Identifying Best Practices: What You See is What You Get

26 April 2011

Montessori classrooms are different. They look different from other classrooms. The curriculum is different from other curricula. The teachers are different from other teachers. With all the ways in which Montessori programs differ from traditional schools, how can they still reflect contemporary understanding of "best practices" for education? If they did, wouldn't they look more the same?

Not necessarily. Our current understanding of best practice includes in it wide variations to serve the developmental needs of individual children, particularly in early childhood programs. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) contends that quality care for young children must be age-appropriate, culturally appropriate, and individually appropriate. Further, NAEYC offers guidelines in five primary areas for assessing the activities that should be available for children in high quality educational settings: gross-motor, fine-motor, language, cognitive, and social development. Understanding how these standards are met and exceeded in Montessori classrooms can help parents to better understand their own children's experiences.

Best Practice Allows for Gross Motor Development

NAEYC asserts that, in order to assure the proper development of children's gross-motor skills, certain types of experiences must be available for each child. First, the child must be permitted physical activity throughout the day. In Montessori classrooms, that translates to free movement throughout the room. You may see children sitting at tables, lying on the floor, or climbing to a loft. You may see children carrying heavy trays, moving furniture, or handling cumbersome equipment. Consider the tiny 4-year-old who so diligently carries a basin of water to the sink. The gross-motor coordination that is required for daily activities is pervasive in Montessori classrooms, instead of being limited to the playground.

The Montessori Method values children's freedom of movement as a necessary precursor to their intellectual development. Children aren't limited to a few tables or chairs or asked to remain still for long periods of time. Children's natural impulse to move and explore is respected as an inherent indicator of their curiosity and their developing self-control.

Likewise, NAEYC standards recommend that children be free to move, explore and act upon objects in their environment. Montessori is clearly a hands-on curriculum! The Montessori materials invite children's exploration and experimentation Montessorians believe that children far beyond the preschool years must be able to experience concepts concretely before they understand those concepts abstractly. Think about the Binomial Cube: This seemingly difficult concept is offered as a puzzle to young children, then named as an equation for older children, and finally understood as an abstract algebraic concept. The gross-motor activities of the Montessori classroom are designed to develop the confidence and competence upon which children's further learning will be established. It's far more than just moving around the classroom.

Best Practice Allows for Fine Motor Development

NAEYC requires that activities with corresponding tools be provided for children to develop fine-motor skills. Montessori classrooms offer many of the same tools as do traditional schools: crayons, pencils, scissors, and paints. But Montessori classrooms bring that development further by increasing the range and variety of fine-motor activities, often using tools that surprise parents with their complexity. Consider Practical Life, in which children's fine-motor skills are systematically supported through the careful sequencing of activities. Pouring large beans, then smaller ones, then sand or salt requires an increasing aptitude and developing fine-motor skills. Using a screwdriver or peeling a carrot supports muscular development in practical, applicable skills. Sensorial materials provide small knobs, tiny pieces, and figures of various shapes and sizes. Further, NAEYC requires opportunities for practice. Montessori classrooms protect children's desire to repeat activities and to select materials that are appropriate to them. Children are encouraged to practice skills not only through repeated experiences with the same materials, but also through constant exposure to diverse and enticing materials that develop similar skills.

National standards require appropriate expectations of fine-motor development from teachers. The Montessori teacher, who has been well educated in the many ways in which a child can show mastery of skill, is attentive to each child's development. Montessori classrooms provide ample and various means by which children can develop the muscles in their hands, for example, long before the children are ever expected to hold a pencil or write their names. Again, the careful sequencing of activities which increase in difficulty and complexity as the child develops supports the emergence of children's skills at a pace appropriate for each child.

Best Practice Allows for the Development of Language and Communication Skills

Teachers in high quality programs universally value language development and communication skills. National standards call for opportunities for children to talk and interact with their peers and with adults. Montessorians list among the essential freedoms of the child "Freedom of Language." In high quality classrooms, children are encouraged to speak with adults and other children. Best practices include teachers who understand the development of language and use appropriate moments to help develop and correct children's language. Montessori classrooms are filled with practical language development, from the nomenclature cards to named objects within formal lessons, to the assurance that adults in the classroom will not speak down to children or use baby talk.

National standards also encourage verbal generation of ideas by children. Watch Montessori classrooms during community meetings and when children are problem-solving with each other. During these times, children's ideas are easy to notice. But watch more closely and you'll see them present throughout the day, as children master materials and explain how they did so to their friends or teachers, and as children share with each other lessons they've received or make plans for activities to do together. Because Montessori classrooms allow for the natural development of social networks among children, language in these classrooms is spontaneous, rich, and varied.

What About Dramatic Play?

National standards for early childhood education require that classrooms provide opportunities for dramatic play. Parents rarely see dramatic play in Montessori classrooms, though. Where are the dress-up boxes? Where is the play kitchen? If Montessori classrooms focus on the individual development of the children they serve, shouldn't dramatic play be more present there?

