The Montessori Method: Intellectual Gymnastics
I have to come to think of the Montessori Method as
intellectual gymnastics. In the same way practice makes perfect in sports, so
practice makes perfect for intelligence.
The main guiding principle of the Montessori Method is that
people learn by doing. In a Montessori classroom, there are no classroom
lectures directed at all students but rather the children are free to walk
about the classroom. The children do activities of a very specific sort. Montessori
developed this didactic material after many trials with children.
Montessori writes that when these materials are in the hands
of someone who knows how to apply them, they produce remarkable results. But if
in the hands of someone who does not how to apply them, they do not attract the
children's attention. This article is meant to outline, as succinctly as
possible, the Montessori Method so a person knows how to use them.
This is part of a series. This article describes the overall
philosophy. The next article (part 2) will describe the order that the
sensorial, math, and language material are presented to the children. The final
article (part 3) will be a simple list of all material with detailed
description about how they work and will include inexpensive alternatives that
can be found in most households or in most stores. In these articles, there is
also a special emphasis on how the principles can apply to a very young child,
around 15 – 24 months, which is just slightly before the age that students
would typically enter a Montessori school.
Although the materials designed by Montessori are specially
designed and important, I have come to see the material as less important, with
understanding the method as much more important. It is the method that
Montessori presents, which I will outline in this article, that is the genius
of it. If you are on a budget and/or don't have access to some of the material,
you can still use the principles effectively with your children.
Like in training for sports, in the Montessori Method, the
learning of complex skills gets broken up into simpler skills. For instance, in
learning to write, children are not handed a pencil and expected to start
writing. Instead, it is broken up into two component skills: holding a pencil
and knowing the shapes and sounds of letters. Constructing simple words via
phonics is also taught so that the child will know what to write, after they
have mastered the other two skills. To learn how to master a pencil, the child makes
an outline around a metal pattern similar to a stencil with a colored pencil,
which they then color in. They thus learn how to master a pencil without the
pressure of writing a letter correctly—and in a fun way. They learn the shape
of letters by tracing letters made of sandpaper. While doing so, the teacher
says, "This is [the sound the letter makes]." They construct simple
words using the same sandpaper letters they used to trace the letters or the
movable letters designed by Montessori.
The children practice these individual activities over and
over again. In doing these activities over and over again, the skill becomes automatic.
Like how an adult does not have to consciously think about walking—they just
decide they want to walk and do it—so the activities that the children practice
become automatic and subconscious. Interestingly, the directress (the teacher)
never prods the child to write. After mastering all 3 skills, about one week
later, the child usually looks at a pencil and a piece of paper and realizes
that they can write. It happens spontaneously, on the child's own initiative.
What is striking about all Montessori activities is how
seemingly simple and easy an activity is, all the while preparing the child for
something complex. The children are, whenever possible, allowed to sit in a
comfortable position while working on an activity. Isolating out component skills
is done to make it easier to learn the skill. Hence for instance, when learning
how to button a button, such buttons are put on a wood board such that the
child can practice them. I am keeping some of my son's old clothes instead of
giving them away, so that I can mount the on a piece of wood or cardboard so he
can practice buttoning, zipping, and other dressing skills later.
With every new skill that my son develops, I make an attempt
to remember to break the complex skill up into component skills. It is
something to constantly think about as the first few years of life are filled
with many developments. As an example, when my son started to learn how to wash
his hands, he had trouble turning on the faucet. To break up this skill into
component parts, I used a sink that was in the middle of a counter, let him sit
in it with just a diaper, and let him practice with the faucet. In this way, he
was seated comfortably, free to turn on the faucet at will, with no pressure.
Or, when learning how to use a real cup, instead of just handing a child a cup,
let them practice filling and pouring water into and out of a cup, perhaps in
the bathtub, with no pressure to drink the water. In this way, they get used to
how quickly water flows out of a cup, which is one of the biggest challenges of
drinking out of a real cup.
As again similar to sports, it is the repetition of these
activities that develops mastery, and it is this repetition that is fun for the
child—not the final product. As Montessori writes, it is a source of pride to
complete the activity, then start all over again. While at a park once, I
wondered out loud why my son was always going up and down the stairs to the
slide but never going down the slide. My husband, who had remembered
Montessori's advice better than I, responded "Because he can."
