Parents and other adults we encounter, for example on field trips, often remark how kind, mature and collected our preschool students are. This is no accident: Montessori places a major emphasis on intra-personal and inter-personal skills in a part of the curriculum called grace and courtesy.
At first glance, a Montessori preschool classroom may not look like the most social environment: often, younger students choose to work by themselves at tables or mats. Yet Montessori students do develop strong social skills. What explains this apparent contradiction?
Dr. Montessori believed that each child develops according to a natural time table built into this very being. She observed, over and over, that children ages 3-6 typically prefer to work by themselves for a good part of the day. They might work right next to each other, but usually, they weren’t interested in collaborating. She also observed that as the child gets older and enters elementary school (ages 6 and up), children naturally began to become more social, interested in learning with and from each other.
As a Montessori school, we respect these developmental needs of children. That’s why in our preschool programs, children are left alone to work by themselves when they so choose – and why our elementary school program is structured around regular work in pairs and small groups. This is the direct opposite of traditional education, where preschoolers are expected to spend much of their day engaged in group activities, and elementary aged children are expected to work by themselves!
In the preschool classrooms at AIM, children do learn social skills, but not usually as part of whole-group activities. Instead, children learn to become good citizens in our preschool environments by practicing specific skills and following the rules of our community. They learn, for example, to:
- Greet the teacher and each other, to shake hands, to look each other in the eyes.
- Use words to express their feelings, and to speak politely to both teachers and peers alike. Hitting, biting or other physical force is not tolerated in the Montessori classroom; because the benevolent, respectful atmosphere, we rarely see these types of violent behaviors in any case.
- Respect each other’s personal needs and workspaces. Montessori preschoolers learn that others have needs, such as to not be interrupted when they work, to not have their activities disturbed or snatched away. One key classroom rule that prevents a lot of fighting is simple: activities may only be taken from shelves, and must be returned to their proper spot once completed.
- Work together to maintain the class community environment. From a young age, each student embraces his role as a community contributor: for example, each day, some children act as lunch monitors, setting lunch tables with real china, flowers, and silverware for the meal, then cleaning up afterwards.
- Follow directions and participate in (often voluntary) group activities. Children join in group time at the end of morning work period, or may come together for small-group activities throughout the day. This is where they learn to listen politely, sit properly, and take turns speaking in a group.