There are “blocks” on the shelves, but the children are “working” with them instead of “playing” with them, because they’re not “toys,” they’re “materials.” How does Montessori enhance a child’s imagination, if there are no toys in the classroom?

Imagination in the Three to Six-Year Old

Between the ages of three and six a child’s imagination is actively developing.

Three to Four:

Three-year olds are starting to sort out fact from fiction, reality from fantasy. Have you ever had a conversation with a three-year old in which you tried to convince them that, no, in fact, they actually can’t fly — even though they insist that they did it “this other time”?

They’re pretty hard to convince, because if they can see it OR imagine it, they can believe it. This is why three-year olds don’t tell lies: to them, it’s the truth, because they want it to be true. 

Child curled up on a tree stump, hiding. Imagination and Montessori
“You can’t see me!”

Four to Five:

By the time a child is four-years old, they’ve figured out that there’s “real” and there’s “make-believe,” and they know how to go back and forth between the two. Four-year olds love to dress up and play pretend. They imitate what they see and experience, so it’s no surprise that playing “house” or “school” are favorite activities.

Their world of make-believe might have spaceships and princesses in it, but don’t be surprised when those aliens have to take their spaceship to the mechanics or the princess loves making soup and ALSO likes being the teacher. It’s a blurred line.

Five to Six:

By five or six most children have a solid understanding of the real / pretend demarcation, but there will still be moments when the two blend together and they have a hard time figuring out which is which. It’s why sarcasm still goes over their heads (are you joking, because you sound serious…) and Halloween is more fun and less scary, but can still be pretty scary.

Take a six-year old to Disney World and they’ll be the first to tell you that it’s just a grown-up in a costume, while they happily stand in line to take a picture with Mickey anyway.

Grounded in Reality

So, how does Montessori support this facet of childhood? With no traditional toys in the classroom, how do the children find ways to engage their imagination? It might sound counter-productive, but if you want your child to have an active imagination, ground them in reality FIRST.

Montessori provides children with a solid, tactile, sensorial experience with the real world first, so that the world of make-believe has a concrete foundation. In a Montessori classroom there is no specific space designated for pretend play.

You won’t find a play kitchen or a tea-party set, because the entire classroom provides the real activities that children like to play. Children don’t need to play “house,” because their school is, quite literally, a Children’s House. 

Throughout their day, Montessori children actively participate in maintaining the classroom environment. They water plants, feed the fish or hamster, sweep the floor, wash the tables after lunch, scrub the chairs when they get dirty, and clean up their workspace when they’re done.

There are food-prep activities like apple-cutting, preparing a bowl of cereal, and carrot peeling (and eating!) and the children help themselves to a snack and sit down to chat with a friend.

Work IS Play

The Practical Life shelves are filled with materials that mimic life at home. Think about all the times your child sees you working in the kitchen: pouring, mixing, carrying, wiping, and sweeping. They see you carefully measure a teaspoon of sugar or a cup of flour and they watch you — intently — to see how it’s done. 

In the Montessori classroom, they transfer tiny beads from cup to cup with a delicate spoon or they carry a bucket of carefully measured water across the room to their scrubbing work. All without spilling a drop.

They are learning to control their movements and improve their hand-eye coordination while also having fun! It’s immensely fun to scrub a chair when you’re four-years old! (If you don’t believe us, visit a Montessori school and see for yourself.) 

In the Montessori classroom, the children don’t need to play “school” either. In a mixed-age classroom, children have the opportunity to teach and take on leadership roles within the classroom. A six-year old, who is working with a younger friend on learning sounds with the sandpaper letters, isn’t pretending to be a teacher; they’re being a teacher. 

Let’s Get Real

Many of the materials in a Montessori classroom are handmade by the teacher. You’ll find cards for sorting and categorizing, tiny objects for matching, and lots of science and geography materials to teach about different parts of our natural world.  There’ll be photographs of real animals and souvenirs and artifacts from different lands.