It is sometimes a mistake that caregivers make to think that
if a child can do something already, why have them do it again? Instead, let
them do this enjoyable activity over and over again. This voluntary repetition
is the heart of these intellectual gymnastics. This is something I have totally
embraced as a parent. I present an activity to my son that I am fairly sure he
can do. When he does it well, we both take enjoyment and pride in his
accomplishment. We then do it over and over again, as much as he wants.
This approach was really important to language development.
My son had an intense interest in picture books starting around 14 months and
had an explosion in language understanding around 18 months. At first, when
working with picture books with him, I would too often ask him to point to a
picture I knew he would have difficulty with, rather than ones I knew he knew
well. He usually left the activity shortly after this. After reading
Montessori's thoughts, I instead asked him to point to pictures he would know
and let him take enjoyment in this over and over again.
The author of the book My Toddler Talks, a book
specifically about language development, says, many times, that too often
parents ask too many questions of their children. The author advises to temper
questions by saying 3 comments for every 1 question. I believe this sentiment is
quite in line with the spirit of Montessori and my own observation to not ask
too challenging of questions. However, instead of tempering question with
comments, I have chosen a different solution. I think by "questions,"
the author means questions that are more like quizzes. The child is asked a
question they probably don't know well in an attempt to supposedly challenge
them. Instead, I think it is possible to ask as many questions as you want,
provided they are not of the "quiz" variety. I can easily ask a dozen
questions of my son, all in a row, provided I know that he likely knows the
answer. I have done away completely with questions that are of the quiz variety.
To challenge my son in a healthy way and build his
vocabulary, I took a cue from Montessori and used the 3 stages of learning that
she presents. First I point to a picture and say what it is (Stage 1). Then I immediately
ask if he can point to that object (Stage 2). Then, after much practice, I may
ask him "what is this?" where he tells me what it is (Stage 3). I
often jumped around in the stages as I read to my son, based on how well he
responded during a particular reading session.
If at any time he doesn't respond as expected, the lesson
ends. The directress (or in my case, parent) is discouraged from repeating the
lesson, as it was already given. Doing the same thing twice in a row will not
likely get a different result. In this way, the child is not pushed to do
something they have demonstrated that they are not ready for. This is always
something to keep in mind with every new skill: If they are not responding to
the lesson, the lesson ends. Simply try it at a different time.
In approaching the learning of vocabulary this way, my son
learned new words easily. It is a very simple and straightforward way with no
tricks, tests, or needless complexity. Notice that in Stage 2 that the child
physically points to (or retrieves) an object. This again is learning by doing.
When watching my son point to pictures, it was indeed as if physically touching
the object downloaded the idea of the object directly into his brain. In Stage
3, the child must say the word with no option given at first of what it might
be. This helps to develop verbal language.
One of the greatest aspects of the Montessori system is how
children develop skills spontaneously. I was thrilled when, after reading many
picture books with a moon in it, my son would, on his own initiative, point to
the real one and say, "Moon!" In fact, he seemed to catch it right
when the sun set and it was first visible. Using these stages of learning
caused my son to be a very astute observer of daily life.
I contend that this spontaneous learning is "Stage
4" of learning. Montessori writes of exercises to aid in this spontaneous
learning, such as memory games, which will be discussed later. These 3 stages,
Montessori writes, are integral to spontaneous learning, as it gives the child
a very firm, exact nomenclature. Thus the stages are:
to an object, say what it is.
the child which one is [name]
to an object, ask the child what it is.
on their own initiative, points to an object and says what it is.
For many concepts, in the first stage, it is necessary to
present at least 2 or more objects. For instance, if presenting two colors, if
you point to an object and say "This is blue," they may not know what
characteristic of the object you are pointing to. Instead, have two completely
identical objects present and point to one and say "This is blue,"
and point to the other and say, "This is yellow." Keeping all
attributes the same except the one being taught is a key Montessori principle.
It is best to at first present the most strongly contrasting of the attributes
at first, such as the colors red and blue, which contrast more strongly than
red and orange.
