The Montessori Development Continuum

"My vision of the future is no longer people taking exams and proceeding then on that certification…but of individual passing from one stage of independence to a higher (one), by means of their own activity through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual."

- (Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence)

Montessori education is a flow experience; it builds on the continuing self-construction of the child-daily, weekly, yearly-for the duration of the program. It is an uninterrupted series of learning passages, a continuum based on Maria Montessori’s theory of the Four Planes of Development. In Montessori’s metaphorical language, “the successive levels of education must conform to the successive personalities of the child.”

The prepared environments for the successive age levels are a series of articulated spaces that also constitute a continuum. Unfortunately, in the evolution of a Montessori school, it is all too easy to conceptualize the development continuum on a segmented basis: First, perhaps, comes the preschool, then the elementary, probably followed by an infant community and topped off by an adolescent program. Buildings may be designed segment by segment, without a concept of the whole. Teachers are trained segment by segment, each focused on his or her respective level.

The Montessori Infant Program (up to age 3)

The Montessori infant program has several components that offer a wide variety of options and opportunities for involvement by parents.

The Parent-Infant Class provides an environment in which parents and children interact alongside a Montessori-prepared adult who uses the environment to facilitate their interaction. Caregivers are taught how to observe what their babies do in order to know what materials to offer them. The parent and child attend a two- hour classroom session once or twice a week. The group has a limit of ten parent / infant combinations with two trained staff. A once-a-week, two-hour session, held in the afternoon without babies, involves presentation and discussion.

The Nido (Italian for “nest”) accommodates no more than nine children from two months to fourteen months of age with an adult-to-child ratio of one to three. It includes a movement area equipped with customized stands, stairs, and bars for pulling up; a quiet sleeping area with individual mats; an eating area equipped with child-sized tables and chairs instead of highchairs; and a physical care area for bathing, changing, etc.

The Infant Community (sometimes called “Toddler Community” or “Young children’s Community”) serves children who are comfortably walking (approximately age fourteen months) to age three, in a small and intimate group of twelve children and two trained staff persons. It has two-program options, either half-or full day. The environment conforms to the physical needs of the children, both in the size of the furnishings and in the opportunities for motor development. There is an observation area for adults, minimal furniture, tiled floors, maximum natural light, selected art placed low on the walls, and defined spaces to challenge coordination of movement.

The Montessori Preschool Program (ages 3-6)

The Montessori preschool classroom, or Children’s House, is a “living room” for children. Children choose their work from among self-correcting materials displayed on open shelves, and they work in specific work areas. Over a period of time, the children develop into a “normalized community,” working with high concentration and few interruptions. Normalization is the process whereby a child moves from being undiscipled to self-disciplined, from disordered to ordered, from distracted to focused, through work in the environment. The process occurs though repeated work with materials that captivate the child’s attention. For some children this inner change may take place quite suddenly, leading to deep concentration. In the Montessori preschool, academic competency is a means to an end, and the manipulatives are viewed as “materials for development”.

In the Montessori preschool, five distinct areas constitute the prepared environment:

  • Practical life enhances the development of hand-eye coordination, gross motor control, and cognitive order through care of self, care of the environment, development of social relations, and coordination of physical movement.
  • The sensorial area enables the child to order, classify, and describe sensory impressions in relation to length, width, temperature, mass, color, pitch, etc.
  • Mathematics makes use of manipulative materials to enable the child to internalize concepts of number, symbol, sequence, operations, and memorization of basic facts.
  • A language art includes oral language development, written expression, reading, the study of grammar, creative dramatics, and children’s literature. Basic skills in writing and reading are developed through the use of sandpaper letters, alphabet cut-outs, and various presentations, allowing children to link sounds and letter symbols effortlessly and to express their thoughts through writing.
  • Cultural activities expose the child to basics in geography, history, life sciences, and earth sciences. Music, art, and movement education are part of the integrated cultural curriculum.

The preschool environment unifies the social, physical, and intellectual functioning of the child. Its important function is to provide children with an early and general foundation that includes a positive attitude toward school, inner security and a sense of order, pride in the physical environment, abiding curiosity, a habit of concentration, habits of initiative and persistence, the ability to make decisions, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility to the other members of the class, school, and community. This foundation will enable them to acquire more specialized knowledge and skills throughout their school career.

All-Day Montessori

The phrase “all-day Montessori” is an attempt to show the difference between a Montessori approach and what is commonly thought of as “day care”. It refers to one (usually ages 3-6) classroom of Montessori children who stays all day, from early in the morning until early evening. The “all-day space” may have a full Montessori prepared environment (about 1000 square feet), a second space for naps (500 square feet), informal living and large motor activity space, and a developed outdoor environment including a garden.

“All-day Montessori” directly contrasts the “before-and after-school” approach, which tends to place children from different classes into a multi-purpose space with a few toys, entirely separate from the Montessori prepared environment.

The all-day environment should incorporate the following principles:

  • The numbers for an all-day community should be kept on the smaller side, around 25 children.
  • Emphasis in the morning should be easing into the day at a human pace, with children choosing their work gradually.
  • Children should participate in all aspects of meal preparation and serving.
  • Children should have the option to do practical life throughout the day, reflecting real work to be done indoors and outdoors. Walks and play outdoors should also be available throughout the day as part of the individual choices of the children.
  • Special occasions, such as lunch and tea, become good practice for exercises of grace and courtesy and for extended socialization.