Montessorians haven't abandoned dramatic play. Indeed, Dr. Montessori's own writings describe children's inherent desire to practice the activities they observed in adults. But while traditional classrooms may select a theme for dramatic play, Montessori classrooms allow this "play" to be created by the children instead of the teacher. The materials of Practical Life allow for children to practice the skills they've seen their parents perform. Listen carefully, though, to the language children use when they're working with these materials, and you may be surprised by how much more is happening in the children's minds than the simple pouring of water. Montessori teachers describe watching children explore imaginary contents to the Opening and Closing Containers lesson, or pretend to be pouring tea for a guest, or imagine stitching a button on a beautiful gown when they're really working with empty jars, pitchers of water, or snips of muslin. Children imagine that the knobbed cylinders are families, or that the cubes of the pink tower are stories in a building. There is no less dramatic play in Montessori classrooms. Rather, the imagination of these children emerges from the children themselves rather than from a teacher telling them who they need to pretend to be each day. The spontaneous creativity of children in Montessori classrooms is quite profound, and far surpasses the stories or costumes adults could provide.

Best Practices Support Cognitive Development

Children's cognitive abilities should be supported in high quality classrooms through a variety of activities designed to meet an equally wide span of development. These activities should support symbolic thought, which Montessori provides through the deliberate sequence from concrete to abstract concepts and representations. Children understand first the name and purpose of the object they hold in their hands. From there, they transfer that name to its picture, then its outline. Finally, the child understands that a simple image can represent that original object. This sequence is present in every area of the Montessori classroom, from recipe cards in Practical Life to grammatical diagrams in Language.

Activities should also allow for the development of concentration, which is highly valued and protected in the Montessori classroom. Children's activities are not interrupted by adults and are protected from the interruption of other children.

Activities should also allow for concept acquisition and the development of reasoning. The self-correcting materials of Montessori classrooms support children's individual problem-solving skills while providing concrete concepts for the child to master.

Likewise, each of these activities, according to NAEYC, should provide opportunities for information processing through meaningful activities, without an expectation of rote memorization and within an organized structure. Montessori classrooms are filled with meaningful activities, with an expectation that children would prefer to do "the real thing" rather than pretend. The natural exposure to concepts without heavy memorizing and the consistent and predictable structure of Montessori allows children's cognitive development to unfold rapidly.

Best Practices Allow for Social and Emotional Development

Social-emotional experiences in early childhood help form a child's sense of self and his ability to interact and to be successful with unpredictable situations in the future. Among the ways that both NAEYC and Montessori classrooms value this social-emotional development is through open support for cooperative play (visible in small groups of children working together), alternatives to aggression (Montessori community meetings or peace tables), adult awareness of children's fragile self-concept (apparent in the deep respect and compassion shown children by their Montessori teachers), and appropriate discipline. NAEYC asserts that quality classrooms will help individual children develop a sense of self-reliance, independence, responsibility, success, and problem-solving. What accurate terms to describe a Montessori child!

Is Montessori Consistent with Best Practices?

There are a few complaints sometimes levied against Montessori programs. People suggest that Montessori is too structured, that creativity or social interactions are limited. Others complain that Montessori is too free, that children learn bad habits or that teachers allow children to do whatever they want. But healthy Montessori classrooms allow for enough structure to provide the predictability that benefits children's developing sense of their environments, and provide freedom within that structure for children to explore, make mistakes, develop new ideas, and test boundaries. Healthy Montessori programs provide abundant opportunities for children to socialize with each other and share their joys and challenges. The buzz of an active Montessori classroom is the sound of children enjoying their experiences and enthusiastically relating those successes to others.

Because Montessorians use the language of "work" instead of "play," people sometimes assume that Montessori classrooms aren't fun. This is far from the truth. Montessorians use the word "work" to describe everything the child does, because the child's "work" is to learn about the world and find his or her place within it. Healthy Montessori classrooms are visibly joyful. Children are peaceful not because they are being forced to be, but because their needs are met and their frustrations seem surmountable. Children take responsibility for each other not because it is "the rule," but because they are supported in developing inter-reliant relationships in which they are deeply invested. In short, Montessori may be the most ideal representation of best practice because, when educated teachers follow individual children's development in carefully prepared environments, Montessori proves, each day, that children are more creative, more compassionate, and more capable than any standard could define.


Bredekamp, S., & Rosegrant, T. (1992). Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Bredekamp, S., Copple, C., & members of NAEYC (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Puckett, M.B., & Black, J., (2000). The young child: Development from prebirth through age eight. New York: J. Prentice Hall.
Lillard, P. (1997). Montessori in the classroom: A teacher's account of how children really learn. New York: Schocken.
CATHERINE MCTAMANEY is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations at Vanderbilt University. Her work has been published in Mothering magazine and the NCME Montessori Reporter.
Montessori Center School

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