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Montessori Glossary: 20 Montessori Words and Concepts

June 7, 2019
The Montessori method is full of insights into parenting, teaching, and learning. Here is a Montessori glossary to help you get familiar with this brilliant and proven educational methodology:

Dr. Maria Montessori

Dr. Montessori created the Montessori method. She was the first female doctor in Italy, and overcame many obstacles (like not being allowed to perform certain anatomy lessons in the presence of men) on her path to medicine. She was very influential in advocating for women’s rights and equal pay. In the beginning of the 1900’s, Dr. Montessori began to have a growing interest in human development. She opened her first school in a very poor area and began to study best practices for teaching her young students. Through her research, she refined a method of education based on scientific observation of the way children learn. She emphasized the role of the adult in creating a prepared environment that meets a child’s developmental needs and allows for learning through independent exploration.

Work

Montessorians often use the word work to describe what others might call play, reflecting Dr. Montessori’s observation that play is the work of the child. This puts emphasis on the significance of your child’s actions. We often use the word play at Monti Kids to be inclusive of those who are less familiar with the Montessori method. But it is helpful to understand the meaning behind this word choice in many Montessori communities.

The Absorbent Mind

During the first plane of development (from age 0-6), your baby has what Dr. Montessori termed “The Absorbent Mind,” meaning that she absorbs everything in her environment, tangible and intangible, unconsciously, like a sponge. All humans absorb different experiences during this period that define the unique human being that they will become. Your child’s mind is so different from yours. You have willpower and past experiences that affect the way you absorb the world around you, but your child is a blank slate. There are two stages of the Absorbent Mind. From age 0-3, your little one absorbs everything around her indiscriminately. From age 3-6, she begins to come into consciousness and consolidate her experiences to solidify the unique person she has become.
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Developmental Crises

Developmental “crises” are life’s check-in points that ensure we’re ready to move on to the next stage of development. They continue to occur throughout life. If you can recognize that your child is moving through one of these periods, it will make it easier to offer him the support he needs. Here are some examples of developmental crises to watch out for:

  1. Birth: Your child is suddenly faced with dramatic psychological, physical, and environmental challenges as he leaves the comfort of the womb for the outside world.
  2. Weaning: This can be a crisis for parents as well! The food your child eats is changing, and so are his relationships and environment (ie. your child will begin to eat at a table).
  3. Objectivation and Separation: Your child recognizes that he is a separate individual who can independently influence the world around him, and starts to experience “stranger danger.”
  4. Crises of ego-formation (also known as the oppositional phase): Your child is a clear individual, and recognizes his influence on the environment. This phase also coincides with language development and is characterized by lots of “no,” “me,” and “mine.” This is the first time in your child’s life that he is affirming his identity.

*There are more for the rest of our lives: when we move out of our parents’ home, when we start new jobs, etc.

The Prepared Environment

Montessori philosophy relies heavily on the prepared environment. When a child is in her mother’s womb, she is living and growing in a very safe and supportive environment. The moment she is born, this connection vanishes, and she is thrown into a very scary and intimidating world! If you offer your child a prepared environment from the moment she is born, it will support her development, happiness, and equilibrium. A properly prepared environment is one that adjusts as your child’s skills, knowledge, and desires change. It meets her needs at just the right time and with the perfect amount of challenge. This is created by observing her needs, interests, and curiosities, and adjusting her environment to meet them.

Practical Life

Montessori encourages practical life activities, which are exactly what they sound like: the tasks of everyday life that involve caring for yourself, your environment, and the people around you. They fulfill a child’s natural desire to be active and independent, and develop a sense of self-confidence in your child. Eating, dressing, and bathing are all examples of this. During your child’s first year of life, he will experience these activities as you do them for him. But with the development of his motor coordination, he can to begin to collaborate with you. As he begins to walk, he can start to do some of these activities completely independently. Practical life activities encourage the integration of intelligence, will, and movement.
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Human Tendencies

Human tendencies stem from the drive all humans have to accomplish things and satisfy their basic needs. Education can support these natural human tendencies with an environment that fosters the growth of a child’s natural interests. For example, there is a human tendency for group orientation and community involvement. Activities in a Montessori environment offer opportunities for a child to provide for his community. He might wash tables or prepare a snack for his classmates or family. This allows him to feel like a successful, contributing member of a group that is very important to him.

Four Planes of Development

The four planes of development outline a roadmap for a child’s growth. Each stage has different needs and lasts for a specific amount of time. They are divided into periods of six years: 0-6, infancy; 6-12, childhood; 12-18, adolescence; 18-24, maturity.

Sensitive Periods

When your child is in the phase of the Absorbent Mind, she will experience Sensitive Periods when she becomes extremely focused on learning one skill, like walking, and practices it until she is comfortable with her abilities. Sensitive periods last for a finite amount of time and allow your child to “obsess” over learning a skill when they are best equipped to do so. Once the sensitive period has passed for a skill, it becomes much harder to learn. There are sensitive periods for order, movement, language, the refinement of the senses, and more! You can observe a sensitive period by noticing when your child seems to adopt a new skill with minimal effort and become fixated on this new skill for a short period.
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Observation

The Montessori method is based on following your child and using observation to understand his developmental needs and how to meet them. All children should be accepted and recognized as human beings with something unique to offer, and Montessori encourages you to recognize that individuality and celebrate it. When you observe your child, you are better able to properly support him and create an environment that will help him learn and develop.