Also, when it comes to the attributes of objects, Montessori
writes that before telling the child the name of the attribute, it is best to
have the work with the attribute. For instance, with colors, it is best to have
them play matching games with colors, developing their awareness and interest
in colors. Then after this, present the names. Indeed, I found that it was not
until my son could do these matching games that he developed the vocabulary for
colors. I found magnets to be a very good learning tool. We had circular
magnets of different colors that I arranged on a low position on my
refrigerator for him. At 23 months, he was able to put identically colored
magnets in lines. It was at this age that he was able to follow the 3 stages of
learning for colors. Thus when learning an attribute of something, the stages
of learning are:
the sensorial activities
two strongly contrasting objects to a child, explaining what each is, e.g.,
"red" and "blue."
a few moments, ask the child to retrieve one or the other, e.g., "Give me
to one or the other and ask the child to name it.
unprompted, spontaneously points to something and knows what it is.
When I used this approach to teach colors, my son again
would see colors, spontaneously point to them, and say, "This is
green!" How wonderful it is to see your child voluntarily challenging
himself to name the color of objects all around him!
To promote this spontaneous observation of daily life,
Montessori also has the children do memory games. For instance, with the color
tablets, the directress may show the child a particular color tablet and ask
the child to retrieve its match in the next room. The child must
remember the task at hand while going to the next room and retain what the
color looks like in his mind. This helps to extend the children's memory of
colors such that, after their lessons, as they go about daily life, they can
remember what color is what, even the most nuanced shades of color. I was able
to do some memory games with my son before the age of 2. One was to have him
retrieve a particular toy in another room (usually his Pixar Cars matchbox
Another built-in genius of the Montessori Method is that all
activities have a "control," such that the child can see on their own
if they have done the activity correctly. The activity with the most obvious
control, which is why it is one of the first activities that the child does, is
one where cylinder shaped wooden pieces of varying length and width must be put
into their corresponding slot on a wood block. The control is the very rigid
structure of the wooden block, which will not allow all cylinders in unless
they are arranged correctly. In this way, the directress never has to correct
the student, which Montessori writes can damage the child's self-esteem. This
also has obvious application to adult life, where a person must often judge
their own work. The directress thus never has to be overbearing with the
children; the children peacefully do their own work, judging it for themselves.
The directress of a classroom job is less to teach and more
to observe. The goal of the lessons is to wait until the child is ready to
receive a particular lesson and then capitalize on this moment. I have read
before and agree that most lessons, even of the most important variety such as
potty training, only take a small amount of time, if presented at the time that
a child is ready for it. Montessori writes that the teachers she wants in her
classrooms are more like scientists who watch the children, figuring out what
their individual needs are, providing activities that are at the child's level,
and making interesting psychological insight. There is very little
"teaching" in a Montessori school, only a lot of learning. This is
why the name teacher was renamed to directress.
This approach where broken up, easily digestible, enjoyable
activities are presented to the child, which are repeated for fun, and then
spontaneously develop into complex skills, is the genius behind the Montessori
Method. The motto is: Wait, wait, wait—keep waiting!—and wait some more until
the child is ready. Then swoop in and it's done. There are no belabored
attempts to push certain skills. What the child likes to do, that's what you do.
This method is often accused of being pretentious for the
reason that children read and write at such early ages (usually around 4 years
old). This approach is certainly successful but it is the very opposite
of pretentious. The child is never, ever, asked to do something above their
ability. Indeed all of the activities, although preparing the student for
something complex, are on the surface seemingly so easy! The child is left in
peace, with nobody hovering over their work, where they do activities that are
enjoyable, which all the while are awakening their spirit. A pretentious teacher
is insistent and badgering in getting a child to learn something. This is the
opposite of a Montessori directress and antithetical to the entire philosophy.
Most of us have memories of learning things, with our
parents or at school, where learning felt belabored and frustrating. It is thus
natural, I think, for people to be worried about lack of interest with their
own children in learning. This Montessori system was entirely designed around
what naturally interests children. Montessori would try activities, and if children
weren't interested, she would come up with a different activity. All material
is meant to attract children's attention. For instance, when doing the coloring
activities such as to practice holding a pencil, the child actually draws
around a stencil twice with two different colors. This creates visual interest
and attracts the child. If you have worries about getting children to be
interested in learning, if you adopt the Montessori Method, you can banish
those worries! The material is kid-tested fun. The material itself does all of
the heavy lifting to get children interested in learning.
