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.

What you might find in a Montessori school or classroom

  • Calm, not chaos: Forget the chaos and cacophony of traditional early-childhood programs. Quiet and calm are the rule.
  • Cleanliness, not clutter: Simple, uncluttered furnishings, neatly stacked bins of learning materials — everything has its place in a Montessori classroom.
  • Montessori learning materials: Classes are stocked with Montessori-specific play and learning materials that are designed to promote self-directed learning while stimulating a child’s senses and building motor skills. Children sort, stack, and manipulate these materials, which are often from nature or made of wood, fabric, or enameled metal. Many learning tools are carefully designed to teach specific skills (e.g. buttoning buttons) and to let children learn through trial and error, correcting their own missteps.
  • Independent children: Children work alone or in groups and are taught to “work” (that is, play) on their own and to be responsible by taking care of their own needs and belongings, like preparing their own snacks and cleaning up their toys.
  • Mixed ages: Students within a three-year age range often share a classroom, and children are encouraged to help each other learn. The idea is to create a flexible, non-competitive peer learning environment. Most Montessori schools have a primary program (ages 3 to 6) and sometimes a lower elementary program (ages 6 to 9); programs for upper elementary (ages 9 to 12) are less common. Montessori-based programs for middle and high school do exist, but they are even harder to find.
  • Large class sizes and classrooms: Montessori classrooms tend to be (but aren’t always) larger than traditional classrooms, allowing for more students (often up to 35), who have the freedom to roam and choose between activities.
  • No grades, rewards, or punishments: Although some parents worry about the lack of traditional homework and letter-grade report cards, a 2006 study published in the journal Science found that Montessori students tend to show advanced social skills and creativity, and perform better on reading and math tests than peers in traditional programs.
  • Long “work” periods: For young children (under age six) there are uninterrupted activity periods of one, two, or three hours. Kids older than age six might do independent research, arrange field trips to gather information, interview specialists, and create group presentations of drama, art exhibits, musical productions, and science projects. Middle and high school students typically don’t use traditional text books or attend adult-directed lessons.

What to look out for

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.

What supporters say

  • Children advance quickly. Parents who love the Montessori approach rave about how quickly even young children advance in terms of self-esteem and academic abilities. They also say that Montessori-educated children tend to be self-motivated, independent learners.
  • Children develop and learn at their own pace. Children aren’t compared to one another or forced to compete, be it for rewards, accolades, or attention. Instead, they’re encouraged to collaborate and support one another.
  • Teachers respect children and encourage independence. Children are left to themselves; grown-ups rarely interfere with kids’ activities, respecting children’s intelligence and ability to master many real-life skills.
  • It’s calm and inviting. Parents like that children spend their day in a calm, orderly environment; children aren’t stressed out, but inspired and happy at school.

What critics say

  • Teachers are standoffish. Some parents complain that Montessori teachers are too rigid, not the warm-and-fuzzy teachers you might find in traditional preschools and elementary schools. Teachers tend to be hands-off, interacting less and standing at a distance while children “work” (participate in guided play).
  • Parents don’t feel welcome. Parents may not be encouraged to spend as much time volunteering in the classroom as they might at a traditional school, and they may even feel discouraged from hanging around once class starts.
  • The curriculum is inflexible and overly controlled. Although children are permitted to learn on their own, activities are nonetheless carefully chosen, vetted, and guided — and even learning materials have strict rules. Some complain that the our-way-or-the-highway approach limits children’s creativity and imagination, discouraging free-form play. For example, manipulatives like blocks are to be used in a certain, specified way. Says one parent, “painting is done one way… no old-fashioned finger painting.”
  • It’s too calm and quiet. Finally, a Montessori classroom may simply be too orderly and quiet for more exuberant children.

Is a Montessori school right for my child?

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.

Final word of advice

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?