Order

Think of your work environment. You likely find it easier to focus when this space is clean and everything is easy to find. Your baby has a similar experience! Children thrive in orderly environments. When your child’s external world is orderly, it is easier for her to create internal order, understand her living space, and explore and navigate it freely. An orderly environment also allows her to orient herself and be guided by her inner teacher.

Independence

When a human being is born, he is loaded with potential in the form of billions of neurons. In order for those neurons to be stimulated, he needs to have the independence to explore his environment freely and follow his natural interests. Through observation, you can get a better understanding of these interests and how to support them. As your child becomes more and more capable, adjust his environment accordingly. For example, if he is starting to walk, you might adjust his environment by adding objects he can pull up on (a shelf bolted to the wall, and ottoman, etc.) to encourage him to explore this new skill freely. Independence is one of the most important tenets of Montessori, based on the idea that your child will learn more, be happier, and build confidence when he is given the autonomy to make discoveries on his own.
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Freedom and Limits

Freedom in Montessori refers to a “prepared freedom,” created by the adult that takes a child’s abilities and limits into consideration. You wouldn’t let an adolescent use your car if he hadn’t learned how to drive yet, but you might give him the tools to start practicing in a safe way. The same is true for your baby: she needs limits that will keep her safe and the freedom to learn from her environment as she explores. Freedom in Montessori is defined as your child’s ability to complete a task she knows how to do. The more knowledge your child acquires, the more freedom you can give them.

Concentration & Repetition

Repetition leads to concentration and the solidification of skills & knowledge. This then leads to what Dr. Montessori described as “Normalization,” when a child is calm, happy, confident, warm with others, obedient, and craves more work to do. Montessori materials and activities invite concentration, especially when you allow your child to work uninterrupted.

Grace and Courtesy

In Montessori, the term grace and courtesy is used to describe the early development of social relations and respectful behavior. Model good manners for your little one by bending to his eye-level and looking him in the eye, saying hello and goodbye, and saying please and thank you. 
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Montessori Lessons

Children ages 0-6 are in the period of the Absorbent Mind and absorb everything in their environment unconsciously and without bias. This is why presentations and lessons, which model to your child how an activity is done, are so important in Montessori. Your child won’t do the activity exactly as you have shown her right away (if she does, it’s too easy!). Lessons and presentations are meant to be repeated and use deliberate movements that your little one is capable of mimicking. Montessori activities are self-contained, orderly, and presented in a place that your child can access independently, like a shelf. 

Learning Through Play/Embodied Learning

Embodied learning is one of the tenets of Montessori and refers to the idea that your child learns best when she is able to move around and experience her environment freely. This is especially true during the period of the Absorbent Mind. Flashcards and memorization games don’t allow for the same full-body learning and deep understanding she gets from actively engaging with her environment. When she has the chance to work with her hands and senses, she gains a better understanding of the world.

Show Hands Omit Words (SHOW)

This is a good Montessori rule of thumb that you can use to demonstrate activities to your child. Here are the essentials: Don’t speak while moving, and don’t move while speaking. Your child is in a sensitive period for language and is very interested in your words. Once you speak, she will turn her attention away from your hands and the activity and look at your mouth! Say something like, “Watch,” and quietly show your child the activity while she focuses on your movements.
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Montessori School: Mixed-Age Environments

Montessori environments are mixed-aged because no two children, even if they are the exact same age, develop in the same way. They give each child the time to develop at his own pace and follow his unique interests. The younger children in the environment observe and learn from the older children, and the older children learn from and enjoy guiding the younger children. Typically, classroom environments are divided up into these categories: infants/NIDO: 3-18 months (depending on state regulations), toddler/infant community: 18-36 months, primary: 3-6 years, lower elementary: 6-9 years, upper elementary: 9-12 years.

Education for Peace

As Dr. Montessori said in her 1946 London Lectures, “If we wish to understand man, we must first understand how man has been built. If there is one time in life when all men have the same ideas, when they speak the same language, it is the time of birth. No matter what race they belong, in which part of the world they are born, newborns are all alike. If we wish to achieve peace and mutual understanding, we must start at the moment of birth, the moment when all men are alike.” Montessori is education for Peace. Present your child with an environment that is orderly, peaceful, and rewarding, and his personality will be shaped accordingly. 

The Role of the Adult

The adult plays a very important role in the success of Montessori education. The home environment is the first place your little one encounters when she is born. When you prepare your home environment, focus not only on the indoor and outdoor areas, but on how you can prepare yourself (spiritually, physically, professionally, psychologically, and so on). Observe your child’s interests, which are a roadmap for her developmental needs, provide a language rich environment, and model healthy habits and relationships. 
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