“What a beautiful classroom with such beautiful toys!” a visitor exclaimed when she entered a Montessori classroom for the first time. Her guide, the school’s Director, smiled and quickly replied, “Yes, the prepared environment is beautiful, isn’t it? The materials in the classroom were developed with very specific intentions, and if you look carefully, you’ll see that they aren’t quite ‘toys’.” The Director then led the visitor to a chair where she could sit quietly and observe the class in action. At the end of her visit, the guest met with the Director and commented, “You were right. Those beautiful materials are not toys, are they? They are wonderful learning tools!”
This experience is very common. Visitors to Montessori schools quickly come to realize that the children in the classrooms are working purposefully with very special materials that have been carefully arranged in the environment just for them. As it should be, the materials are beautiful and inviting, and they entice the children and provide them with an opportunity to experiment and explore. However, they are not toys, as we know toys to be from what we see on television and the mad marketing aimed at children by the media. Instead, the materials in Montessori classrooms have a purpose much deeper than just to amuse the children. The items set out in the classroom draw the children to them, and the materials help the children develop various sets of skills as the children engage with them.
This is part of the magic of the Montessori materials. Children are drawn to them. They learn so much and gain many skills by interacting with them, all the while finding meaningful enjoyment in the activities. To begin, let’s look at the items found in the Practical Life area of the classroom. They are child-sized versions of items children might find around the house for cooking, cleaning, and attending to daily tasks. However, the children find these fascinating! They love learning how to pour liquids from one container to another, and as they are learning this skill, they also have fun learning how to clean up spills with a sponge or a mop. They find joy in washing dishes! Unbelievably, the children delight in folding laundry! Part of the intrigue is that these are the very things they witness adults doing all around them. Imagine how proud 3- or 4-year-olds are when they can offer to help with these chores and show an adult that, indeed, they can complete the tasks! Children gain confidence and experience a feeling of importance when they see they can make a positive contribution to family life. So much is gained from learning these daily life skills—so much more than just the skill itself, and all because the children have appropriate items carefully set out for them to explore! Not many toys offer this type of benefit, and yet, the children are having fun in completing these tasks with the materials.
During your child’s birthday or special holiday, how many times have you found that the wrapping paper, bows, and boxes have been more appealing to your child than the gift that was wrapped? It’s a common complaint that parents share. Dr. Montessori in The Absorbent Mind said “[the child] is not quiet with his toys…. for more than a few minutes. The real trouble is that children have no real interest in these things, because there is no reality in them.” While every December we see shows dedicated to the “10 Hottest Toys for Tots” and advertisements warning us to “get it before it’s sold out!” we should remember those adult complaints about the packaging being more appealing than the toy itself. Dr. Montessori was spot on in her observation of children. They prefer spending time with things that have meaning or purpose. These types of activities draw the child’s focus, and he or she will use them over and over again, not toss them aside as children often do with toys. With this self-directed repetition, the children begin building concentration while at the same time experiencing joy in working with the materials. Not many toys could make that claim.
Throughout the Montessori classroom, children explore the materials that not only teach a specific skill (such as pencil grip, pattern recognition, counting, or word identification), but that also teach concentration, manual dexterity, problem-solving and much more. In addition to being multifaceted in its purpose, each material in the classroom also provides a way for the child to know whether or not he or she completed the task correctly. As Dr. Montessori noted, “The control of error through the materials makes the child use his reason, critical faculty, and his ever increasing capacity for drawing distinctions. In this way, a child’s mind is conditioned to correct his errors even when they are not apparent to the sense.” The genius of Montessori is that children very naturally learn from the materials, and the children see this as time spent on joyful activities! Toys, in general, do not offer this to children. This is why toys are often cast aside, while children can be found working with Montessori materials for long, extended periods of time.
While the materials in the classroom are often referred to as ‘work’, the ‘work’ provides the children with the opportunity to do things that they are very interested in doing and to explore their world. Montessori recognized that children thrive in a prepared environment with inviting materials that are arranged in a special order from the more simple to the more advanced. Children happily progress as they are ready and as their interest leads them from one activity to another. Because there is only one of each item in the classroom, the children must learn to wait for their turn to use something when it is available. By comparison, many homes are overflowing with toys that aren’t necessarily organized or accessible to the child—baskets or bins of toys must be emptied to find the one at the bottom, and often, the toys are a muddled mess. The wonder of the Montessori classroom is that it is carefully prepared and arranged, and children thrive in this predictable environment where they know exactly where to find what they are looking for. In Montessori classrooms, it is rare to find a child with nothing to do, and nearly impossible to hear the words ‘I’m bored’. Children, surrounded by toys in their homes, often make these complaints, much to their parents’ dismay!
We learned from Dr. Montessori that if we “Follow the child, the child will show you what they need to do, what they need to develop in themselves and what area they need to be challenged in. The aim of the children who persevere in their work with an object is certainly not to “learn”; they are drawn to it by the needs of their inner life, which must be recognized and developed by its means.” The needs of children are met in Montessori classrooms where there is a joy in the activity, as well as a productive buzz that radiates throughout the room. Children are engaged, learning, and having fun with the materials. Dr. Montessori seemed to find the perfect solution to engaging children in meaningful activity from even the youngest age. All without the need for a cluttered mess of toys anywhere in sight. Clearly, the Montessori materials have stood the test of time over the course of these 110 years. While the packaging that the materials come in may, indeed, be fun to play with, children in Montessori schools are rapt by the materials themselves, and these materials are a great gift to them, more than any over-advertised toy you could ever find!
Are you interested in learning more about the Montessori philosophy? Request more information from The Montessori Children’s Academy below: