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Is a Montessori School Right for Your Child?


When Sarah Outwater of Cranford was looking for a preschool program for her then two-and-a-half-year-old son, several friends recommended a Montessori school in Westfield. “I went to visit and loved the philosophy and atmosphere,” says Outwater. “I was able to observe a classroom where a group of about 25 students were sitting in a circle, content and peaceful. I knew it was the right environment for my son.”

What is Montessori?

Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori developed this educational philosophy in the early 1900s based on her observations of how children learn. 

Dr. Montessori described a child’s mind between the time of birth and age six as “absorbent,” with a tremendous ability to soak up all kinds of information. Although Montessori-based programs are available for kids through high school, many parents choose them for their younger children precisely because of its emphasis on the early years.

Catherine McTamaney,  professor at Vanderbilt University and member of the board of trustees at Christopher Academy (the oldest Montessori preschool in New Jersey), says the program treats children as individual people instead of lumping them all together. “We don’t generalize that all three-year-olds are the same, or that they should learn the exact same thing at the same time,” explains McTamaney, author of A Delicate Task: Teaching and Learning on a Montessori Path and The Tao of Montessori. Instead, she explains, the method caters to each child individually and lets them develop in their own unique way. “Children are given the resources and time to learn at their own pace to gain confidence in their abilities,” she says.  

Another characteristic of a Montessori education is a classroom with kids of mixed ages, so younger students learn naturally from older ones—and vice versa. 

New Jersey mom Wendy Frantz  went to a Montessori preschool as a child and sent her little girl to one as well. “My daughter learned how to read at age three by watching the older kids in her class read aloud,” she says. “Then she became one of the older kids in the class who loved taking care of the younger ones.”

The Montessori Classroom

Montessori schools implement their teachings in slightly different ways, but the basic elements include: 

• A mixed-age group of students

• The freedom for kids to choose their own activities from the five Montessori “work areas” (described below)

• Learning from tangible objects, interactive activities and hands-on exploration rather than from a teacher-driven lesson

• Uninterrupted blocks of work time 

• A cooperative, calm environment with an emphasis on community

• A curriculum individually tailored to each child

Each of the five general work areas in a Montessori classroom includes toys, books, household items and other things kids can play with and explore on their own:

• The “practical life area” is where kids play house and learn a variety of basic-but-crucial skills, like food prep (using play food and the real thing), pouring, sweeping and getting dressed— teaching them coordination, concentration and order. Getting the hang of those simple skills helps children navigate their day and become more confident and independent. 

•  The “sensorial area” is geared toward developing the five senses. Kids examine objects of various colors, shapes, sizes, smells and tastes to figure out what they are and how they work.

• The “mathematics area” teaches them how to count, recognize numbers, add, subtract, multiply and divide. Kids often play counting games, like pretending to be at a store or a bank, to apply what they’ve learned.

• The “language area” fosters a child’s natural interest in reading through storytime, reciting the alphabet and letter sounds, writing, listening and reading comprehension exercises, among other activities.

• The “cultural area” is where kids learn about science, nature, wildlife, astronomy and geography (and sometimes they even pick up a foreign language), giving them perspective on the world around them.

The Curriculum

Nicole Murphy, a former Montessori student herself and a longtime Montessori teacher in New Jersey, appreciates the child-centric approach that doesn’t adhere to a traditional classroom routine. “We do not have a set schedule where math is from 9 to 9:45 am, and then we move on to reading,” she explains. “If a child wants to read for an hour or build with blocks, they can.” Kids can choose to work alone, with another child or in a group, moving freely through different areas of the classroom. Classrooms typically have multiple teachers to facilitate that customized attention. 

Some parents might be afraid that given freedom to choose, children will gravitate toward only one station, and not learn the important skills taught in the others. Murphy says there’s no reason to worry. “It is our job as teachers to guide each student, observe how she’s learning and entice her to want to work in all areas of the classroom.” 

Randi Mazzella is a freelance parenting writer and mother of three.

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