While resting your weary mum brain and mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, you may have seen those beautiful, brightly coloured Montessori building blocks and activity sets pop up on your feed. They seem to be everywhere. But what exactly is this “Montessori” business?
Behind those pretty, coloured blocks, is an entire early childhood learning philosophy. It’s proven quite effective (the likes of Amazon mastermind Jeff Bezos was Montessori educated, we’ll have you know), which is why it’s still going strong today.
Here’s what you need to know about Montessori, and why people seem to be obsessed with it.
The Montessori learning method was developed in the early 1900s by Dr Maria Montessori – one of the first formally educated female doctors in Italy (yes girl!). Her belief was that children learn better when they get to choose what to learn, rather than adults forcing them to recite times tables and such. (Lame.)
The idea is that by putting children in charge of what and how they learn, they can naturally build confidence, independence, leadership capabilities and core motor skills. And all the while, learning becomes an enjoyable activity that kids (*gasp*) like to do.
As you probably experienced firsthand, traditional learning models involve teachers directing lessons while students passively ‘receive’ the learning. Kids are effectively rewarded for good grades and punished for bad grades. In Montessori learning, children benefit from a holistic developmental focus. It’s not just about getting A’s (how weird is it that we still use those grades?). It’s about developing social, physical, emotional and intellectual skills all at once.
The classroom setup
Unlike a traditional classroom, with the teacher’s desk at the front of the room and kids’ desks lined up in front of it, Montessori-style classrooms are typically organised into ‘activity hubs’. For example, there may be a corner for a library, a section for art, and a gardening area.
Children can move about freely, choose the activity they want to ‘work’ on (play is considered work for little kids), and explore it at their own pace, in their own personalised manner.
The sensory materials
Let’s talk about those coloured blocks. The Montessori Australia website says that “materials are designed to stimulate the child into logical thought and discovery”. So yes, they are often brightly coloured and beautifully presented to entice kids to play and explore them.
Materials are designed to get kids ‘hands-on’ and learning in different ways. Sensory activities like matching, sorting, rhyming, sequencing, drawing and writing are a big part of the Montessori experience.
Beyond blocks and toys, kids interact with practical materials like pouring instruments, kitchen utensils, cleaning items and gardening tools. By using these real-world items, kids develop gross and fine motor control and hand-eye coordination. And they may become more useful at doing household chores too. Win!
The learning style
Education in Montessori classrooms is self-directed. Learning usually happens in three-hour blocks, and children can focus on whatever they like during those times. They can work in small groups if they want, or go lone wolf style.
There are no assessments, tests or grades (the dream!), because the focus isn’t on academic outcomes but on overall developmental progress. Oh, and there’s very rarely set homework involved. Phew! Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Another key feature of Montessori classrooms is that they’re made up of mixed age groups. Kids are grouped by ability instead of age, which encourages peer-to-peer learning. Older children can mentor the younger children and everyone builds confidence and self-esteem – yay!
The role of teachers
This may sound like a glorified playroom where children roam freely (and it sort of is), but there ARE teachers present. They’re there to guide and support activities that children choose to engage with, but they don’t choose for them.
Teachers often stay with the children as they progress up in levels, too. So your child might have the same teacher for a few years in a row. This allows them to build a relationship so the teacher can learn your child’s unique learning styles.
Montessori teachers are taught to create an inclusive environment for children with all needs. So it’s a great learning environment for gifted children and those with special needs.
The benefits of Montessori learning
The core focus of Montessori education is developing well-rounded kids that are emotionally, socially, physically and intellectually prepared to deal with the world. Rather than memorising sh*t and acquiring useless knowledge (hello, does anyone even use geometry?), children are taught to think for themselves and solve problems.
In a world where we’ve always been told to be a certain way, we love the idea of our kids forging their own paths and learning actual practical skills for life.
So why is Montessori seeing a resurgence in the 21st century? Because it’s hella Insta-worthy. It makes education look fun AF, and kinda makes us wish we could go back to school again.
But in all seriousness, there are some very real developmental benefits for kids as well. While the evidence doesn’t prove for sure that it’s better than other education methods, it’s well worth considering a Montessori approach to your child’s education. Just note, early learning centres and schools can be Montessori-inspired, but if you want to ensure one is formally registered with Montessori Australia, check out the online directory.