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Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, developed her innovative ideas on teaching young children in the early part of the 20th century.  This philosophy emphasizes the individual child's initiative and independence, allowing him or her to progress through an orderly series of structured learning activities at his own pace. Special materials, which emphasize the use of all the senses in learning, are employed.                                                                                Maria Montessori's philosophy derives from the notion of the child as an individual who is on a journey of self-discovery, creating the adult she is to become.  An integral part of the child's journey is the desire to learn about her environment.  The child has what Montessori termed "an absorbent mind."  The child is capable of effortlessly acquiring knowledge of her surroundings.  The child's acquisition of language is a good example: she is not taught her native tongue through the conscious effort of an adult.  Given this "absorbent mind," it is easy to see why a stimulating environment can have such an impact on the child.  The child is naturally interested in her environment and has an intrinsic desire not only to learn about it but also to achieve competence in it.

How is the Montessori philosophy applied?

The Montessori classroom structure differs from the traditional classroom in several ways. The classroom is divided into distinct areas — practical life, sensorial, math, language, cultural (geography, science, art, and music). The learning materials are arranged on shelves; appropriate materials are available to all of the children. The child is free to choose the activities which interest her, moving from concrete experiences to the more abstract. Montessori’s approach emphasizes “hands-on” or manipulative activities, since book work and “lectures” generate a minimum of interest in the young child. This approach also provides an outlet for her abundant energy.

The learning materials in the Montessori environment are referred to as “work,” not toys. The child works with the materials rather than plays with them. This terminology gives the activities added dignity.  The child enjoys calling her activities “work” as she can identify with the work her parents perform. In addition, the child sees that purposeful work can be enjoyable.

The child finds the work gratifying because she determines what she wants to do. The child is not subjected to materials for which she is not ready or in which she has no interest. Through her choices she reveals herself. By observation the teacher can determine interests and abilities. There are no external incentives for the activities. The child receives no grades, stars, or disproportionate praise. The joy is in the doing rather than in the end product. Many times a child works hard on a project only to forget to take it home at the end of the day. Moreover, the results of much of the child’s work are intangible.

The Montessori materials incorporate a control of error. This means that the child can correct a mistake she may make. For example, if she fails to return all of the cylinders to the correct holes in the cylinder block, she will have one that does not fit. She, then, can figure out how to overcome this difficulty without unnecessary intervention on the part of the teacher.

Discipline is closely allied with constructive work in the Montessori environment. When the child is involved with an activity, she is not interested in causing a disturbance. Also, when a child is forced to participate in a group activity which disinterests her, she rebels. Removing this obstacle removes the need to rebel. In addition, the child does not feel the need to divert attention from her inabilities since she is working at her own pace.

The role of the Montessori teacher is to help the child create the adult she is to become. The teacher prepares the educational environment and directs activities. (In fact, Montessori suggested that the teacher be called “directress.”)  She is not the center of the activity, rather, the child is. She familiarizes the child with the materials that are available and works with the child when she needs assistance. The teacher constantly observes the whole environment, making any necessary changes in its preparation.

What is the purpose of Montessori education?

The Montessori approach is geared to the child’s total development.  Emphasized in a manner which lays the foundation for adulthood are four areas of development: physical, emotional, social, and intellectual.

Physical:  The practical life and sensorial activities are especially designed to hone the child’s sensorimotor skills. In this way, the child develops her fine motor skills, particularly those necessary for writing. In addition, the Montessori approach understands that children have great energy and, therefore, a need to move. The structure of the class, with children choosing the jobs they desire, allows the child to move comfortably throughout the session; not confined to a desk, chair, or a particular area for a lengthy period of time.

Emotional:  Maria Montessori was one of the first educators to recognize the importance of fostering a positive self-image in the child. As a result, she sequenced activities, eliminated overt competition, allowed the child to progress at her own rate, and treated the child with respect. The Montessori teacher helps the child develop her abilities and grow in self-esteem. The teacher encourages the child to expand her capabilities and not to feel dependent and incompetent.

Social:  Of equal importance are the child’s social skills. The child has an opportunity to socialize with her peers in a natural way. She joins the other children in activities both in the classroom and on the playground.  Relationships develop spontaneously. The child is encouraged to solve her own conflicts. As the year progresses, the child usually needs less help solving conflicts, and her friendships deepen.

Intellectual:  Finally, the child has numerous opportunities to develop her cognitive skills. As a younger child (ages two and three), she usually focuses the practical life and sensorial materials, developing her eye-hand coordination, small muscle control and attention span. Then, at age four, she begins to express an interest in language and math activities, and as a five-year-old child she will spend most of her time on these materials. All of the children work with the cultural (geography and science) materials on some level. The materials both help the child learn and provide her with specific information.  Her involvement with these learning materials lays the foundation for future cognitive growth.