I found, in using this method, that I had the opposite
problem of a child not wanting to learn: I had to constantly find more and more
challenging activities. My son mastered the wooden cylinders at just 20 months
old. Once an activity is mastered, the child has outgrown it. But there is
value in doing the activity over and over again as the child is making
observations and judgments. To stress this activity, you can line up 4 blocks
of cylinders and have them do it. I used a plastic tray meant to hold many
batteries to challenge him. Instead of just 5 or 10 holes, there were 20 or
more. As noted, I think it is more important to know the method than to know
what the materials are. When you know the method, you can use everyday items or
make up new, more challenging activities as to adjust to your child.
In the Montessori Method, most activities are preparatory
work for something more complex on down the road. One of the most important
aspects of the Montessori Method, and one I have come to see as the
"ultimate preparatory work," is the sensory education. In addition to
the activities for reading, writing, mathematics, and practical life, the
sensory education materials are designed to teach the child to become sensitive
to the fundamental characteristics that make up all objects: length, width,
size, color, temperature, among many other characteristics. In becoming
sensitive to such characteristics, the child can observe them much more clearly
and accurately when observing everything in the world around them.
Montessori writes that many people graduate college and
enter a profession, but require years if not decades to finally become good at
what they do. Most people think that a person needs experience until they are
good at a job. Montessori puts forth the idea that if the person had a quality
sensory education, they would not need these years of experience. Because they
did not have a sensory education, they must spend years until they become
accustomed to the observations required in their particular profession. A chef
must learn what meat looks like when it is done; a physician must learn what a
particular illness looks like, etc. Instead, this sensory education encourages
a child to become sensitive to the meta-properties that make up all objects;
thus giving the child the sharpest pair of epistemological glasses possible.
They do not become astute observers of only those things in a particular field
but of all things everywhere. This is why I've come to see a sensory education
as the ultimate preparatory work.
The sensory education provided by Montessori uses again
these didactic materials. A classic set of materials are those of the rods, the
stairs, and cubes. The rods change only in length ranging in size from 10 cm to
1 meter. The stairs change only in width and thus make a stair when arranged.
And the cubes are blocks that change in length and width and form a tower when
arranged. As the child arranges these in order, they are becoming accustomed to
length, width, and size. As with all Montessori activities, it is not that the
child can do the activity that is the goal, but that they are practicing their
powers of observation while doing the activity (gymnastics). I discuss in more
detail these materials in the next article, which focuses on the order and
progression of the core Montessori material, which includes primarily the
material for a sensory education.
To teach discipline, true to the idea that people learn best
by doing, Montessori advocates discipline through doing. It is not enough she
writes to simply ask a child to not touch flowers. Instead, she gets them
involved in the care and maintenance of flowers. In this way, they learn to
treat this very interesting object in the correct way. As they watch the miracle
of life grow before their eyes, they take pride in what they have helped grow
and would not harm it. To learn how to be quiet, the children are not just told
to sit still. Instead, they do exercises where they move quietly. It is
a game to the children and they take great enjoyment and pride in accomplishing
I have taken this approach to heart with my son, starting at
just 15 months old. I embrace the "positive discipline" approach to
discipline, where punitive discipline, such as spanking or timeouts, is never
used. However, I have found it is important, in addition to this, to practice,
practice, and practice good behavior. If I want my son, for instance, to walk
on the sidewalk and not run on to the road, we go and walk on the sidewalk over
and over, and I gently move him to the sidewalk every time he strays. This is true
to the "gymnastics" approach in that it is learning through
repetitive action. I also let him use the garbage can as a garbage can, letting
him throw away actual garbage. I never, ever had a problem with him throwing
away things that were not garbage, and in fact, he often threw away used items
on his own initiative!
