What is Montessori ?

I am sure you have heard about Montessori before. An educative method created by MARIA MONTESSORI. So what is it exactly, I heard a lot of things about Montessori such as ‘Montessori is a way of education that let the child do whatever he wants, they do not learn’. So let’s have a deeper look at this method.

Montessori is a way of thinking that places the child at the centre of education. But what is education? Education is defined by Socrates as the art of giving birth to our spirit’s knowledges. It is meant to express hidden knowledge in ourselves. In the same way, the Montessori method considers education as a help to life. Therefore, Maria Montessori (2003) did not consider education as filling a child with knowledge, but rather as a help to raise, to spring. But then, what are the principles of this method which gives a new place to the child? We will try all along this post to understand the Montessori pedagogy.

Maria Montessori by her observations and her work as a doctor and professor was able to identify the different phases that characterize the child from 0 to 18 years old. The first phase that runs from 0 to 6 years, has been named the absorbent mind (Montessori, 1966). The absorbing mind can be defined as the ability to learn by absorbing all the information that surrounds him/her, in his/her environment, without apparent effort. Montessori (2015) sustained that the first period is essential for the development of the second.

For this reason, it is important to have an environment adapted to this absorbing nature and to respond correctly to child’s need, we will develop this point later.

The absorbing mind is divided into 2 sub-periods, the spiritual (Montessori, 1966 and 2003) and social embryonic (Montessori, 1966 and 2003). The spiritual (from birth to three years old) is characterized by an unconscious learning, effortless learning with great ease, the child is drive by what Maria Montessori (1966, 2003) called “the horme”. The second sub-phase (from three to six years old) differs from the first because he/she learns more consciously, with as much ease but with more effort. In this period, the horme is progressively replaced by the will, a conscious driver.

The in-depth psychological studies of Maria Montessori about the child, allowed her to identify what she called human tendencies (1966, 2015); according to Stevensen (2000, p.10) “The tendencies of man, which are those characteristic human potentialities revealed at the time of man’s first inception on earth, guide his development from birth to maturity, taking a different direction and always manifested throughout the planes of development”. We can find tendencies for exploration, repetition, communication, orientation, exactness, activity and work, perfection, abstraction, manipulation and movement, order. We could define them by an instinct that guides the intellectual and physical development of man, all along his life; more precisely making use of these tendencies allow to satisfy physical and spiritual needs of men. Thanks to this thorough knowledge of these trends, we can adapt the environment, our attitude towards the child, the material, all that surrounds the child, for its optimal development and to let its potential develops freely.

During the absorbent mind, we can find what Maria Montessori called the sensitive periods (1946, 2003). We find these periods in all children but not necessarily at the same time, they are guided unconsciously by human tendencies. If a child does not meet a sensitive period when she/he asks for it, acquisitions will only be made at the cost of effort and fatigue. Therefore, it is important to understand that pedagogy is based on the choice of the child. How can we provide an environment where the child can make his own choice and be free, independent? The environment is one of the key factor which allows to answer to the needs of the child’s development.

The child absorbs the impressions given by his/her environment, it is essential to provide to the child an environment rich in experiences, an environment thought and set up by the teacher with specific purposes. The environment can become an obstacle if it does not meet his/her needs and does not follow his/her sensitive periods; according to Isaac (2012, p.69) “… it’s essential that the environment responds to the child’s developmental needs and supports the sensitive periods”.

This enabling environment must be meticulously prepared. An adapted environment responds to the stage of development of the child and nourishes his/her needs for: mobility, language, senses education, order, fine motor skills, socialization. The child who cannot obtain from his environment the essential resources to follow his natural development will be limited in his/her psychic and motor progression.

The notion of freedom is essential in Maria Montessori’s thought. This is the ultimate goal of education. The good development of the child can only be reached if he/she evolves freely, if she/he chooses his/her activities by following an intuition. Maria Montessori (2015, p. 135) said “Free activity makes children happy. We can see how happy they are, but it is not the fact that they are happy that is important; the important thing is that a child can construct a man through this free activity”.

This free choice can only be made in a suitable setting and a prepared environment. Freedom does not mean that the child can do everything, the free child is the child who evolves as he/she wishes, in an environment that contains himself/herself through limits. The purpose of this environment is to help the child to become autonomous and independent. Therefore, we can wonder how to think this environment for the child? What elements should be considered to meet his needs?

