It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was.”
– Dr. Maria Montessori
We believe that early education matters at a fundamental level: what a child experiences during the first years of life shape the human being he will become. As a parent, the preschool and elementary school you choose for your child will make a large impact on who he will become. Finding the right school for your child is an immensely important task.
A Montessori preschool or elementary school is a unique environment, quite different from other options you may be contemplating for your child. The essence of Montessori is a profound respect for the child, and the important work of development the child can accomplish in himself, if he has the opportunity to perfect himself in the right environment.
While there are innumerable ways in which Montessori preschool and elementary school contrasts with other educational approaches, here are three fundamental differences that may help you as a parent decide whether you’d like to explore Montessori for your child and family—and why it is important to consider whether the school you select continues through elementary:
Multi-age, family-like classroom communities. In contrast to traditional preschools or elementary schools, which segregate children by age—“the 3’s” or “1st grade”—and children work with a different teacher each year, Montessori children build a multi-age, family like community and stay with the same teacher for three years. Our Children’s House preschool classes combine 3 to 6 year olds; our elementary school program currently combines 1st – 3rd graders in Lower Elementary, and a growing group of older children in the 4th – 6th grade Upper Elementary community. This family-like environment offers many benefits:
- Lasting relationships between teacher and child. A Montessori preschool teacher meets a child at age three. Over the next three years, she has the opportunity to get to know the child, discover his strength and weaknesses, and carefully guide his long-range development. Only 1/3 of the class is new each year, lessening the friction of transition, and optimizing learning.
- A strong, supportive community of children. A new child who enters a Montessori preschool class at age 3 looks up to the older children; she is motivated by what she sees them do; she understands, implicitly, that the 5-year-old reader she admires is her point of arrival in the not to distant future. She’s motivated by her 5-year-old role model, in a way that no teacher could motivate her! Later, when she is 5 herself, and the oldest child in class, she has the opportunity to become a mentor to her younger peers. She relishes in sharing her skills with them, in being a classroom leader—and gains immeasurable confidence from that experience.
- Individualized pace of instruction, not one-size-fits all. Children are different: some 4-year-olds are strong in languages, and ready to read; others love numbers; yet others are creative dreamers, drawn to stories and art work. None develop at the same pace in all areas. The multi-age classroom allows a 4-year-old to work with a 6-year-old on arithmetic into the thousands, or a 5-year-old to continue perfecting his fine motor skills with some practical life activity alongside a 3-year-old.
A “follow the child” approach with “freedom within limits”. In many traditional schools and preschools, adults lead the day and direct all activities. Whether it is a preschool where the teacher shepherds a group of 12 3-year-olds from morning circle to a 30-minute art session followed by group snack, or a 1st grade class where 30 minutes of all-class reading is followed by 45 minutes of math class: in non-Montessori environments, the adults are in power and determine what is done by the children at any given moment.
Not so in Montessori. We believe that children learn best when they can make choices and act autonomously in a carefully prepared environment. This means our classes are different in many ways:
- Children learn independently, with the Montessori materials, rather than being “taught to” by a teacher. Children “discover” the concept of length by working with the red rods; they self-teach writing with the Sandpaper Letters; they absorb the decimal system from the Golden Beads.
- Our schedule has 2-3 hour uninterrupted work periods where children freely choose from the materials they have been introduced to, and work with them for as long as they desire. Montessori children build concentration, and get engrossed in their activities: it starts in our toddler class, where 18-month-old children may spend 20 or 30 minutes cutting vegetables, drawing, or solving puzzles—and continues all the way to elementary, where six- or seven-year-olds make weekly work plans, and then execute them with lots of choices. Some of the projects they choose are astoundingly complex: it’s not unusual for a first grader to write a ten-page story—starting with brainstorming topics, preparing an outline, writing a draft, copying it, and then illustrating each page with a picture.
A carefully sequenced curriculum that supports accelerated, joyful learning. Parents who observe at our school often comment how amazed they are at the level of academics our students achieve. An AIM Kindergarten student may be doing math into the thousands, or read a chapter book to a group of three-year-old peers. A 2nd-grade student may do multi-digit multiplication or writhe a multi-page essay in beautiful cursive handwriting.
It is important to note that these advanced academics are not the results of drill: Montessori students are able to advance academically because they are exposed to a carefully sequenced curriculum, and are drawn in by enticing activities that make the most of their precious early years. In contrast to many preschools, which equip their rooms with the same type of toys a parent might have at home—blocks, legos, pretend play costumes, train sets etc.—Montessori preschool classrooms are equipped with a unique set of materials. Every piece of equipment shares a few characteristics:
- Multiple, clear learning purposes. Each material in Montessori has an educational purpose. With the knobbed cylinders, for example, the child develops gross motor control as he carefully carries the heavy wooden block from the shelve to the table. He learns to observe carefully and differentiate width (or length) as he places them into their holes. He learns to problem solve when he misplaces a cylinder and has to retrace his steps. He strengthens his three writing fingers in preparation for writing as he grabs the cylinders by their knobs, and so on.
- An ability to draw the child in, to entice him to repeat an activity to perfect himself. The activities you find in a Montessori classroom were chosen and refined over decades, based on observing thousands of children in hundreds of classrooms: only those that children freely chose to work with repeatedly were kept. Dr. Montessori theorized that the reason children across the world consistently chose the same materials is that working with these materials fulfills a clear developmental need of the child.
Many schools talk about wanting to develop a love of learning and making children into joyful, life-long learners. We believe that AIM’s Montessori preschool and elementary school program is uniquely qualified to deliver on that promise.