Last reviewed 11 October 2019
Dr Maria Montessori was one of the most important early years educators of the 20th century, and has influenced the education of young children all over the world, writes Elizabeth Walker.
The principles of Montessori education are as relevant today and the methods continue to be very popular with both parents and early years practitioners. The parallels between the Montessori approach and some of the main themes of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are clear and the principles identified continue to underpin our work in early years provisions and schools over 100 years later.
Dr Montessori was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome medical school in 1896 and became involved in education through her work treating children with special needs and mental disabilities. She designed specialist equipment to enable children to learn through movement and developed her approach by observing children and tailoring her equipment and resources to meet their specific and individual development needs.
When she went on to establish schools for the disadvantaged children of working parents in Rome she approached their education as a scientist, observing children and finding ways to help them to achieve their full potential. It soon became apparent that Montessori had developed a highly effective method of teaching and she began to travel the world, establishing schools, lecturing, and writing articles right up to her death in 1952 at the age of 82.
Principles of Montessori education
Dr Montessori was a true pioneer of a child-centred education and she developed a holistic approach which aims to develop the whole child: physical, social, emotional and cognitive growth are equally important.
The following key principles are fundamental to the Montessori approach.
A child's early years from birth to six are described as the first plane of development and it is the period when they have the greatest capacity to learn.
Children are born with an ability and readiness to learn — they are driven to become independent learners through the freedom to choose learning activities in a prepared environment.
In early childhood, children learn best through sensory-motor activities, working with materials that develop their cognitive powers through direct experience.
Children have “sensitive” periods when they are more susceptible to certain behaviours and can learn specific skills more easily. They should be fully supported and encouraged during these periods.
Children learn best in multi-age environments: younger children learn from older children; older children reinforce their learning by teaching concepts they have already mastered.
The learning environment should be carefully prepared to fulfil the needs of each child and enable them to become independent, active learners.
Teachers should use careful observation to guide children to activities which suit their stage of development and interests.
Children should be given uninterrupted blocks of time to become fully absorbed in activities which interest them.
Montessori teachers are viewed as enablers and developers of independent learners who provide a caring and nurturing environment based on mutual respect between adults and children.
Montessori and the EYFS
It is clear that there are strong links between the themes that underpin the EYFS and those that guide Montessori practice. The EYFS expresses its four main principles in terms which Montessori educators are very familiar with as follows.
A unique child
Every child is a competent learner from birth who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.
Children learn to strong and independent from a base of loving and secure relationships with parents and/or a key person.
The environment plays a key role in supporting and extending children’s development and learning.
Learning and development
Children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates, and all areas of learning and development are equally important and interconnected.
Dr Montessori was one of the earliest pioneers of educational practices based on these ideas and the parallels between the themes in the EYFS and the Montessori approach are evident. The EYFS places emphasis on “active learning” and “learning through experience” and this also is very much in line with Montessori practice. Both also see observation of children as central to promoting children’s learning and development.
The teacher’s role
Montessori teachers are not the centre of attention in the classroom presenting information for rote learning. Their role is to work as a guide and facilitator, introducing carefully prepared activities that meet the child’s unique interests, abilities and developmental needs. Montessori teachers lay the foundations for independent learning and their role involves:
making children the centre of learning
encouraging children to learn by providing freedom for them in the prepared environment
observing children so as to prepare the best possible environment, recognising sensitive periods and diverting inappropriate behaviour to meaningful tasks
preparing the learning environment by ensuring that learning materials are provided in an orderly format and the materials provide for appropriate experiences for all the children
respecting each child and modelling ongoing respect for all children and their work
introducing learning materials, demonstrating learning materials, and supporting children’s learning after observing each child.
For the first time, Montessori qualifications have been approved on the national qualifications framework and meet the full and relevant criteria for those wishing to enter the workforce as Early Years Educators. Developed by Montessori Centre International, the new diploma in Montessori Pedagogy — Birth to Seven (Early Years Educator) qualification is offered at Level 3 and Level 4. Other courses are also available including an Introduction to the Montessori Approach as well as degree level qualifications.