Montessori 101: Environment vs. Classroom

We Montessorians sometimes use terminology that’s unfamiliar to folks more accustomed to a traditional school model, and this can lead to a bit of a mystification around the philosophy. It can even lead to the notion that Montessori schools are out of reach for the general population—that the methods in a Montessori school are too specialized, too… strange.

In fact, the concepts of Montessori, and the vocabulary we use to describe those concepts, were borne from Dr. Maria Montessori’s education, research, and maybe most importantly, her observations of real children at work. In other words, Montessori concepts and vocabulary are rooted in the natural processes of child development, and these concepts are very familiar, even intuitive, to anyone who lives or works with children. In our Montessori 101 series, we’ll demystify Montessori vocabulary and explore the concepts that inform it. This week, we’ll unpack what we mean by an “environment,” as opposed to a “classroom”.

Montessori often compares human development to the growth of a plant. The plant has everything it needs to grow within itself; it only requires the proper environment (soil, water, sunlight, warmth). Similarly, humans require certain environmental factors to mature and flourish. We know infants require consistent positive interaction with caregivers in order to form attachment and one day function in society. Babies need freedom of movement in order to learn to walk. They need to hear their native language to be able to develop language themselves. Amazingly, typically developing little humans acquire the abilities to walk and speak without any formal instruction! Movement and language develop organically in an environment rich with stimuli and interaction.

“Education is not something which a teacher does, but it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.” (emphasis added)

(Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)

As children develop, they require a developing set of stimuli to aid them toward their full potential. Dr. Montessori observed that children pass through four stages of development from birth to adulthood. She called these stages, “The Four Planes of Development.” An in-depth look into the four planes of development is coming to the blog very soon—for now, the takeaway is this: the characteristics of children change from plane to plane; and each plane of development requires a particular environment and trained adult suited to the needs of that plane.

In a Montessori school, classrooms (yes, we still call it a “classroom” sometimes!) are designed and thoughtfully prepared along the lines of the planes and sub-planes of development. Montessori divides the first plane into a sub-plane of zero-to-three years old and three-to-six years old—these are the Young Children’s Community (YCC) and the Children’s House. The YCC environment is designed to facilitate the natural work of the very young child: the construction of physical and biological independence. The YCC assists children as they learn to walk, talk, and perform activities independently. From ages to three through six, the Children’s House environment continues to foster the independence of the first-plane child.

In the second plane of development, the sub-planes break down into six-to-nine years old and nine-to-twelve years old—Lower Elementary and Upper Elementary. In these environments children are offered materials and lessons to develop mental independence and a reasoning mind. The elementary environments also offer social opportunities as children become motivated to work and spend time with others. For this reason, the Montessori elementary environment provides larger work tables to accommodate groups of children. The elementary guide presents lessons to groups of children because of the intense drive to work with peers.

A “classroom” connotes a room in which a class is held, where information is imparted from one person to another. Montessori doesn’t see education that way. In a Montessori school, we see the innate power children have to form themselves, as flowers do, given the appropriate surroundings—surroundings that meet the needs of the particular developmental stage. As Dr. Montessori said,

“An adult can assist in shaping the environment, but it is the child that perfects his own being.”

By calling the classroom an “environment,” Montessorians seek to give agency to the child in their process of formation. We see the trained adult as an important part of the environment, who guides the child in his journey toward becoming a fully formed adult.