Why Montessori Elementary?

By Sarah Werner Andrews, AMI Director of Training (Montessori Northwest), consultant, examiner, and presenter at local, national, and international conferences

When I speak with parents who have visited a Montessori school, they often make similar comments about the characteristics that make these classrooms so remarkable.  Respect.  Independence.  Joy in discovery.  Community.  Love.  Amazing work.  A peaceful, beautiful environment.  Adults that love what they do.

When you first visited a Montessori preschool classroom you may have noticed how very different it seemed from the other preschools you visited.  It may have been different from preschools that your friends and neighbors chose.  You may have wondered if your child would be happy, or fit in, because your 3-year-old certainly isn’t as quiet, calm, and focused as the children you observed when you visited!   But despite all of these differences or wonderings, (or because of them) you chose Montessori preschool for your child, and you have stayed with it because now you have seen how your child has flourished in this special environment.

By the time your child has joined the extended day class and is completing her third (or fourth) year in the Montessori Children’s House, your thoughts are turning towards the future and what is ahead as your child transitions to first grade.  Like most parents, you have been very pleased, or even amazed, at what your child has learned in her school and how confident, independent, and capable she feels there. Now your child is ready to move on to the next phase in her education, and again it is time for you to look into all of your choices and make the best decision you can.

The transition to first grade is a big one.  Not only is your child moving from the security of his beloved classroom, but he is also undergoing significant developmental changes that greatly effect the way he will learn, and you want a learning environment that will best meet his changing needs.

Be assured that your child is well prepared for first grade – any first grade – and after an initial adjustment period, most children do fine.  It is their new school, and it is all they know.  However, it is often the parents who are wondering, is this all there is?  Where is all of the respect, joy, and independence we were accustomed to at our Montessori preschool?  How are the children developing responsibility and independence?  Why don’t they use concrete materials to learn difficult concepts?  Whether you knew it or not, by choosing a Montessori preschool for your child you were also opening up a door into a completely different method of elementary education for your child; one that grows out of the foundation laid out so beautifully in the Montessori preschool and one is that based in the very same qualities of independence, responsibility, respect, work, community, joy, that drew you to Montessori in the first place.

Dr. Maria Montessori called her education plan for the elementary age child “Cosmic Education”.  However, Dr. Montessori considered this plan more of an “aid to life” than a curriculum or program.  It was her desire that the children who attended her Montessori schools emerge “equipped in their whole being for the adventure of life, accustomed to the free exercise of will and judgment, and illuminated by imagination and enthusiasm.”

Although definitely built on the child’s experience in the Children’s House (preschool), there is a distinct shift in the elementary from the absorption of the environment (preschool) to the acquisition of culture or society  (elementary).  The elementary child is interested in who she is and how she relates to society.  Lessons are presented within the context of the unfolding human story and in relation to one another.  Exploration of language, mathematics, biology, music, art, history, and geography are fascinating opportunities to discover the inter-relationships of people, the physical environment, and between people and their environment.

Lessons are designed to appeal to the child’s sense of drama and imagination.  In addition to the concrete Montessori materials that so clearly illustrate difficult concepts, in the elementary, we also use impressionistic stories, charts, timelines, and demonstrations to spark the child’s interest and stimulate independent work.  As well as  to presenting elements of the required curriculum (from Oregon Benchmarks), the teacher strives to “sow as many seeds” of interest as possible.  These type of lessons and stories (in history, biology, music, e.g.) are not typically found in a traditional elementary classroom, but grow out of ideas presented in the preschool program, and are designed to inspire a sense of wonder in all there is in the universe and an eagerness to learn more.

“Let us walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and all are connected to each other to form one whole unity.”

–Maria Montessori

Throughout it all, the children are building on the academic and social skills they began to develop in the Children’s House.  They are making choices as to which work they will do, developing the responsibility to follow up on work that is not their “favorite”, taking a very active role in leading where the lessons go, and learning to work cooperatively in a community where their participation is important and valued.  There is a continuum in the Montessori materials and how certain lessons are given; the children see the binomial and trinomial cubes, the beautiful counting bead chains, the geometry cabinet… but now learn how they can be used in more challenging ways to show more advanced concepts.

Maria Montessori designed the primary (preschool) and the elementary programs to flow into one another, changing in the ways necessary to meet the developmental needs of children as they move from the early years (birth to 6) to the elementary years (6-12),  but with the same guiding principles.  By choosing a Montessori elementary program for your child, you are offering the opportunity to continue in the natural educational process which has already so beautifully begun.