Early Childhood Hub

The Montessori approach

Preeti Patel, Head of Education, Montessori Centre International

In this interview, Preeti Patel discusses the history and philosophy of the Montessori approach to education, including:

  • the biography and pedagogical ideas of Dr. Maria Montessori
  • the principles of Montessori education
  • the Montessori learning environment in practice.



Dr Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Her parents wanted her to become a teacher. However, she had other ideas. She was interested in mathematics, and explored engineering. Later, she developed an interest in biology which led her to medical school. In 1896, she became the first female doctor in Italy. 

She joined the psychiatric unit at the University of Rome medical school. She visited children committed to insane asylums and began to realise that many of the issues affecting these children were not of a medical nature, but an educational one. 

Over the next few years, her focus turned on this. And in 1897, she gave a lecture at the pedagogical meeting on the needs of children with cognitive impairments. In 1898, she was appointed director of the State Orthophrenic School by the Italian minister of education. 

In 1904, she was appointed as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rome. In 1907, she was asked to open a day care centre in a housing project, which led to the opening of the first Montessori School, Casa dei Bambini, which means Children’s House. 

Through her work and observations of these children, she discovered that children had an effortless ability to learn. Children taught themselves. It was this simple but profound truth that formed the cornerstone of her lifelong pursuit of educational reform. 

The Montessori approach is underpinned by the principle of follow the child. Dr Montessori’s work emphasised that by allowing children to develop naturally, be supported fully, and have their needs both understood and met, then society itself would benefit. 

She saw that the problem in education was not an educational one, but a social one. She envisioned that a more peaceful, healthier, and compassionate society would come about from a change in the adult’s view of the children and childhood. 

Montessori’s approach to the core principle of “we must meet the needs of the child” came from not an educational, but from a scientific standpoint. To her, the needs of the child could be discerned through observing the child. Her observations firstly began with the children she was working with, and then she took on board what she had learnt by studying others, notably Seguin and Itard. 

This allowed her to understand more of the natural qualities and needs of children. In her first children’s houses, she observed that children would use apparatus or materials spontaneously. It is important to note that children were allowed to choose freely. This allowed spontaneous choice to occur. 

When the children use these apparatus, she further observed in children great concentration, a sense of dignity, a preference towards apparatus over more traditional toys, a love of repetition, self-discipline, no need for reward or punishment, and a love of order. 

The principles on which Montessori education is founded on are firstly respect — respect for self, others, and the environment. The second principle is the absorbent mind. The first six years are crucial in a child’s development. She termed this period as the absorbent mind to describe the child’s sponge-like ability to absorb information from their environment. 

During this time, children rapidly develop an understanding of their culture and their world, and construct foundations of their intelligence and personality. Dr Montessori observed that children pass through specific stages of development when they are most capable of learning specific skills or knowledge. 

She termed these stages as sensitive periods or windows of opportunity. When learning, certain skills and knowledge are at the optimum level. Characteristics of these periods include intense focus, repetition, commitment to a task, and greatly extended periods of concentration. 

Montessori education is focused on nurturing each child’s potential by providing holistic learning experiences. All aspects of children’s development and learning are intertwined and viewed as equally important. Each child’s learning progress is personalised based on the unique stage of development, interest, and needs. Educators work with children one-to-one to track their progress and support as appropriate. 

Dr Montessori observed that children learnt best when they had the freedom to move, choose their own work, follow their interests, have time, and repeat. In the Montessori environment, children are free to move around the prepared environment, work where they’re comfortable, and feel they will work best, and discover learning outcomes through purposeful hands-on experience. 

Montessori learning is largely active learning, individually paced, and tailored to meet the needs and interests of the children. Children can work with activities independently, as most are self-correcting. The children’s classroom is known as the prepared environment. This environment is carefully designed so everything has a purpose and a place. 

The distinct order in the external environment assists children to develop both an external and internal order, and supports logical thinking through the process. Within this space, children are free to follow their interests, choose their work, and progress at their own pace. 

The concept of auto-education is based on the belief that children are capable and willing to teach themselves if they are provided with interesting learning stimulus. The Montessori materials were developed to meet this need, and thus empower children with their ability to direct their own education. 

Montessori educators provide the prepared environment, guidance, and encouragement to educate themselves, and fundamentally trust in the child’s intrinsic motivation. The ultimate goal of Montessori education is independence. 

Montessori education is an education for independence. It provides children with an environment, materials, and guidance to do and think for themselves, to prepare themselves for life, to become lifelong learners, as it focuses on the belief that children are born learners who are capable and willing to learn and teach themselves if they’re given the right environment and stimulus to learn. 

I think the key thing within the Montessori approach is really sort of the prepared environment firstly. And the term “continuous provision” became a buzzword a few years ago. But this is something that’s very much part and parcel of the Montessori environment. It is very much a children’s home. 

So everything is sort of set at the children’s level, and they have access to all of the resources that are specifically set out in different areas of learning. So this is something that every early years practitioner could do in terms of setting up their environment. 

Then thinking about what seeds that environment is really important. So what kind of resources should be in that environment? What sort of activities should be available for the children? And this can only come through observation. So observing the children, seeing what they’re interested in, what they want to engage in, and then seeding the environment appropriately. 

I think I often have conversations with early years educators who sort of say — sometimes children just wander around not choosing anything to do. And I often… my response to them is often — it’s not the children who are just wandering around, it’s the fact there’s nothing that’s sort of inviting them to come and work with… something that’s interesting them. So set up the environment, think about what the children want, and then seed it accordingly. 

So those are sort of some basic simple things that educators can do. But I think the key thing that is really, really important is respect, and respecting the child, respecting and trusting the child to be able to do the things that they are very, very capable to do. 

Often we don’t give children time, and we then feel that the children are not able to do some of the things that they wish to do. So respecting them, giving them time, and really trusting them would be the key things I think any early years educator can give. 

I think there is one key thing where Montessori is often misunderstood, because the term “freedoms” is often mentioned in Montessori pedagogy. And this was something I often noticed with parents actually more than with other educators, is when they came to visit a Montessori environment, they were always confused with the idea of freedom, because they thought freedom meant chaos. 

And freedom within a Montessori environment is not about chaos, but it’s about the responsibility, because I think with freedom comes responsibility. So the idea of freedom within a Montessori environment is very much structured around freedom with boundaries. 

So you sort of set boundaries with the children so that they know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. And then after the children have understood that or alongside their understanding of that, they’re able to exercise a number of freedoms within the environment that they’re in. 

So one of the key freedoms is the freedom to move, the freedom to work wherever they want to, whether it is on a mat or whether it’s on a table, to work for as long as they want to, to work without any kind of interruptions. And it’s always interesting when I sort of explore that idea of interruptions with other adult… with other educators. 

And often they’ll sort of think we’ve given the children an awful lot of freedom. And we don’t interrupt them. But when you start sort of drawing in a little bit more into the sort of breaking that up a little bit, they’ll start to understand actually, there’s an awful lot of interruptions that we have. 

And then, an interruption could be something as simple as a smile. Now a child is concentrating, and if you sort of go over to them and smile at them, they’ll suddenly start to wonder why you’re smiling at them. And that moment of concentration, that moment of focus is almost broken. 

And that’s one of the hardest things that I think any early years educator finds when they first come into Montessori education, is that idea of not going to praise a child, not to go and interrupt or to smile to say well done. And that’s something that every early years educator could do with learning. It’s about stepping back and just viewing the child, viewing the environment without breaking their focus or concentration. So that’s a real challenge. 

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