The Montessori prepared environment is an environment adapted to the size, needs and development of the child, providing a safe, loving, warm and secure place of learning and which provides the child with everything he (or she), needs to satisfy the plane of development through which he passes during his sensitive periods.
From birth to three years, the child is unconsciously absorbing all he can from his environment, forming disconnected impressions of everything he is exposed to. During this time he is extremely sensitive to his environment and to any sudden changes, distractions, obstacles and hindrances to his development at this time can result in dire manifestations later in his life. The environment best suited to him during this period of life must provide activities, means of learning and the right adult to guide him into developing the fundamental areas of the person to full potential. These areas are not merely physical, but mental too and consist of the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social areas that build the character of the man he will grow up to be.
During this period up to three years of age, the child must be exposed to as much movement as can be allowed. He needs to reach out and touch his environment and be encouraged to use his hands, because through them, he will develop his mind, learn to co-ordinate his muscular movements, develop gross and fine motor skills, improve his muscle tone and balance. These hands are the instruments of the mind and movement the keys to intelligence. It is through these that the child develops himself and must be given the space and time to use them as much as he likes as he discovers his world and his place in it.
From three to six years, the child will make a transition from the unconscious to the conscious and will begin to connect his environment to the impressions absorbed into his mind. Through the work of his hands, he is consciously absorbing details he can use to classify the impressions and put them into order. His needs now require that he must be allowed the opportunities to develop himself to his full potential. He needs to be able to choose activities that satisfy his spontaneous need to learn and the environment that allows him to work repeatedly, whenever and for as long as he likes, without interruption. He needs an environment where he can use his hands, combined with his senses, to work with interesting and mind absorbing activities that provide concrete concepts, such as shape, size, dimension, colour, taste, smell, sound, texture, weight and temperature and connect the environment to his mental impressions. He needs an environment that allows him to learn about nature, other people and their cultures as well as his own place in the universe, where he can choose to work on his own or with others, where the adult sets the boundaries, presents the activities, respects, observes and follows the child, providing him with the activities that match his interests and fulfil his needs then withdraws and leaves the child to teach himself.
From birth the child needs to be with people who love and care for him, who encourage his development by giving him the freedom to move and explore unhindered and an environment that provides for this development. He must be included in it and not removed from it. He must be spoken to clearly and concisely without unnecessary baby jargon. He requires the facts of the world in real speech, as the adult he trusts and looks up to sows the seeds of knowledge. He must be in an environment that is filled with love, trust, security, and order and equipped with the right materials to stimulate his mind and provide mental nourishment.
The prepared Montessori environment meets all the needs of the child, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and socially. It is adapted for and focused on the development of the child, the adult’s place being that of custodian, guide, observer and provider of materials to fulfil the child’s needs during his sensitive periods. This develops independence in the child as the environment is his. He can act spontaneously, express himself freely and form social relationships with his fellow learners.
The activities provide for both mental and physical development as the materials have been specially designed to incorporate as much movement as possible, and allow for maximum effort in having to fetch, carry, work with and pack away, with both fine and gross muscle movement employed as the child stretches, bends and manoeuvres the materials according to their position in the work he does. The work he engages in is purposeful and interesting and enables him to concentrate for long periods of time without tiring.
The materials provide auto-education as they all have a control of error built into them. The work is presented to the child, who observes and absorbs the teacher’s movements. He is then left to work on his own for as long as he likes, noticing and correcting his mistakes without anyone having to point them out and correct him. This builds the child’s self confidence and self esteem, and develops inner discipline as he journeys along the road of discovery, exploring every step of the way.
The Montessori environment is organised and orderly, a place for everything, and everything in its place. There is consistency in the setting of boundaries, in the work and behaviour of the adults. There is plenty opportunity for the child to choose what he would like to do, think clearly and logically and make well thought through decisions. In the ordered environment he is able to concentrate on the finest details of the materials, objects, pictures, movements and sounds. The sensorial materials, ‘the keys to the universe’, provide stimulation for all the senses and further develop, refine, and broaden them, allowing the child to classify them, bringing understanding and order to the impressions he unconsciously absorbed since birth. He works with his hands and learns to make discriminations through his visual, muscular, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory senses.He is comfortable in the ordered environment and gains satisfaction in working repeatedly with the materials and activities presented to him, developing an ordered mind.
There is only one of each activity in the environment, which teaches the child patience as he waits his turn. In this way he also learns to respect the rights of others as they work and they in turn respect his right to work with the activity once they are done. This teaches the children to share and take turns in the classroom, on the playground and in their home and other social environments.
Right from the start, the Montessori prepared environment indirectly prepares the child for future work, such as writing, reading, mathematics and language. It also caters for the fulfilment of each of the sensitive periods the child goes through in his development. Sensitive periods are not permanent and die away as they are fulfilled, only to be replaced by others. They happen naturally, in the same sequence in every child and enable the child to choose, as an individual, what is necessary for his growth from the complex world he lives in. During these periods the child learns effortlessly and spontaneously, focusing his full attention and interest on certain aspects of his environment, while he completely ignores others. These sensitive periods help the child acquire certain functions or develop certain characteristics and if they are missed, or constantly ignored, they are gone forever, hindering the child’s development and damaging him as a human being. He will experience difficulty in learning them later in life, possibly detesting the function or need and learning to avoid it at all costs as he lives his life, his potential destroyed. It is therefore of paramount importance that these sensitive periods are not missed and it is here that the Directress in the Montessori prepared environment plays such an important role.
The Directress is the dynamic link between the child and the environment. She must have learned how to observe and identify the sensitive periods and provide the child with the objects and experiences he is interested in so that he can conquer and perfect the functions vital to his development. She must be able to provide what he is lacking in his needs and help fulfil them. The Directress must carefully prepare the environment and be part of the child’s development. She must have worked well with all the materials and learned their place and how they benefit the child’s development and be able to match the appropriate activity to his need or interest. The Directress must be easily found by those who need her, yet ‘not there’ to those who are absorbed and working without fatigue. Her place is teaching, not correcting. She is there to guide the child, present to him in a controlled and concise, gentle manner, then withdraw, allowing the child to work while she carefully observes and then returns to present to him a more complex or new activity to fulfil his needs as she has identified them. She looks over and after the environment with new and fresh eyes, identifying needs and changes as she guides her charges to their full potential, with the faith that each one will reveal himself through his work, creating the man he is to become.
In conclusion, it is evident that the Montessori prepared environment does cater for the WHOLE development of the child in every aspect of his life. From the large windows providing natural light and warmth, the child size furniture, pictures on the walls that he can see without straining, the real objects to do real tasks, the easily accessible activities that engage maximum effort and prepare him for future work without him realising it and materials, mops, brooms, polishing equipment, secateurs for flower arranging while he cares for himself and his environment, to the loving, trustworthy, comforting and motherly ever-observant Directress who fulfils his needs, the child creates himself into an independent, self confident, emotionally and stable, physically healthy intellectual and self disciplined human being.
Written by: Felicity Ingram