The Montessori Elementary Program (ages 6-9 and 9-12)

The elementary program offers a continuum built on the preschool experience. As in the pre-school, the Montessori materials are a means to an end. They are intended to evoke the imagination, to aid abstraction, to generate a world view about the human task and purpose. The child works within a philosophical system, asking questions about the origins of the universe, the nature of life, people and their differences, and so on. On a factual basis, interdisciplinary studies combine geological, biological and anthropological science in the study of natural history and world ecology. The environment reflects a new stage of development and offers the following:

  • Integration of the arts, sciences, geography, history, and language that evokes the natural imagination and abstraction of the elementary child.
  • Presentation of knowledge as part of a large-scale narrative that reveals the origins of the earth, life, human communities, and modern history, always in the context of the wholeness of life. Presentation of the formal scientific language of zoology, botany, anthropology, geography, geology, etc., exposing the child to accurate, organized information and respecting the child’s intelligence and interests.
  • Connective narratives that provide an inspiring overview as the organizing, integrating “Great Lessons”. Great Lessons span the history of the universe from the big bang theory of the origin of the solar system, earth, and life forms to the emergence of human cultures and the rise of civilization. Aided by impressionistic charts and timeless, the child’s study of detail in reference to the Great Lessons leads to awe and respect for the totality of knowledge.
  • The use of timelines, pictures, charts, and other visual aids to provide a linguistic and visual overview of the first principles of each discipline.
  • A mathematics curriculum presented with concrete materials that simultaneously reveal arithmetic, geometric, and algebraic correlations. This curriculum recognizes the child’s need for experience, for repetition, for various levels of concreteness, for going from concrete to symbol to abstraction. The emphasis is on making formulae and rules a point of arrival and discovery, not a point of departure.
  • An emphasis on creative writing, expository writing, interpretive reading of literature, research with primary sources, grammar and sentence analysis, spelling based on cultural studies and usage, and oral expression for both sharing research and dramatic productions.
  • Montessori-trained adults who are “enlightened generalists”-teachers who are able to integrate the teaching of all subjects, not as isolated disciplines, but as part of a whole intellectual tradition.
  • Emphasis on open-ended research that is student-generated and teacher-guided. Students are encouraged to wonder, to carry out research, to experiment, to develop knowledge, to make observations, to demonstrate skills. This in-depth study uses primary and secondary sources as well as other materials. Textbooks and worksheets, if present at all, are used by the children as reference materials, not as a basis for assigned or ongoing work.
  • "Going out" to make use of community resources beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Studies are integrated not only in terms of subject matter but in terms of moral learning as well, resulting in appreciating and respect for life, moral empathy, and a fundamental belief in progress, the contribution of the individual, the universality of the human condition, and the meaning of true justice.

The Montessori Adolescent Program

Unlike the other Montessori age levels, there is at present no international consensus defining Montessori secondary education. Maria Montessori’s vision of a residential farm school for ages 12 to 18 has yet to be realized (see “The Erdkinder Vision” in this chapter’s FYI articles). What follows is a composite of the programs of several existing school-based Montessori middle schools (usually ages 12-15).

Middle school ushers in a new level of independence that must be provided for in the Montessori environment by increasing activity from the point of view of work level, choices, and planning. In the middle school, the Great Lessons, timelines, and charts are replaced with overviews of general sequences of learning for which the student becomes responsible in the context of an integrated whole. Within this overview, the student has open time to collaborate on both self-initiated and instructor-initiated projects. Open time allows for individualized instruction, a natural pace for absorption of material presented for both mastery and emotional understanding, unlimited depth of pursuit based on student interest, and ample time to study art, science, music, business, and other topics students choose.

Adolescent programs characteristically have discrete spaces for specialized activities: photo lab, science lab, stage, art room, and lesson rooms all adjacent to open space that unifies the side rooms.

The following curriculum areas are offered in a school-based Montessori middle school:

  • Social sciences, science, and geography : The student integrates history, utilizing themes from earlier studies in natural and cultural history, including interdependency, evolution, life cycles, matter and energy, behavior and culture, mental health, physical health, agriculture, government, manufacturing, communication, world systems, earth preservation, and so on, in the context of social responsibility and governance. Primary readings forms each historical period are emphasized.
  • Language arts: The student develops confidence in self-expression utilizing the seminar, oral presentation, debates, drama, video, photography, essays, play-writing, poetry, and short stories, and explores related accounts of historical and philosophical material through literature, utilizing components of style, genre, characterization, and the art of discussion.
  • Second language and grammar: The student learns a second language through the conversational approach while also revisiting grammar. The study of grammar in relation to the second language prompts a review of complex sentence structure in English.
  • Mathematics: The student uses higher-order thinking skills to solve problems in relation to a variety of challenges, from practical money transactions to algebraic relationships and explores numbers, properties, simple equations, higher measurement, computer calculation and graphics, geometric proofs, and algebraic equations.
  • Practical management : The student manages reality-based operations in economic and social enterprises, including yearbook, school newspaper, student social events, agriculture, fundraising, travel, volunteerism and service, apprenticeship, and computer programming.
  • Fine arts : The students utilizes a discipline-based arts education plan that presents individual artistic areas of painting, acting, singing, composing, photography, dance, and sculpture, includes a general education for aesthetic literacy, integrating the arts with other academics endeavors.
  • Farming (optional): The student engages in elements of farming as an economic enterprise through care of plants and animals, maintenance of simple machines, understanding of land use, and operations of accounting, sales. Personnel records and working relations in ongoing projects.