They’re popular, but how do they differ from conventional nursery schools?
This story was originally published on Aug. 20, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
The first time I walked into a Montessori preschool classroom six years ago, I thought to myself, what is this sorcery? The materials were beautiful but unfamiliar; the room seemed eerily calm considering it held so many 3-year-olds; and the terms the teachers used were new and confusing to me. They’re not lessons or activities, they’re “work”; and what, pray tell, was that pink tower thing everyone kept talking about?
Now that both of my kids have gone through Montessori preschools, I have a much better understanding of how they work. That’s not to say the philosophy is easy to wrap one’s head around — and, of course, every school is different. But if you’re considering Montessori preschools for your child, or you just want to learn more about them, here are some basics about the history of the philosophy, how well kids learn in Montessori preschools, and what parents should look for — and avoid — if they’re going the Montessori route.
The schools are named after Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician born in 1870, who was fascinated by children and closely observed them. After years of doing so, she developed a theory of human development based on the idea that children instinctively know what they need to learn, and that, when they are surrounded by the right hands-on materials, they can educate themselves independently. “She took this notion that deep inside, we know what we need for our development,” explained Angeline Lillard, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies Montessori education. Another Montessorian idea is that kids learn by practicing the kinds of “real” activities they see adults doing. For example, in her Montessori classroom my daughter particularly loved pouring water from a teapot into cups.
In 1907, Dr. Montessori opened a school based on these theories in the working-class Rome neighborhood of San Lorenzo, for children aged 3 to 6. In it, children learned at their own pace, following their own interests, using materials that Dr. Montessori had specially prepared for her classrooms. She allowed the children to have long, uninterrupted work cycles in which they could spend as much time as they wanted on a particular activity — what she called “work” — and then move on to a new choice when they had finished.
Dr. Montessori’s school was extremely successful, so she started more, and soon Montessori schools began appearing in other parts of Europe as well as the United States.
The Montessori classroom
Montessori preschool classrooms usually look quite different from “traditional” preschool classrooms. For one thing, kids ages 3 to 6 all work in the same room, so the younger ones can learn from their elders and the older children can develop a sense of leadership and authority. (When children go through Montessori preschools, they stay with the same teacher over the three years.)
The classrooms also use specifically designed Montessori materials, so you probably won’t see Lego bricks and dress-up corners. (More on that later.) And although children might do certain activities as a large group, they tend to work alone or in very small groups. “Montessori is all about the child — meeting the child where his or her needs are, and having an environment prepared for the child so they can be successful independently and have that opportunity to concentrate on what they need to,” said Hilary Green, director of the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies in Silver Spring, Md.
How well Montessori kids learn
Research on preschool education can be hard to conduct and interpret, because kids who go to different preschools may differ in various ways, such as by socioeconomic status, which itself affects academic achievement. To get around these differences, in a 2017 study, Dr. Lillard and her colleagues compared educational outcomes among 141 preschoolers who had been randomly chosen via lottery to attend either a Montessori preschool or a traditional preschool. The two groups weren’t academically any different when they started school, but by the end of the three-year study, the kids who had gone through Montessori preschools were more academically advanced and had better social skills than those who went to a traditional school. The Montessori students also reported enjoying school more.
What about kids with special needs, sensory processing issues or conditions such as attention deficit disorder? Some parents have told me they felt Montessori wasn’t a good fit for their kids with learning or behavioral differences. But Dr. Lillard said that Montessori preschools can work well for such students. “Montessori, when it’s done right, adjusts to every child as an individual,” she said. “Every child can learn in their own pace, in their own way.” But it’s crucial to have responsive teachers, Dr. Lillard said, who can help these children understand their needs. Some especially energetic kids, for instance, might need to take regular breaks, and good teachers can help students recognize when they need them and what kind of breaks help them the most.
It’s important to keep in mind that schools can call themselves “Montessori” even if they aren’t. “Anybody can have a picture of a pink tower and call itself Montessori and there’s no recourse for that,” said Paige Bray, Ed.D., director of the Center for Montessori Studies at the University of Hartford. (The pink tower, if you are wondering, is a sensory-based Montessori work that involves stacking pink cubes of different sizes.)
Some schools might use Montessori materials and approaches but supplement them with more traditionally American materials or classes; my kids’ preschool, for instance, incorporated music, art and Spanish classes. Montessori scholars disagree about just how strictly today’s preschools should adhere to Dr. Montessori’s original principles. The American Montessori Society, a non-profit organization based in New York City, embraces a more modern, supplemented approach. “Things have changed, and there are some new modern things out there that we have access to that weren’t available when she was doing this work,” said Green, who serves on the society’s board of directors. On the other hand, the Association Montessori Internationale, which was founded by Dr. Montessori and is now based in Amsterdam, believes that the schools should adhere closely to her original ideas, in part because they align with unchanging principles of child development.
Some research suggests that the more classic, A.M.I.-aligned Montessori schools are the most academically effective. In a 2012 study, Dr. Lillard compared academic outcomes among kids who went to classic Montessori preschools, supplemented Montessori preschools and more traditional high-quality preschools. (The schools weren’t determined by lottery, but Dr. Lillard tried to match students according to socioeconomic status and other factors.) Those in the classic Montessori preschools, she found, made the biggest gains in math, reading, vocabulary and social problem-solving over the course of the school year. Those in the supplemented and traditional preschools fared about the same as one another.
What to look for — and avoid
How do you know if the preschool you’re considering for your child is truly a Montessori school? And how can you discern between classic and supplemented curricula? One of the key trademarks of the Montessori method is the mixed-age classroom, so no matter what, if it’s Montessori, you should see kids aged 3 to 6 grouped together. Montessori schools should also have a three-hour block in the morning in which students work uninterrupted with Montessori materials. (If the school you’re looking at adheres to these tenets but also lets kids use toys, Lego bricks or other non-Montessori materials, then it may be a supplemented Montessori school.) It’s also important, Green says, for Montessori teachers to have credentials from a program that has been accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education.
Ultimately, whether it’s classic or supplemented Montessori, or not Montessori at all, the best preschool for your child is one that feels good and right. Do the students seem happy and relaxed? Does the classroom atmosphere feel positive and conducive to learning, and do the teachers seem warm and responsive? Parenting so often requires trusting your gut — and finding the right preschool for your kid should tap into those instincts, too.
Melinda Wenner Moyer – New York Times