Founded by Dr Maria Montessori in 1907, the Montessori movement has since spread from Italy to more than 100 countries around the world, including New Zealand.
There are now nearly 200 Montessori early childhood centres in this country, so let's look at what the educational philosophy means for young children and what you can expect in a Montessori early learning environment.
What is the Montessori educational approach?
Montessori is based on the principle that education should work with the 'nature of the child'. As such, the Montessori learning environment provides the structure and activities each child needs and is interested in, while giving them the freedom to work independently, with gentle guidance from their teacher.
There is a focus on children learning from other children, and youngsters are encouraged to discover, move, touch and engage in learning activities they individually choose, without too much adult interference.
Children learn by practising what they're interested in, rather than by listening to their educator talk; they learn at their own pace and level; and there is a focus on children working individually or in small self-selected groups, rather than whole group lessons.
This independent thinking is underpinned, though, by a clearly defined curriculum and specially-designed Montessori materials, which provide hands-on opportunities to see and explore abstract concepts.
The keystone of the Montessori approach is the curriculum developed by Dr Montessori for ages three to six, and this includes:
- Practical life skills, such as tying bows, preparing food and sweeping
- Sensorial activities that encourage youngsters to discover and explore shapes, size, colours, textures, weight, sound, taste and smell
- Art, music and drama
- Environmental studies and plenty more
The New Zealand Early Childhood Curriculum Te Whāriki is woven into the Montessori curriculum.
Overall, what does Montessori hope to achieve for young children?
With this approach, education is seen as an 'aid to life' and Montessori aims to inspire a lifelong love of learning as children follow their own developmental path. With a focus on spontaneous and purposeful activities, it promises to help youngsters become:
- Competent and independent learners
- Confident and trusting in their own abilities
- Responsible and self-disciplined, i.e. able to concentrate and care for the environment, themselves and others
- Socially well-adjusted and happy, with a focus on dignity and respect
How does a Montessori early childhood centre operate?
Montessori early childhood centres are independent businesses that are often privately owned but can also be run by community or parent groups.
Over 75 per cent of them are members of the Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand (MANZ), which is a collective of schools, organisations and members that promote Montessori education.
Montessori early childhood centres are licensed and funded by the Ministry of Education as a teacher-led early childhood education and care (ECE) service, just like kindergartens and other early learning centres. To receive government funding, at least 50 per cent of their staff must have an early childhood education teaching qualification that is recognised by the Education Council.
Montessori diplomas don't count towards the teaching qualifications needed for government funding, however, educators do need specialist Montessori qualifications.
MANZ recommends that, at the very least, the lead teacher in the classroom holds the Montessori qualification for the age group they're teaching and that, ideally, all staff will have their qualification or being working towards getting it. At the end of the day, though, each early childhood centre decides individually whether a teacher's Montessori qualification is appropriate for their centre.
What age do children commonly engage in Montessori early learning?
Children can begin their Montessori journey from birth, but the majority of children take part in the Montessori 3-6 programme, starting at an early childhood centre – or 'Children's House' – when they're three and leaving when they're six.
Children are encouraged to attend five mornings, or five days a week (when they're a little older) and Montessori early childhood centres take a mixed-aged approach. This means there is no segregation between morning and afternoon classes or age-defined rooms, so three-year-olds will be with five-year-olds.
The idea is that children develop socially, intellectually and emotionally with this mixed-age approach and as children get older, they 'grow into a teaching role' in the class.
Early childhood centres often prefer not to start children older than four-years-old, because they believe that the full three-year Montessori programme is best. And although most New Zealanders start school at five, it is legal to begin at six and complete the Montessori early childhood programme.
What does Montessori offer infants and toddlers?
Although there are not many Montessori communities for babies under the age of 16 months; Montessori parent-infant playgroups are on the rise and a small number of early childhood centres offer Montessori infant-toddler programmes.
In a toddler programme, the pace is slower than in a Montessori early childhood classroom and the focus is on 'freedom in a safe space' with respect for others and respect for the environment. Here, little people get opportunities to:
- Gain independence
- Learn practical life skills, i.e. control of movement, grace and courtesy
- Develop their language skills
- Hone their social skills
- Build confidence and concentration
- Develop their art, music and sensorial skills
The Montessori early learning approach is different from other programmes for preschoolers and toddlers, but there are plenty of families who've embraced this way of thinking over the last 112 years.
If Montessori sounds like a good fit for your child, then this Parent Guide provides more information and questions to ask when choosing a Montessori learning community for your preschooler.