What Exactly Is Montessori and Why Is It so Popular? We Ask Big City Montessori School

Montessori has become one of the most popular preschool philosophies and its presence today in the U.S. dwarfs that of some other philosophies such as Reggio Emilia (the American Montessori Society, one of the two main organizations has 1,200 member schools, compared to just approximately 50 schools listed on the North American Reggio Alliance’s website – though both philosophies are highly represented in cities such as San Francisco).

Yet, it can be hard for parents to grasp what the philosophy is really about among all the buzzwords of “play-based,” “child-directed” or “work-periods.”  We sat down with Amanda Ricetti, director of Big City Montessori School (BCMS) to really understand what the curriculum is about, and how it is practiced at BCMS.  We also discuss how to tell if a Montessori school is authentic, and how might parents tell if Montessori is right for their child.  Read on to learn more about this important philosophy.
Montessori preschools encourage children to explore and play with objects to learn about different subjects.
Montessori preschools encourage children to explore and play with objects to learn about different subjects.

NL: How did you become involved in Montessori education?

Amanda: Big City Montessori School (BCMS) is a family-owned business. My mother originally started the school in 1972 as Westlake Montessori School where she was a Montessori teacher herself.  The school moved to its current location in 1980 and we changed our name to Big City Montessori School.

I officially trained and started to work at BCMS around 18-years-old and that is when I discovered how much I enjoyed working with young children.  35 years later, I am still enjoying working with young children as the owner/director of the school.

NL: What was the Montessori training like?

Amanda: The Montessori training, compared to the state-mandated early education training (ECE) for preschool teachers, not only has a clear philosophy, but also has an established curriculum.  When you become a certified Montessori teacher, you are prepared to direct a class; to engage children in learning in all three areas of the I.Qs: social, emotional, and cognitive; and to guide and support the children’s parents during these very informative years of child development.

NL: What is Montessori curriculum like?

Amanda: A hallmark of the Montessori program is how the Montessori classroom is set up to reflect five major areas for the child to travel while in the class: Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language, and Cultural Studies.  Learning is child directed and the teacher guides the child to try new things over their three years of preschool.  Students, who we think of as “little travelers” can pick, use and explore a material for as long as he or she likes until he or she is ready for a new one.

There are no grades, and no expectations; the emphasis is on the child developing socially, emotionally, cognitively, and most critically, building life skills and good habits.

The first place our young travelers visit is the Practical Life area, where he or she can find trays, buttons, zipper frames, and more.  They learn practical skills such as pouring water from a pitcher into a cup.

In the Sensorial Section, our young traveler can discover all kinds of manipulatives designed to serve the senses.  Dr. Montessori believed that the training of the senses was of utmost importance, and that the development of the five senses should precede all other educational experiences.  Through concrete exercises at this critical stage of development, children become aware of their own individuality and environment.

Montessori is the only preschool today with a Cultural Section built into the curriculum.  Here, our young traveler learns about geography, botany, zoology, art, etc. in order to create an aware and global thinker.

Finally, our travelers will visit the Math and Language Section of the class.  This section contains lots of interesting manipulatives, such as sandpaper letters, number rods, etc. allowing them to learn from a teacher and independently at their own pace.

NL: In this child-directed approach, how do you ensure that children get a well rounded experience and are not doing the same thing over and over?

There are other children in the classroom and only one of each material, pushing them to try new things.  However, if a child is drawn to something in particular, their turn with that material will eventually come and they can work with it for as long as they want until they have fully explored and mastered it.

NL: How has the curriculum evolved since Maria Montessori developed it?

Amanda: Interestingly, in 105 years, the curriculum has not changed much at all. It is well thought out and universally adaptable.  For example, in China, children might have tea sets in the classroom as a Practical Life exercise and sandpaper Hanzi (Chinese characters) cards, etc.  Nevertheless, overall, the curriculum and the philosophy is the same worldwide and is guided by Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), which was founded by Maria Montessori in 1929 and is still run by her descendants.