We can divide the environment into two dimensions, the physical that includes the organization of the class, structure, layout, material, so all that the child can perceive with his senses and, the spiritual dimension which gathers the atmosphere of the class whose central axis is the order. It is by combining these characteristics that the environment becomes complete and favourable. We will study how an environment should be thought and attempt  to understand why …

The environment must be ordered and organized, adapted to the size of the child and his/her strength, so that he/she can access his/her activities independently without the intervention of the adult. The order gives the child the opportunity to choose because he/she knows how to get his/her bearings between proposed activities. Access freely to materials and activities enhances his/her capacity to choose in function of his/her current needs; he/she no longer chooses “randomly”, he/she can make a deliberate choice that meets his/her inner need. Choosing is not an innate act, the child who has capitalized experiences in his/her environment, acquires knowledge, which allows him/her to be more aware of him/herself and his/her environment, then he/she becomes able to choose consciously and not more guided by his unconscious instinct.

The structuring of the child’s environment, including aesthetics, fosters his/her psychic structuring and internal security. The child is better oriented and knows where to find things for a given action. The organized and structured environment stimulates the child’s ability to project him/herself within the time and space. It will be simpler for the child to appropriate it, to understand it, to identify it, and to move in it. The organization of the environment must answer to the child’s order need. According to Montessori (1966, 2003), the child will have more disposition to be ordered and organized if he has a structured environment between 0 and 6 years old. 

A Montessori class must offer a pleasant, refined, serene atmosphere, conducive to activity, a lively and joyful environment. The rules of the class and the consistency of the environment strongly contribute to this atmosphere and provide calm, security and order.

Thereby, we can easily admit that the external order promotes inner order, serenity and concentration, because the child has a better understanding of his/her environment.

To conclude, the ideal environment must be organized, ordered, refined, aesthetic, without overstimulation, but rich enough to nourish the development and activities of the child. By providing the child a prepared environment which provides freedom, we teach him to make choices and develop his consciousness through experience. We cannot perceive or know the inner driver that guides the child, only the child him/herself knows what he/she needs at a given moment. By giving our child freedom of choice, we give him/her the opportunity to select the activity that suits him/her best at a given moment, according to his/her sensitive period, the one that stimulates his/her interest and therefore the one that is most likely to lead to concentration. Thus, we can wonder what is the role of the teacher in this environment  where the child is independent.

Maria Montessori (2015) refers to the teacher as a “director / directress”, indeed her role is not to teach knowledge but teach self-construction. First, it is essential that the teacher have a solid knowledge of the child and his stages of development, he/she must also have a belief and absolute confidence in the child’s ability. The Montessori teacher must wonder about how he/she can improve him/herself to help the child’s development, and do an introspection, self-awareness is essential for this trade; Isaacs (2012, p.48) explains “The teacher’s ability to reflect on his/her actions and learn lessons is part of this preparation.”  I can only approve this idea, indeed by exercising this profession, I understood how important it is to know myself, my faults, my weaknesses, my strengths, to be able to give the best of myself, I do not must be a hindrance to the well-being of the child, I must give him/her the best version of myself. Maria Montessori (2003) speaks of the teacher’s « spiritual preparation ».

Certain qualities are indispensable to a school teacher such as empathy, humility, optimism, honesty, patience, total availability. In addition to the qualities required to work with children, a Montessori teacher must ensure that the environment is always prepared, adapted to the child, to his /her interests by modifying it if necessary, taking care of it and keep it attractive for the child, creating activities if necessary based on his/her observations. Indeed, observation is a crucial asset, a quality that the teacher must solidify throughout his/her experience. This skill will allow him/her to know the child, his/her development and best meet his/her needs, his/her sensitive periods, and that requires a lot of intuition.

To assume this observer role, she must have a calm, silent attitude and her control of the class must not be too noticeable. The fact that the teacher stay back in the environment is essential to protect the child’s concentration, the key to his/her learning, and to encourage his/her independence.

To conclude, we can remember that the child is born with an inestimable potential. He is born to become himself. This construction goes perfectly if the child can blossom in an atmosphere of love and freedom. He grows up with respect for himself and others by building an inner discipline.

Those who take care of children have a mission to help the child to build and become himself, autonomous. This is not without respect for the pace of development.

The Montessorian approach is above all a state of mind that promotes the development of positive values: self-confidence, self-esteem, the desire to learn and the taste of simple joys. The child’s environment is created to allow him/her to discover by himself, which develops the love of work. It is a way of being that promotes personal growth in an atmosphere of trust. To offer him a setting where he can satisfy this thirst for learning at the right time, is the greatest gift that can be given to him, we offer him/her freedom and inner peace, in other words happiness.


Isaacs, B. (2012), Understanding the Montessori Approach London: Routledge

Lillard, P.P. (1972) Montessori: A Modern Approach New York: Schocken Books

Montessori Centre International (MCI) (2010), Philosophy Module London: MCI

Montessori, M. (1966) The secret of childhood Oxford: ABC – Clio Press

Montessori, M. (2003) The absorbent mind Oxford: ABC – Clio Press

Montessori, M. (2015) The 1946 London Lectures Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Stevenson, E.M. (2000) The Human Tendencies NAMTA Journal, Volume 25/3

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