It was really hard to decide which area of development in the Children's House, Montessori's preschool environment I would write about first. I mean, how do you choose? The materials used to introduce reading and writing fascinate the heck out of me. However, what really blows my mind is to see the progression of mathematics. But in true Montessori fashion, all of the guides in our school implored me to move through the materials as a child might, starting on their first day and progressing through kindergarten graduation. Sigh. Ok. You got me. But first, I need to make sure you understand how the classroom, otherwise known as the prepared environment, is setup.
The environment that surrounds a child is an essential aspect of the developing child. This is where children build themselves up like building blocks. It is of the utmost importance that this space is a rich, suitable, and life-giving environment. It's pretty normal for us as adults to create spaces that we think the children will love. We fill it with bright colors and a lot of stuff we think will engage their bodies and their minds. Dr. Montessori describes this as
"The adult's environment is not a life-giving environment for a child. Rather it is an accumulation of obstacles, leading him to a creation of defenses, to deforming efforts at adaptation, or else leaving him the victim of suggestion" (Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, pg. 105, 1998).
What does that really mean? Dr. Montessori is distinguishing between an adult's need to use themselves to improve their environment, while a child's need is to use the environment to improve themselves.
In order to create an environment that is suitable for a child, the Montessori guide must prepare an environment that is intentional and not full of random things. This is why we call it the 'prepared environment.' Essentially, it is a classroom that was created by a Montessori guide to intentionally, thoughtfully, prepare for a child's development.
Is every Montessori classroom a prepared environment? Yes, if it is an authentic Montessori school. Each classroom at White Bear Montessori is prepared specifically for the age ranges of the children. The Toddler room looks different than Children's House, which differs from Elementary; however they do have a common theme. Dr. Montessori believed that the materials a child interacts with in the classroom should be the focus of their attention, not bright walls or fancy pictures. All other objects in the room should remain in the background. This includes the color of the walls, the furniture, and of course - the guide! If you look closely at any authentic Montessori classroom, the walls are a neutral color, the furniture is natural wood, but the materials are created in bright colors and intricate detail to allow the child to see the beauty in it's craftsmanship and simplicity.
The uncluttered space is the epitome of everything has a place and everything in its place. I dream about this kind or order and harmony in my home! Everything is the perfect size for the children in the room, from artwork at their eye level, to a beautiful vase used for hand washing - right down to a mini, flushable toilet in the Toddler room. Learning materials are accessible on shelves to foster independence as each child chooses their own work and are arranged in order from left to right (just like we read).
Areas in the Prepared Environment
In the Children's House there are four defined areas to support the Montessori curriculum: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Mathematics. Within these four main areas there will also be science and cultural materials, but they do not have a specific shelf of their own.
The materials are placed from simple to complex moving top to bottom and left to right. This helps the child see what they have been presented and what will come next. Hmm.. I haven't mentioned the concept of presentations yet, have I? The Montessori world is full of unique terminology. When a guide teaches a child using a set of materials, this is called a presentation. There are a few materials that a child can use in their first days within the environment, but everything else must be presented in a proper manner. Once a presentation is complete, the child can choose to work with that material at any time. I know, this sounds like the guide is a control freak and not really willing to allow the child a freedom of choice (boy, another term I'll get to soon). Next week I will write a full article on the art of presentations!
Following this article, I will be writing a series of posts throughout the year about each of the materials in the prepared environment. There are so many that it will take the entire school year to complete the task, and that's just for the Children's House environment. As I complete each post I will add a link to the bottom of the post and update the date of the last entry. I hope you enjoy learning about the materials and why Dr. Montessori used them in her method of education.