Another hallmark of Montessori education is that teachers are trained and certified by AMI or American Montessori Society (AMS), the other major Montessori organization.

NL: What’s the significance of a mixed-age group?

Amanda: Because children start preschool anywhere between 2.5 and 3.5-years-old, children have 2-3 years to explore all of the materials in the classroom.  Older children can be role models and younger children are encouraged to explore by constantly seeing older kids use different things.  By age 5 to 6, when the child is the oldest in the classroom, he or she has moved from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind.  They become teachers for the younger children, thus reinforcing what they have learned and fine-tune their life skills

During the work periods in the classroom, younger children will do an activity alone for 10 to 15 minutes compared to older children, who will often find a project to work with another child, such as building a structure that can take 30 or more minutes.  Children work independently, but may sit together at tables, share materials, talk – it’s a social environment.  However, children learn that when someone is busy, to give them space.

NL: How does the Montessori curriculum incorporate technology?

Amanda: Montessori is not against technology, but believe there is a place for it.  At Big City, we want children to learn about the real world before the fantasy world.  Maria Montessori probably wouldn’t have wanted kids under 6 watching shows about princesses or Batman and Robin, because it takes away from the foundation of learning about the real and natural world: flowers, how the sun comes up, why we have wind, etc.

Young children’s brains do not know how to filter yet between fantasy and reality and some content, such as even some Disney movies, can causes nightmares and model bad behavior.  It’s critical for children to understand their world before getting into the imaginary world.

That said, we do have computers and iPads equipped with art, math, geography, and puzzle software programs.  We aren’t using these devices otherwise, and believe children are going to be exposed to technology at home and in their later life, anyways.  At school, we want children to use their whole brain, build something, use all of their senses, and socialize and interact with other children.

NL: What skills do Montessori children possess at the end of preschool?

Amanda: Montessori is a 3-year journey and at the end, children are ready to go into the wider world.  They can solve problems; know about the time, weather and calendar; and understand a bit about the global world.  They feel powerful, are respectful to the environment and to others, and have the skills to deal with issues in both their academic and personal life.

As your child walks this learning path with their teacher during their personal three-year journey, all the information and experiences he or she has had will be absorbed and transformed into solid lifelong skills.  I have listed some below.

To be able to:

  • Focus on a task with joy
  • Sympathize with others
  • Take initiative and have independence
  • Concentrate
  • Enjoy simple things
  • Love nature
  • Conduct life with proper manners
  • Create ever-lasting friendships
  • Love work and order
  • Spontaneously concentrate
  • Self- discipline
  • Contribute to society to better the world and future

Dr. Maria Montessori believed that these are the truly “normal” characteristics of childhood, which emerge when children’s developmental needs are met and have time to develop, and so do we at BCMS.

NL: Are Montessori schools accredited by AMI or AMS?

Amanda: There are no rules about which schools can call themselves Montessori schools.  However, There are three things that parents can look for in an authentic Montessori program:

  • Teachers that are certified by AMI or AMS
  • Mixed-aged classrooms
  • Environment set up with the five main areas and associated manipulatives

NL: How can parents know if Montessori is right for their child?

Amanda: Generally, if you have a child that is gentle by nature, investigates things, is interested in the world, plays by themselves, does puzzles, etc., then Montessori can be a good fit.

The children who don’t do well in Montessori typically are those that are over the spectrum in energy, have trouble communicating, and tend to move around a lot.  Out of 10 children that I interview, 2 may not do well.  I see that more today than in the past.  But it’s hard for the parent to know, because they only have the perspective of the one child, so it’s best to visit a school and talk to the director.  Until parents are at a Montessori school and see children working independently and view the children’s work on the walls, it’s hard for them to tell whether it’s a good fit.

I advise parents to visit and compare multiple preschool programs before they choose one for their child.  They can see and feel for themselves which ones will suit their child.  Not every program is for every child and this is why there are a variety of philosophies and programs.

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