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By Leslie Crawford
Young children sit on the floor, bent over their toy screws, each deeply focused on executing the same simple task. The room is silent, the mood serious. "Your work period is ending," says a woman who’s clearly in charge. "Now, you can eat your lunch." Is this a rare glimpse inside a factory powered by child labor? Not at all. You've just entered the wide, quiet world of Montessori.
Silence reigns at Montessori schools by design. The Montessori approach is child-centered — encouraging children to be independent and learn at their own pace. Montessori views children's play as work and respects their independence and natural curiosity. To that end, the emphasis is on allowing children to learn from their own mistakes and to figure out how to do things on their own rather than relying on an adult to tell them. Teachers model behavior to teach care and respect, and they introduce new challenges once old ones have been surmounted. They also focus on teaching organization, strategy, and good habits. Physical activity is a large part of a Montessori curriculum, with moving and learning being innately linked; there is also a strong focus on multisensory learning. When Italian educator Maria Montessori opened her first school in 1907, these were radical ideas. Today, Montessori has grown to be among the most popular forms of early childhood education.
Montessori schools typically cater to younger kids — mostly preschoolers, but you'll sometimes find Montessori-based elementary schools, and in rare cases you’ll find Montessori middle and high schools, too.
A school may use the Montessori name without being a true Montessori program. For a Montessori-certified program, make sure that the school is affiliated either with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI or AMI/USA) or the American Montessori Society (AMS). Also, certified Montessori instructors graduate from a special training program. Be sure to check the mission statement and curriculum of your Montessori school. It’s also important to ask about the program and visit the school; within the Montessori category, there’s a fair amount of diversity, so programs don’t all look alike from school to school.
Montessori programs are especially good for children who are self-directed, can work independently for extended lengths of time, and work well alone or in small groups. Also, these programs tend to be ideal for children easily overwhelmed by noise, chaos, and disorder. The focus on individual learning allows students to work at their own pace and can also provide a healthy environment for special needs children.
However, a Montessori program could be challenging and frustrating for children who want to do things their own way, who don't easily follow instructions, who like to switch activities frequently, or who prefer more free-form or imagination-based play.
Visit any school you are considering. Although Montessori schools adhere to a basic philosophy, each will be different. Ask to visit during school hours so you can observe how students spend their time. Do children look happy and engaged or bored? Do teachers respond to children's needs? The most important questions to answer, of course, are: Would your child enjoy this environment, could your child thrive in this setting, and is this the right learning environment for your child?
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