Dr. Montessori discovered so long ago that children under six have extraordinary powers of mind. They have a universal, once-in-a-lifetime ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings just by living. Dr. Montessori called this “the absorbent mind.” Through her observations, Dr. Montessori designed the Primary Montessori classroom to take advantage of the way children under age six learn best:
- children have a strong need to explore and discover — learn by touching and manipulating objects
- children are keenly attuned to everything that stimulates their senses
- children respond to order because of their innate need to know where things belong and how pieces fit together
- children want to master the movements of their own bodies
- children learn through repetition
The Primary Montessori Classroom has four main areas: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language and Mathematics. Art, music, science, and cultural studies are integrated into all areas of the classroom.
Practical Life Area
This is one of the most important areas. The activities not only contribute to the physical development of the child but also contribute to the child’s internal development. The characteristics of the exercises assist in the child’s acquisition of independence, coordination, sense of order (sequence) and concentration. The activities use real materials like soap, water, and polish for purposeful activities. The Practical Life area has four distinct groups:
- Care of the Person – buttoning, snapping, zipping, tying
- Care of the Environment – washing, sweeping, watering plants, polishing
- Development of Social Relations also called “grace and courtesy” – greeting, serving, accepting, apologizing, thanking
- Movement – control of movement — walking on the line, the silence game, balance
The Practical Life activities teach the child how to function independently in an adult world. They teach the child “I can do it by myself”. The Practical Life activities also help prepare the child for language and math work.
The Sensorial materials allow children to explore and classify their environments through the use of their senses – giving them a foundation in science. The material is designed to enable children to arrive at a clear, conscious level of discrimination among their sensorial impressions. Children, unlike adults, do not have the ability to form images of things they have not experienced first hand. In order to assist children in developing a clear understanding of the qualities in their environment, Dr. Montessori designed the sensorial materials, which put in concrete material form abstract qualities (color, size, weight, form, smell, taste, sound, texture) that are present in children’s environments. Understanding of abstract concepts serves as the keys to exploring the environment, the beginning of conscious knowledge. The Sensorial work is also an indirect preparation for the math work.
The idea that mathematics is difficult for children is brought upon by the fact that math concepts are being introduced in abstract form. A child cannot easily abstract without having had some concrete experience with math concepts. Dr. Montessori designed the math material to express abstract concepts in concrete form. The math work in the Primary Montessori classroom is progressively organized into six main groups: Numbers to Ten; Decimal System; Teens and Tens; Memory Work: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division; Passage to Abstraction; and Fractions.
The first focus is the development of oral language. The child learns that words are made up of sounds and learns the phonetic sounds each letter makes. Writing and reading are two separate stages of development and in the Montessori philosophy, (mental) writing is taught first through work with the sandpaper letters and movable alphabet. It is through a child’s ability to phonetically spell that he learns to read. It is also important to note that the mental and manual skills of writing are separated. The Practical Life and Sensorial materials both aid in indirect preparation of the skills needed for manual writing. Meanwhile, the Metal Insets directly prepare the child for the manual skills involved in writing; it helps the child develop the use of a pencil in a controlled and precise fashion. In addition, the children have chalkboards and paper to aid them in developing the manual skills of writing.