As it happens, the name “Montessori” is not trademarked so it is open for use by any daycare, preschool, or academy—regardless of their adherence to the Montessori method and philosophy. This lack of regulation by consequence oftentimes misleads some parents who are unaware that not all Montessori schools are created equal. A cursory Google search for preschools in any major city, for example, can yield a plethora of “Montessori” schools. Experience has shown, however, that the mere presence of the term alone is not a guarantee of the school’s fidelity to Maria Montessori’s teachings or the core principles of Montessori classrooms.

The indiscriminate use of the Montessori name to some degree erodes the reputation of true Montessori education which boasts academic benefits for children that have been documented for years. Sadly, it also translates into an educational experience for many parents that deviates from their expectations of what a Montessori education should be.

For decades, parents have sought placements for their children in private Montessori preschools. The reason for this is parents often associate Montessori with fostering creativity through innovative teaching methods that respect children and give them control over their educational journey. Children in true Montessori classrooms work with beautifully crafted materials not found in other preschools and given the time for independent and self-paced learning. The Montessori approach nurtures concentration, honors children’s interests, inspires a profound sense of wonder and, due to the absence of external rewards or incentives, instills an intrinsic love of learning.

A Brief History of Montessori

Montessori education originated in 1907 when Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, established the “Casa de Bambini” or “Children’s House” in a disadvantaged Roman neighborhood. The school, meticulously aligned with Dr. Montessori’s understanding of child development, aimed to provide underprivileged children with a unique educational experience. Dr.  Montessori’s approach prioritized self-directed activities, specialized environments, and teachers who acted as guides rather than traditional teachers.

The Montessori method reached American shores in the early 1900s, although its popularity waned during the 1920s. It experienced a resurgence in the 1960s, particularly after Time magazine featured a Montessori school in an article titled “The Joy of Learning.” Parents were drawn to these schools, perceiving them as alternatives to conventional public education. In recent times, public Montessori schools have emerged, contributing to a renewed interest in Montessori education.

Despite its reputation for creativity, the Montessori method places a strong emphasis on order and consistency. Maria Montessori deemed these elements essential for effective learning. Every aspect of the Montessori environment follows specific procedures, from rolling up a mat to pouring liquid between pitchers or drawing lines on paper. Materials are meticulously arranged on shelves according to their level of difficulty, and children are discouraged from moving between activities without first receiving instruction. Precision, clarity, and structure are fundamental principles underpinning Montessori pedagogy.

What the Research Reveals

Research underscores the positive impact of a Montessori education on student achievement. Studies have found that students attending Montessori schools outperform their peers in non-Montessori programs, including private preschools and Head Start initiatives, in math and literacy tests. Older students who attended Montessori schools exhibited significant differences in story writing and social skills compared to peers in non-Montessori programs. Additionally, 5-year-olds in Montessori programs demonstrated superior academic skills in letter-word identification and mathematics compared to their non-Montessori counterparts.

However, authenticity is key. One study distinguishes between classic Montessori programs and those with “lower fidelity.” Children in classic Montessori programs experience “significantly greater school-year gains” in executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, and social problem-solving compared to students in Montessori schools that are less authentic or those with no Montessori affiliation at all.

What to Look For

Parents may grapple with identifying an authentic Montessori school, but below are the key traits to look for:

  1. Trained Guides: Guides should receive training and be certified in the specific age group they teach through accredited programs.
  2. Multi-Age Classrooms: Montessori classrooms traditionally group children across three-year age spans, promoting peer learning and mentorship.
  3. Montessori Materials: Authentic Montessori materials encompass a wide array of sensorial and practical life resources, typically crafted from materials like fabric and wood. These materials serve multiple purposes and adapt to various stages of child development and learning.
  4. Three-Hour Uninterrupted Work Time: This dedicated period allows students to steer their learning at their pace, either independently or collaboratively with peers. Guides offer individual and small-group instruction during this time.

In Montessori classrooms, distinct work areas hold diverse Montessori materials, such as practical life activities, sensorial explorations, mathematical concepts, and language development tools. These resources encourage children to engage in activities that interest them and are self-correcting, meaning they guide children toward finding the correct solutions independently.

Authentic Montessori preschools embrace an environment of calm, focus, and purpose. During daily three-hour work sessions, children are encouraged to follow their interests, work alone or with peers, and stay engaged in their chosen activities for extended periods, fostering concentration and a love of learning.

Montessori Education in Action

At Pearlily Montessori, we are committed to being in close fidelity to Maria Montessori’s vision. Play is referred to as work, and learning occurs through practical activities such as cleaning shells or pouring liquids. There are no electronic toys and fantastical books with animals that talk, and instead we emphasize the superiority of tangible, real-world experiences. We do not have a laptop or tablet program, although there are a few computers and iPads available for use by the guides and staff. At Pearlily, books are preferable to screens.

If you come visit Pearlily Montessori, you may witness serene toddlers engrossed in their uninterrupted work. In one corner, a child arranges geometric shapes on a blue carpet, while another diligently creates outlines of shapes by punching holes in paper. In another corner, another student practices drawing lines. The ambiance might strike you as resembling a tranquil yoga studio more than a traditional preschool classroom.

Each classroom at Pearlily Montessori features low bookshelves teeming with authentic Montessori materials, from beads to the iconic pink tower and moveable alphabet sets in blue and pink. Access to such materials significantly impacts children’s success in Montessori education. Highly trained and certified guides alternate between observation and active engagement. This dynamic interaction is a hallmark of multi-age classrooms and a critical element in Montessori education.

Is Your Child Happy?

While the research on the effectiveness of a Montessori education is clear, parents must navigate the complex landscape of “Montessori” schools with discernment. Genuine Montessori environments adhere to core principles, including highly trained and certified educators, multi-age classrooms, authentic Montessori materials, and uninterrupted work periods. Parents should research schools and be more educated about the types of schools they select for their child. The right Montessori school, aligned with Maria Montessori’s vision, can profoundly impact a child’s educational journey. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for parents and the child to like the school and the people within. Ultimately, the questions to ask may very well be, “Are you happy with the school? Is your child happy?”

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