In a Montessori classroom you’ll see children working with glass dishes and ceramic bowls, because natural consequences provide excellent learning opportunities. Children learn to carry trays with care so as not to drop the contents. When things do break — and they will — the children learn to slow down, lift carefully, walk slowly, and place gently. 

The emphasis on what is real creates a classroom environment that is grounded in real experiences, which everyone can share. Because children in this age group are still learning to discern the difference between real and make-believe, giving them real touchstones helps them establish those boundaries.

If you stop and think about it, we enjoy the fantastical, because we understand that it’s not real. Adventures happening in a galaxy far, far away are real enough to feel real, but far-enough removed from our reality that we feel safe and secure watching from the comfort of our living rooms. 

For a child to develop a vivid imagination, they need lots and lots and lots (and lots!) of exposure to real experiences, real images, and real stories. After all, a purple horse in a story book is only funny when you’re 100% certain that horses aren’t purple. Otherwise it’s just another purple horse, talking to a pig in overalls; what’s so great about that? 

Ground them in reality, so their imaginations can truly fly!

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Why are Montessori Classrooms Mixed Age?

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!

the first Montessori school and Montessori mixed-age classroom
From humble beginnings, a movement was born!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 

3 children working at a window in a Montessori mixed-age classroom
Learning and teaching by example.

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! 

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Understanding Montessori: What do the children do all day?

There is often a veil of mystery over the goings on in a typical Montessori classroom. Children come home with reports of “doing work,” which sounds kinda serious. They talk about circle time and playground time, but they also throw around words and phrases that make no sense to the average parent. I mean, “what the heck is “pin punching” anyway and why is my child doing it?” When you’re trying to understand what Montessori is all about, you’re going to find yourself wondering, “What do the kids do all day?”

So, let’s lift the veil and take a peek into a typical day in a Montessori classroom. If you’re still trying to make sense of what sets Montessori apart from other programs, you’re going to want to start with this post from earlier this year: What’s the Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool?

The Importance of a Schedule

Montessori programs are ALL about consistency! A regular, consistent schedule sets the pace and is important for the emotional well-being of both the students and the teachers. When we all know what’s coming next, we can plan better, learn to use our time wisely, and look forward to different parts of each day. Learning to tell time begins with learning the rhythm of the days, weeks, and seasons, and consistency and routine are key!

The schedule of each day is more or less the same as the day before it, but there are always exceptions, opportunities for spontaneity, and necessary changes, such as days with special events, holiday celebrations, weather-related changes, or in-house program days. Because most days run like clockwork, changes to the schedule are fun and exciting for most children, rather than stress-inducing, which can be the case for programs that lack consistency and have a lot of built-in variability and change.

Although Montessori schools are similar in that they follow the same philosophical educational principles, they are all independently owned and operated, making each one unique and special in its own right. We’re going to break the day into four sections: morning, mid-day, afternoon, and late-afternoon and give you a snippet of what each time looks likes, here at Children’s House.  

Morning (8:00 to 11:00)

Also known as the Great Period, mornings in our Montessori classrooms are taken pretty seriously. It’s one of two work periods and offers an opportunity for children to concentrate on their selected activities. Concentration is the pathway to learning, so we work really hard to establish a calm, organized, and engaging environment that sets the stage for concentration. 

Children spend this time working on individual activities at a table or on a rug on the floor. Many activities require a lesson from the teacher before a child can use them independently. Others, such as puzzles, can be taken off the shelf without a lesson. Children who are not receiving a lesson from a teacher might be having a snack, working on something alone or with a friend, completing a work that was started the day before, or just walking around, observing. 

Some favorite morning activities include painting at the easel, learning sounds (sandpaper letters), writing words (moveable alphabet), counting (cards and counters), math (golden beads and more), and, of course, pin punching (Pin-punching: using a pointed tool to poke holes along a line on a piece of paper. The end result is a shape that is released from the paper. Pin punching improves fine motor skills and requires a lot of concentration, especially for the youngest members of our community!)

Pin punching is fun with a friend!