When should our child enter a Montessori classroom?

Ages two-and-one-half to four are usually the best times to enter a Montessori classroom. A child who has been in a Montessori classroom from a very early age (age two or three) understands how to work independently and has a natural respect for the materials, the teachers, and the other children. The older child who has been in a traditional preschool or who has not been in preschool at all may lack the initiative to pursue activities on her own. Furthermore, the older child may have already passed through certain sensitive periods and may no longer be interested in the practical life and sensorial materials that provide the background for the academic materials. 
Why should our child attend school before age six?

Sometimes parents are reluctant to enroll their child in school before age six.  They remember their experiences in school, which may have been unpleasant and are not sure they want to subject their child to a “school” experience before it is absolutely necessary. Yet the parents feel their child could benefit from association with other children and from a specially prepared and stimulating environment. Montessori education addresses itself to early childhood education. A Montessori preschool is neither a babysitting service nor a regimented place where the child is forced to achieve. A Montessori school offers the child the opportunity to develop individually within a carefully defined structure. School is a natural and enjoyable experience.

Furthermore, Montessori believed the years from three to six were crucial in the child’s development. She said that the child has sensitive periods, which differ from critical periods. A sensitive period is one in which the child has a natural desire to acquire a particular trait or skill. She occupies herself with certain activities with an interest and concentration she will never again display for those activities. A critical period is one in which the child must acquire the skill during that time or she will never acquire it, whereas a sensitive period is one in which the child desires to accomplish a particular task. She could learn how to master that same task at a later time but not with the same fervor and zeal of the sensitive period.

Some examples of sensitive periods follow. The two-and-one-half and three-year-old child is generally in a sensitive period for order. If certain objects are not in their usual places, a young child will rearrange them until they are.  Some speculate that humor originates from this sensitivity.  For example, if an adult put a vase on his head and called it a hat, the young child might be confused.  She has recently learned, in the order of our universe, that vases are for flowers and hats are for heads. However, a four- or five-year-old child might find it amusing because the adult has deviated from the order the child knows well.

A sensitive period in the four- or five-year-old child is one for writing.  Parents have reported that a particular time their child will go through reams of paper printing numbers and letters. Their child really wants to perfect that skill. The length of this period varies and it is a transitory one. Once it is over, the child will still want to print numbers and letters but not with the same fervor of the original period.

Teachers have also observed children who were in a sensitive period for learning the sounds of letters. Each day some children would come to school and want to work on the letter sounds to the exclusion of other activities.

There are various sensitive periods. A parent or teacher cannot create a sensitive period in a child; however, the adult can help the child to develop her interests. The Montessori school aids the child by providing opportunities for her to accomplish the tasks, which are important to her at a given time.  A traditional school, with time blocks for subjects and a curriculum into which each child must fit, is not always able to help a child develop her interests and sensitivities.

How long can our child remain in the Montessori classroom?

Occasionally the teachers are asked whether there is enough for the child to do after she has been at Woodland Montessori for two years. The Montessori pre-primary experience is predicated on a three-year cycle of learning.

The first two years prepare the child for her third year. During the first two years she is preparing herself perceptually and also gaining the muscular control necessary for reading, writing, and math. Some materials that were inappropriate for the child the first two years now correspond to her interests.

The child also learns to extend her skills. For example, she may be able to work the geography puzzle maps sensorial as a three- or four-year-old, but when she reaches the age of five, she now has the manipulative ability to make her own maps. And she has a greater awareness of locations and a desire to label them.

In math, the golden beads that attracted her as a three-year-old take on a new significance as she watches the decimal system unfold. In language arts, the child who was learning letter sounds as a four-year-old now has an opportunity to put these sounds together and to read available phonetic materials.

Of course, the curriculum centers on the child’s interests. Not every child progresses at the same rate. This is to be expected since Woodland Montessori has an individualized approach to learning based on a child’s abilities and interests. However, there are materials available which would stimulate any child returning for a third year.

The third year child in a Montessori school has an opportunity to develop her leadership potential. She has experienced the perspective of the youngest child and that of the middle ranks. She now is in a position to set the pace for the others. Completion of the third year of the cycle has its very special advantages.

How will our child adjust to first grade?

By first grade, the child usually adapts well to either an open or traditional classroom setting. She is confident and task-oriented and she is well prepared for the academic work.

Woodland Montessori offers an individualized approach to learning based on the child’s abilities and interest in keeping with Montessori’s philosophy and approach. The child undertakes her journey of self-discovery, creating the adult she is to become in a prepared environment with younger and older children. As a younger child, she learns from the older children.  As an older child, she grows in confidence, helping younger children while pursuing her own activities. She will benefit from her experience whether she spends one, two or three years at the school. The opportunities are numerous, and the child will leave school with some memorable experiences.