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Elizabeth Holmes

Montessori education (part 2): classroom activities

In the second of this two-part interview with nursery owner and teacher, Nick Peck, Elizabeth Holmes delves into Montessori classroom activities and the contribution that Montessori is making to early years education today.

Elizabeth: Can you explain the different types of activities for children in a Montessori education?

The activities that children can choose from fall into the following broad areas:

Practical life activities

Practical life activities are the first pieces of equipment introduced to every new child and arguably represent the heart of our method.

Through repeated, spontaneous use of seemingly simple everyday activities such as self-care, transferring objects and liquids with various tools, sweeping, cleaning, polishing, cutting and much more besides, the children develop their concentration, dexterity, strength, self-control and self-confidence.

Sensorial materials

Our sensorial materials become of great use to the children soon after they reach three years of age. These attractive and satisfying activities enable them to explore, compare, contrast, grade and name the myriad sensory impressions that they have already unconsciously absorbed.

These games also help the children to indirectly develop many of the skills that they will require for later reading, writing and maths work.

Cultural materials

The cultural materials begin to give the children a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and diversity of our world and impart the skills they will need to follow and extend their own knowledge and interests in subjects such as zoology, geography, botany, history, science and art.

Mathematics materials

Our mathematics materials provide the children with an engaging and clear introduction to number, shape and pattern in a highly physical and sensorial manner.

The children are able to gain plenty of experience and confidence working with quantities and symbols from 1-10 before they are introduced to games that explore such things as the decimal system, arithmetical operations, fractions and so on.

Language activities

Language activities throughout the nursery support the natural development of the children’s speaking and listening skills. The sensorial nature of our language materials allows the children to develop their early writing and reading with ease and pleasure, and enables them to progress with ever increasing confidence.

Creative materials

Creative materials are always available in the nursery and the children are encouraged to explore these to create their own pictures, models, props for role play, music and songs.

The role of the adult and adult guided activities in this area is simply to introduce how to use new materials, tools and methods and to support the children in realising their own ideas.

Physical activities

Physical activities are an inherent part of everything the children do during their time with us, and physical challenges are usually built in to all of our equipment and learning materials.

Needless to say we also endeavour to create a playground that reflects the variety of activities represented in the classroom and these are selected to provide an attractive, intellectually and creatively stimulating and physically challenging environment for the children’s play.

Other activities

Activities such as cooking, music, drama, gardening, festivals and celebrations, visitors and outings occur regularly and are often based around a theme or topic that is currently of interest to the children or relevant to their lives. Whilst provision is made for each child to participate in such activities, they are never dictated to them.

Elizabeth: What role do imagination, play and creativity have in Montessori classrooms?

We strongly feel that true creativity derives from individual freedom of expression, a cornerstone of any Montessori classroom, and a solid understanding of the real world. Children paint, draw, build, sing, dance, play, talk, listen to stories, and so on, when they choose to, not just when they’re ‘allowed’ to.

Their innate creativity is based on imagination, deriving from a strong understanding of reality, not fantasy, which is based on non-real events. For example, there is still a place for fairy tales, but we tend to introduce them at a later age when fantasy and reality can be properly distinguished in the child’s mind.

Imaginative play is evident in everything the children do, but the emphasis of our ‘teaching’ is on real objects and situations.

Elizabeth: That sounds like excellent preparation for lifelong creativity. What other benefits do children get from their time in a Montessori nursery?

That can be somewhat trickier to define since many of the benefits we perceive as Montessori teachers, such as happiness, self-confidence, self-discipline, grace, empathy, and such like, are not so easily measured.

‘Academic’ attainments are at least comparable to other approaches to early years and beyond, but often outstrip expectations for those age ranges.

We would argue wholeheartedly that children entering a reception class from a Montessori setting will tend to be both physically and socially confident, able to look after their own basic needs, and be bright and alert with a fundamental trust that learning is fun and exciting.

They will also have been ‘indirectly’ prepared for many of the more formal aspects of learning that they will encounter.

Elizabeth: It seems that the Montessori approach is making a great contribution to early years education and beyond

I think it is more relevant today than ever. In a world where you can satisfy most of your requirements with just the use of your index finger and thumbs, Montessori offers a truly ‘hands-on’ approach to learning, and, in our opinion, her learning apparatus is still unparalleled in its ability to convey concepts, knowledge and ideas to children.

Many of Montessori’s original ideas are now simply good practice wherever you look, and a great many of her insights into how and why children learn are only now being recognised and explored by educationalists, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists worldwide.

Montessori believed that education should lie at the heart of any efforts to transform and develop our society, and the emphasis we place on the happiness of the group deriving fundamentally from the happiness of the individuals within it has perhaps never been more relevant.

Nick Peck is a Montessori teacher and owner of the Bright Little Buttons Montessori Nursery School in Worthing.

More on early years education

Attend the upcoming Supporting Progress in Reception conference to get practical advice on:

  • Combining teaching and play
  • Child developmental psychology
  • Assessment through observation

Further reading

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