It’s a busy time of day, but, as we all know, time flies when you’re having fun, so it’s not too long before we’re wrapping up the morning, getting the tables cleared, cleaned, and set for lunch. The children join a teacher at the carpet for Circle Time, share the daily Virtue card, read a story, sing some songs, and then head outside to play.

Mid-Day (11:00 – 1:00)

At Children’s House we are so lucky to have a beautiful, natural play space for our children! We love our playground and the opportunities for exploration, observation, and imagination that it provides. The children climb on the traditional play equipment, dig in the sand, and enjoy a variety of seasonal activities related to maintaining our classroom gardens. If we’re especially lucky, we’ll spot deer in the woods, a hawk in the trees, and all sorts of creatures and critters who visit us inside our fenced space. 

After playtime, it’s lunch time! So, we head back inside, wash our hands, and enjoy our lunch together in each classroom. Lunch time is a chance to engage in polite conversation while eating lunch and listening to music on the CD player (yes, they still make CD players!). After lunch, several children are tasked with helping a teacher wipe down the tables and sweep the floor, which the rest of the class return to the playground for a second play period.

8… 9… 10! Ready or not, here I come!

Afternoon (1:00 – 3:00)

Depending on their age and the program in which they are enrolled, the children do one of the following afternoon activities in three, separate, classrooms spaces:

Nap– Our youngest children (3 turning 4) go to the bathroom and lie down on a mat with a soft toy brought from home. Then we turn off the lights and play soft music to help them fall asleep. 

Rest and then classroom work – Our middle group of children (4 turning 5) will rest quietly for 30 minutes while they listen to a story, and then join their peers to continue work begun in the morning.

Kindergarten work – The kindergarten children (5 turning 6) from both classes come together in the afternoons for kindergarten-specific lessons. These include lessons in art related to specific artists, in-depth lessons on a science or geography topic of study, sewing lessons on a variety of stitches and sewing techniques, and advanced math lessons. They also have writing and penmanship lessons as well as lots of opportunities throughout the year for creative and nonfiction writing. It’s a busy time, for sure!

For the last half hour of the afternoon period, the children come back together again for another Circle Time before the afternoon dismissal. 

Late Afternoon (3:00 – 5:30)

Children enrolled in our Aftercare Program enjoy additional time outside on the playground, an afternoon snack, and a variety of activities, like creative art projects and games. 

Aftercare is a Montessori-friendly extension of our school-day program. Our program is run by our Montessori teachers and assistants, which allows for continuity and consistency for the children in our care.

At 5:30, our busy day is over. It’s up to you to fill in the details for the rest of the day! Home, dinner, bath time, and stories? What does family time look like for you?

You might also like these posts from Children’s House Montessori School of Reston:

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What is Montessori? And Other Common Questions

Despite the fact that Montessori education has been around since 1907, there are still some common misconceptions about what it is and what it isn’t. “What is Montessori?” is a huge question, really, because the answer is a lot bigger and more philosophical than the average person is expecting when they pose the question. Here are our (brief) answers, to some of the more common questions people ask.

“What is Montessori?”

Montessori (or the Montessori Method or Montessori Philosophy) is a child-centered educational approach. It is more typically associated with Early Childhood programs (ages 3 – 6), but is also popular in Infant / Toddler programs. While there are elementary, middle, and high school programs available, they are less common.

“Who was Maria Montessori?”

The short answer? A woman ahead of her time! Dr. Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy who applied her scientific observation skills to develop the Montessori Method. She spent her whole adult life working with young children and used her years of study to develop materials and practices that served to enhance the learning process and respect a child’s natural development.

“Do the kids just get to do whatever they want?”

Dr. Montessori observed that, when given the opportunity and right environment, children were naturally inclined to select activities that fostered concentration and independent learning. When a child makes a selection based on independent choice, he or she is more likely to fully engage with that material and therefore, more likely to learn whatever it is they are there to learn.