Each morning as envisioned and practiced by Montessori, the
children first inspect themselves for cleanliness then inspect and clean the
room as needed. One great benefit of Montessori for my son was that he would
put each toy away after using it and before getting another one, a habit that
can start as early as 15 months in my estimation. The shelves in a Montessori
classroom are all open with baskets holding the material. I switched the
organization of my house to be more like this, as it proved to be so much
easier for a young child to maintain. This was our shelf:
In reading about Montessori, it became clear to me that the
arrangement and organization of the classroom was nearly as important as the
actual lessons being taught. Organizing the classroom is a lesson in itself.
Montessori also gives special mention of how she arranges the materials for the
children. For instance, the cardboard letters to arrange simple words via
phonics are laid out in a tray where each letter has its own compartment. This
serves the education of the child for they can see all of the letters clearly
spread out such that they can compare and contrast them. It also reinforces
knowledge of letters as they put the letters back into the tray when they are
One of the most jaw-dropping things that happened when my
son started to attend a Montessori was how well he would maintain his toys. I
dropped him off at school one day and he was looking at two baskets: one had
wooden blocks in it and another had household items in it. He noticed a wooden
block in with the household items and put it back with the wooden blocks! He
did this at just 19 months old!
Having children participate in cleaning and organizing the
room, in my opinion, is one of the many geniuses of Montessori. This is how one
directress could handle fifty or more children. It is how a stay-at-home mother
can keep her sanity. Some may see getting children to do chores as mean or
dangerous, but I see great value in it. The children come to expect and enjoy
order and cleanliness. They are encouraged to be actors in their environment. They
may only be dusting a room now, but later it will be good stewardship over
perhaps a computer lab, a manufacturing lab, or a medical office. By doing
these simple exercises while young, they are being taught values of
independence, initiative, and respect for property. What job is there that
involves simply sitting at a desk and executing orders given? Well there are
some, but most intellectual jobs involve moving about freely, interacting with
people and machines.
I also think there is great practical value in learning how
to do chores. Obviously, learning how to do them in and of itself is valuable.
However, by learning them so young, the execution of such chores becomes
automatic and subconscious. Thus when they are an adult, they do chores as a
matter of subconscious habit, much like taking a shower, rather than as a
A common criticism of any kind of intellectual learning,
especially when a child is young, is that it will hinder social development.
The argument is rarely backed up by research or any other compelling argument,
as if the statement itself is enough. But I want to point out that social
skills are taught in a Montessori school.
First, the system of using mats greatly promotes healthy
social relationships. In a Montessori school, the children do their activities
on a mat and are taught to not step on the mat while they do the activity. It
is a ground rule to never disrupt another child's lesson. In this way, the
strong visual and boundary of the mat helps to completely stop any violence
that other children more than have the ability to inflict on other children.
This is what struck me on the first day of being at my son's Montessori school:
how very peaceful it was and how easy it would be for friendships to flourish
in such an environment. On the first day, while my son did the activity of
building the pink tower, which he was a tad too young for, another child came
over to coach him on what cube went next. From this, my son successfully built
the tower! I submit to you that this collaboration is the very best social
Further, an often overlooked activity in Montessori is the
daily talks that the children have with the directress. Montessori writes that
the directress should ask them about the things acceptable to talk about in
polite conversation, such as what they did the previous day. They thus learn,
per Montessori's words, to never talk about anything scandalous. I had to smile
at this when I first read it: the children are learning how to engage in small
talk! This may seem unnecessary but such small talk is usually the foundation
of professional networking later. It is better to engage in small talk than
gossip. Montessori really did think of everything.
In reading about Montessori, I have also adopted these
principles into my life. If I am about to do an activity where I need to think
on the spot, I will practice what I am about to do several times before doing
it. This increases my ability to observe what is critical quickly. Seems like
such a simple idea, right? Most good ideas are. Isolating out this best
practice as a concept allows me to think of it in every situation where it may
In fact, the very act of writing this article is a form of
practice. By writing about her ideas, I can contemplate further the thoughts
presented by Montessori. This activity causes me to have many more insights
about it than had I simply read the book. I will be reminded of the value of
writing book reports as my children get older.
These are the main principles in the Montessori Method. If
there is one overarching principle that I hope that I have describes well, it
is to embrace methods that are easy, enjoyable, pressure-free, and fun. Montessori's
guiding principle seemed to be, "If it makes a child smile, adopt
it." This will also be my guiding principle.
April 19, 2014