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?

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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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What to Look for in a Montessori Preschool

Wondering what to look for in a Montessori preschool? There are so many schools to choose from, so be sure you do your homework to find a school that is right for your family! Here are 5 questions to ask when considering a Montessori school for your child.

But First… Why Is It Important to Ask the Right Questions?

Did you know that the name “Montessori” is not trademarked? Maria Montessori, who developed the method of instruction, materials, and philosophy that bears her name, did not put an official trademark or legal limitations on the use of her name before she passed in 1952. That means that anyone can open a classroom, call it a Montessori school, and there will be no legal ramifications, if the program and curriculum in no way resemble Montessori’s teachings.

So, although the Montessori method has gained popularity in recent years (yay!), unless you know what makes a “Montessori school” an actual, real, authentic Montessori school, you might find yourself visiting schools that are hoping to capitalize on the name, while not putting the actual Montessori Method into practice.

There are some key elements to look for when visiting a Montessori school that will tell you if the school’s program is authentically Montessori or just loosely based on Montessori’s ideas. Here are some questions to ask that will help you figure out just how genuine the program actually is:

What to Look for in a Montessori Preschool: Question #1

Is your school affiliated with the American Montessori Society (AMS) or Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)?

Although there is no requirement for schools to affiliate with one of the two main Montessori organizations, taking the time and effort to officially connect with either of these entities means that the school is legitimate. The school has to show proof that its teachers are properly certified and that it adheres to the main Montessori principles, to be covered in later points.

The school might be a Member School or an Affiliate School, but it should, in some way, indicate that it’s a member of a larger Montessori organization. Be sure to look for certificates of membership, or inquire about a school’s status during your tour.

Children's House Montessori School of Reston teachers enjoying the AMS Montessori Event
Teachers from Children’s House Montessori School of Reston enjoying the
2019 Montessori Event hosted by AMS

What to Look for in a Montessori Preschool: Question #2

Do you have mixed-age classrooms or are children separated by age?

Mixed-age classrooms are critical to the success of a Montessori program! Younger children learn from their older peers and older children have the opportunity to model for their younger classmates. Learning by doing, teaching by example, and aspiring to be one of the “big kids” are important components of Montessori learning. If you are looking for an early childhood program, there should be a mixture of three, four, and five-year olds in the same class.

Classes should be mixed-age in the morning, but are likely to be separated by age in the afternoon, as this is when state-mandated rest time occurs. Be sure you know how the classrooms are organized and whether or not the school separates children into different aged classrooms. An authentic Montessori school will not have a “threes” or “fours” classroom or a separate kindergarten class.

What to Look for in a Montessori Preschool: Question #3

Are your teachers Montessori certified?

Similar to #1, this is a matter of “the real deal” vs “Montessori-themed.” Anyone can read one of Maria Montessori’s books and get the gist of what she and her teaching philosophy were all about. You can’t become a true Montessori teacher through a weekend workshop! It takes time, dedication, training, and mindset to be a true Montessorian.

The training process, whether through AMS or AMI, is intense and not an under-taking one takes lightly. It’s the equivalent to a Masters program, with intensive classwork, exams, practice, and an internship. At least one teacher in each classroom should be Montessori certified. If they’re not, move on!

A teacher working with a student at Children's House Montessori School of Reston
Ms. Asma works with a student on the Pink Tower

What to Look for in a Montessori Preschool: Question #4

How long is your Great Period?

The Great Period is a period of time dedicated to classroom work and it should typically be 2.5 to 3 hours in length. This means that the morning work period should last from around 8:30 to 11:00 or 9:00 to 12:00. During that time, children will work with the classroom materials, enjoy a morning snack, receive a lesson from a teacher, and participate in a group circle time before moving on to the next activity, possibly going outside to play or getting ready for lunch.

Why is the Great Period so important? Because children (and adults, too actually) have a natural rhythm of learning and only by allowing them ample time to explore, make choices, and receive guidance, can they deepen their ability to concentrate and learn. Learning happens through concentration and the Great Work period allows opportunity for concentration to unfold.

Programs that are broken up on different days of the week (ie. Music on Mondays, foreign language on Tuesdays, etc) or throughout the morning (ie. multiple activity changes / group circles) do not allow children to delve deeper, spend more time on one activity, and focus for longer periods of time. It’s important, so make sure that the program you are considering makes it a priority.

What to Look for in a Montessori Preschool: Question #5

Does your school use _______________ in the classroom?

Fill in that blank with any of the following: computers, tablets, worksheets, televisions, work plans, or homework.

Young children learn by doing, and there is substantial research to support the idea that computers and tablets can not replace hands-on learning in the early childhood classroom. There’s no denying that technology has a huge place in our society and we’re not saying that children shouldn’t touch an iPad until college, but electronic learning can not take the place of manipulatives.

Likewise, worksheets, work plans, and homework are all commonplace in our society, but they should be used to support child-driven learning, not in place of it. An authentic Montessori program will put the child first and will follow their lead, supporting their learning each step of the way.

student concentrating at Children's House Montessori School of Reston
Concentration in progress as this student completes the Trinomial Cube

What You Should See in an Authentic Montessori Classroom

  • Freedom of Movement — Children should be walking around, sitting at tables, sitting on the floor, and generally having freedom of movement throughout their classroom.
  • Respect for the Child — Teachers should be working with children at their level, speaking respectfully to them, and listening to what they have to say.
  • Montessori Materials — A variety of Montessori materials organized by different curriculum areas: practical life, Sensorial, math, language, art, geography, and science. Not sure what you’re looking for? Ask the person giving you a tour to point them out.
  • Child-sized Furnishings – low shelves, small tables and chairs. The classroom is there for the children, not the adults, and should be designed and arranged with their needs in mind.
  • Joy of Learning — This one is little subjective, but authentic Montessori classrooms are places where joy is critical to learning! Smiling faces, intense concentration, children working together on a big project, and children working quietly at a table alone are all indicators that this is a classroom where joyful learning is valued.
Smiling faces are a sure sign of Joyful Learning!

Final Thoughts

Sending your child to preschool is a big deal. We get it! Montessori schools have so much to offer and we hope that you will strongly consider Montessori education for your child! Just make sure you do your research and support authentic Montessori programs in your area.

Additional Resources:

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

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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.