You know that feeling you get when you’re completely in your “zone”? Time flies by, you’re deep in concentration, and when you’re done with whatever it was you were doing, you feel good! That’s how work should feel. And that’s how children in a Montessori classroom feel after a solid morning work period: refreshed, accomplished, and proud.

Happy and proud after a good morning's work! What is Montessori?

“Where are the toys?”

Montessori classrooms don’t look like traditional preschool classrooms, it’s true. There is no dress-up corner or block corner and there are not trucks and dolls for the children to play with. The Montessori Philosophy extends to the materials in the classroom as well: real and functional take priority over pretend.

When you tour a Montessori school, make sure you do so during the morning work period (the Great Period) and look closely at what you see. You may not see children playing dress up or cars, but you’ll probably see them scrubbing a chair or table, watering the plants in the classroom, sewing with real needles, and painting at an easel (and then cleaning up their paint supplies). The classroom will be busy, but engaged. There will be children sitting at tables and on the floor, walking around, taking out work and putting it away. You might even catch a child doing yoga or sitting quietly in the peace corner or reading a book.

“Why are Montessori schools more expensive?”

Montessori schools tend to have higher tuition rates than traditional preschool programs, because the vast majority of Montessori schools are independently owned and operated. Each school is responsible for all of its own costs and there is no larger Montessori corporation working behind the scenes to cut expenses and offer the lowest rate in town.

There are so many factors to consider when choosing a school for your child and one of them is certainly cost. Call around and compare pricing and programs to make sure you know what your tuition covers and what it doesn’t. Most importantly, take a tour! Your tuition directly impacts the staff, facilities, and program expenses, so make sure you feel good about supporting the school you choose! Visit the schools you’re considering and ask yourself:

  • Are the children happy, engaged, and relaxed?
  • Are the teachers helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable?
  • Is the classroom warm and inviting?
  • Does this feel like a good fit for my family?

Still got questions? Check out these previous posts:

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How Do Montessori Schools Teach Independence?

If you’re new to Montessori, one of the first things you’ll notice is that there’s a lot of emphasis placed on the importance of teaching a child to be independent. You might have begun to understand why they do it, but how?? With a classroom full of three, four, and five year olds, how do Montessori schools teach independence?

The short answer is “from day one.” The longer answer involves pie graphs, statistics, case studies, and a intensive two-day workshop. Just kidding. We’ll actually map it out for you in three easy steps.

Children working together. How do Montessori schools teach independence?
Independence doesn’t mean working alone!

Here at Children’s House Montessori School of Reston, we are wrapping up our first month of the school year. We’ve welcomed new families and friends and are well on our way to independence! Let’s break down how we do it:

# 1 — How do Montessori schools teach independence? We observe the children!

“Do it myself” is a familiar phrase to most parents, but when visions of broken glass dance through their heads, the average person will simply say, “here, let me help” or (brace yourself) “here, let me do it.” Cue tantrum.

A Montessori teacher hears “do it myself” as an invitation, not a challenge. A child who is willing to learn, is ready to learn. Everything from tying shoes to reading a book is learned when a child wants to learn for himself.

Montessori teachers are trained to observe first! They learn to pay attention, look for patterns, listen to language, and to watch for signs that a child is ready for the next step, next lesson, or next material in a sequence.

If you visit a Montessori classroom, you might see the teacher quietly standing out of the way, watching the classroom. She’s observing, taking notes, and paying attention to the signs that her students are ready for more.

# 2 — How do Montessori schools teach independence? We are intentional

Everything that you see in a Montessori classroom has been put there on purpose. Every shelf, every tray, every bead, every everything, has been chosen because it serves a purpose: to lead a child to independent learning and allow space and opportunity for independent action.

The shelves are low, so that a child can take a work off the shelf without assistance. It’s easier to make your own choices when you have choices available to you.

Trays are weighted properly: not too heavy and not too light so as to be easily carried to a table or work rug.

Materials are placed on the shelves in sequential order: a child has a lesson on one material and then knows, based on it’s location, which materials are next in the sequence, or similar in difficulty. Materials are arranged from left to right and top to bottom.

