Dr. Maria Montessori’s concept of the classroom environment is one in which children can work toward independence without interference from an adult. It is a carefully prepared environment, designed to facilitate maximum independent exploration, concentration and learning, and employing a variety of activities combined with extensive movement.
Within the physical environment, child-size furniture enables independent use – it must be light enough for a child to move without adult help. Individual tables allow for independent work and an adequate supply of such tables allows each child to do his or her own work. Low shelves put the learning materials within easy reach and facilities such as bathrooms, cloakrooms and sinks encourage self-care.
In addition, all the objects in the room are reality-based: they reflect comparable real-life tasks and challenges. Consequently, they help to build confidence and familiarity with the world outside the classroom.
The educational materials (there are no ‘toys’) in the Montessori classroom are attractive, appealing to the child without undue coaxing from the teacher. The purposeful design of the materials promotes ever-increasing levels of competence and independence and each piece has a built in control of error.
Which brings us to the role of the teacher. Dr. Montessori believed a person can not reach full learning potential if simply force-fed information for later regurgitation. Instead, the prepared environment is the essential base in which the teacher is an integral component. But in this situation the teacher is more a part of the environment than in a regular classroom because she or he devotes a substantial amount of time maintaining that properly prepared environment. The teacher must provide individual presentations of work that meet the child’s needs; must lead by example with respect and socially acceptable behaviour in order to foster similar classroom behaviour, all the while promoting a healthy attitude toward mistakes to affirm a value of self-correction and self-teaching. In the prepared environment, it is essential that the teacher be a role model.
Dr. Montessori believed that self-motivation was essential to a good education and through her careful observations realized that children want to learn and will choose materials that enable them to fulfill a specific need. The sensitive periods of a young child’s learning must be allowed to flourish unimpeded. The best way for this to happen is within a prepared environment such as I’ve briefly described above. This environment is a special place of learning in which children are allowed to explore, discover and select their own work. In doing so, they gain independence on both an emotional and a social level which enables them to become comfortable and confident in their ability to understand their world, ask questions, puzzle out answers and learn without being compelled by an adult.