The Montessori Curriculum
In every Montessori classroom, there are four main curriculum areas- Practical Life, Language, Math, and Sensorial. These areas are supplemented by music, art, Spanish,French, exercise and nutrition, geography, and culture, as well as any themes introduced by the teacher or requested by the children themselves.
Maria Montessori created the exercises we call practical life for the children she was teaching once she realized how integral such work is to the child’s mental and physical development. In addition to laying the groundwork for later academic success (namely, preparing the child for writing), work in the practical life area also helps the child achieve the four developmental aims of order, concentration, coordination, and independence. The four main subjects the practical life area addresses are: control of movement, care of self, care of the environment, and grace and courtesy.
In order for the children to successfully accomplish these goals, the teacher must design and maintain a prepared environment that is both aesthetically inviting and that includes work addressing the various developmental needs of the child. Because this area in particular is the link between the child’s home and the classroom, it is important that the work therein is attractive and home-like, as well as being child-sized, so that the child can imitate the work he or she has seen a parent do at home, but do it independently of the adult.
Small muscle development will play a pivotal role in a child’s ability to write, and for this reason it is addressed plentifully in the practical life area. Through this series of lessons, the child learns to use the three-finger grip and to move the hand in a counterclockwise direction, skills which he or she will later use for writing. The work is laid out and addressed from left to right, and top to bottom, which prepares the child for reading.
Without knowing it, the children are being exposed, in practical life, to work that gives them indirect preparation for writing, as well as for more abstract ideas about quantity, as in exercises involving pouring from one to a varied number of containers. Perhaps most importantly, the practical life area provides a comfortable and familiar setting in which the child does work designed to make him or her increasingly self-reliant, independent, and expressive. Through this work, the child develops both the mental and physical skills which will serve him or her not only for later years in the classroom, but throughout life.
The sensorial area represents the heart of the curriculum because it gives order to the child’s mental universe, and lays the foundation for his or her further intellectual development. In addition to strengthening the qualities of order, coordination, concentration, and independence that were introduced in practical life, work in the sensorial area helps the child make sense of and classify the multitude of information that he or she is taking in every minute of the day.
Through the use of work in the sensorial area of the classroom, the child refines the muscular-tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory senses, and learns how to use them to analyze and classify such characteristics as color, size, shape, smell, and sounds. The sensorial work serves to train and refine the senses, which in turn makes it easier for the child to then analyze and absorb material in other, more intellectually driven aspects of the curriculum, such as math and language.
The first of the aims of the sensorial curriculum is to order and classify information as a foundation for cognitive development and abstract thought. For example, the triangle box not only teaches the child how to use different pieces to construct triangles, but it also exposes the child to the abstract mathematical concept of fractions by giving them visual images of different, smaller pieces being combined to make whole figures.
Many pieces of work that can be found in the sensorial area represent materialized abstractions. For example, most children have played with blocks, but do not know that the name given to that shape is a cube until they receive a lesson on the geometric solids. Once they have been given that name as linked with the object, they are able to connect the abstract notion of a cube with a concrete shape that they can hold and feel.
Although math itself is an abstract process, Montessori believed it can be more easily understood if the child is able to experience that process through the manipulation of concrete materials, or materialized abstractions. The mathematical mind, as defined by Montessori, is an ordered and abstract mental process using the language of signs and symbols. She believed that coming to this frame of mind is a developmental process that occurs at individual rates, and that the children absorb the signs and symbols through accurate observation.
Although math shares the quality of moving from concrete to abstract with other areas of the curriculum, the sequence differs a bit from those in the practical life and sensorial areas. There are a number of different groupings in which lessons can be given simultaneously; however, in math there is one section, the 0-10 activities, in which the child must be completely proficient before the teacher can introduce any other math work.
When the child has gained mastery of the 0-10 activities, the teacher has a choice of moving the child into a combination of one, two, or three of the following sections of the math curriculum:
the decimal system
Within each of these areas of study, there is a specific sequence that moves from simple to complex. The teacher will decide which of these areas to pursue after careful observation and recordkeeping of the child, and as a result of her interpretation of the child’s interests, needs, and abilities.
Research on child development and learning that has been done in the time period since Montessori created her method simply reinforces her theory that the manipulation of concrete materials makes math all the more meaningful to students. In math, as in other areas of the classroom, the teachers follow the child and implement the curriculum as Montessori envisioned it. As a result, they are able to enjoy the knowledge of how meaningful this type of learning is for the children.
It is our duty as teachers to provide children with a strong foundation, and to instill a sense of confidence in their ability to use language to communicate. At school, the language environment is made up of influences including the teacher, other children, stories, songs, books, and environmental labels, among other things. The child is capable of absorbing an incredible amount of language during the early years of his or her life, and it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide a wide variety of language experiences that will appeal to children across the spectrum of interests, learning styles, and developmental levels.
The development of children’s language is the most significant aim of the work in the language area of the classroom, and for this reason, a good deal more conversation is incorporated in these types of lessons than in any other curriculum area. As a result, any of the language lessons involving a teacher and a child, or a teacher and a group of children, are designed to introduce and reinforce positive social interactions and language for the children.
One example of how language is explored on a group level with primary students is the “I Spy” game. During this activity, a teacher brings a small group of children to a rug, along with a basket of objects, and she helps the children begin to listen for the initial sounds in words. The children are able to do work with their friends, but are simultaneously learning the importance of waiting their turn, and of being polite to their peers.
At the elementary level, language continues to be explored and built upon, with more in-depth studies of grammar, spelling, word roots and instruction in penmanship. Verbal and written language are continually encouraged and developed, often in the form of journals, book reports and presentations to the class.