There is nothing haphazard about a Montessori classroom! Most visitors notice how calm the children are, how organized the space appears, and how everyone is busy working. Independence in action!

A shelf in a Montessori classroom. How do Montessori schools teach independence?
A place for everything and everything in its place on this Practical Life shelf.

# 3 — How do Montessori schools teach independence? We break it down

There are few things in this world that can’t be taught by breaking a large concept down into smaller chunks and independence is no different. Anything can be learned, if we take the time to break it down into smaller pieces.

The Montessori classroom is all about sequential learning! We do this and then we do that. We learn this and then we move on to that. A child who is captivated by a muti-step, complicated math activity that she sees an older peer doing, will be invited to work on a material that will help her master the skills needed to move on to that more complex lesson.

A child who is dying to learn how to read, will be shown the materials that will help her learn the phonetic sounds she needs to know. She will take those sounds and use them to build words (writing) and then move on to decoding the words that others have written (reading).

Visit a Montessori classroom and look around at the variety of activities you see. You will see independence at at every level!

Enjoying a snack with friends.
Children help themselves to morning snack when they are ready.

What’s the secret ingredient?

Patience. Children want to learn it all and they want to learn it now! It takes patience to balance the varying needs of the children in our care, but — at the heart of it all — we have the Montessori method to rely on. We observe, take intentional action, and teach one step at a time. Rinse and repeat.

Additional Resources:

You Might Also Like These Posts From Children’s House Montessori School of Reston:

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Questions? Call us at 703-481-6678 or email us through the form below.

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!

Additional Resources:

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An Authentic Montessori School in the Heart of Reston

There are so many choices available to parents of young children today! A seemingly endless list of daycares, preschools, Montessori schools, and private kindergarten programs are available in the Reston-Herndon area and it can be overwhelming! Families like yours are looking for any number of things: location, class size, a program that fits your needs, but you also want a school that feels right as well! Children’s House Montessori School of Reston checks all the boxes!

Working on the pink tower at Children's House Montessori School of Reston

Children’s House opened its doors to a class of just 10 students in the fall of 2003. Since then, we have served hundreds of families and it is hard to believe, but those little children who joined our school community back then are now students in college!

We have two classes for children ages three to six and each class has approximately twenty students with two or three teachers per class. We follow the Montessori Philosophy, meaning that we adhere to the belief that children learn from their peers and do best in a mixed-age peer grouping. We also believe that the classroom environment should be a dynamic space, filled with movement and stillness, conversation and concentration.

Blog Post Recommendation: What’s the Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool?

Circle time at Children's House Montessori School of Reston.

Children begin at the age of three and remain in the same class, with the same peers and teachers, for three years. A sense of “family” is quickly formed in this safe and nurturing environment.

As children progress through the three-year cycle, younger children aspire to imitate the older ones in their work and play, while older children have the opportunity to teach their well-learned skills to the younger ones. The third year, the kindergarten year, brings together all that the children have learned in this unique cycle of learning. Click here to learn more about our kindergarten program.

Language work at Children's House Montessori School of Reston.

Our dynamic learning environment addresses all your child’s developmental needs: social, emotional, cognitive, and physical. Children participate in “group time” activities each day, which foster a feeling of community and encourage cooperation. They receive individual instruction on the materials in the classroom throughout the extended work period.

They spend time outside each day, and younger children spend part of their afternoon in peaceful rest. We create a non-competitive environment where children are always encouraged to do their best. Each child is measured only against his own progress. We encourage children to complete their activities rather than compete with others.

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Sorting and classifying at Children's House Montessori School of Reston.

Children’s House Montessori School of Reston is conveniently located just minutes from Reston Town Center and the Reston-Wiehle Metro station. Schedule a tour with us and see what sets us apart!

Make sure you’re subscribed to our blog to get the latest posts delivered!

We are currently enrolling for the upcoming school year. Click here to book your Virtual Tour.

Questions? Call us at 703-481-6678 or email us through the form below.