Montessori 101: The Multi-Age 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, 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—concepts are very familiar, even intuitive, to anyone who lives or works with children. In our Montessori 101 series, we’ll demystify and explore Montessori terminology. This week, we’ll take a look at the benefits the Montessori multi-age classroom offers.

In a Montessori school, you will not find separate classrooms for preschool, Kindergarten, 1st grade, etc., as you might in a traditional school. Instead, each Montessori classroom environment serves children in a three-year range of ages. Why do we do this? Isn’t it confusing to have multiple grades and ages in one classroom? How does the guide teach all the right lessons to the right students?

The fundamental principle behind the mixed-age environment is this: Montessori places children into environments based on their developmental stage. Dr. Montessori’s research suggests that children go through multiple-year stages of development from birth to adulthood, called “the four planes of development.” (Stay tuned for a blog post about the four planes!). In each plane, there are specific emotional, physical, social, and intellectual milestones, as well as specific emotional, physical, social, and intellectual needs. Montessori environments are specialized to foster those milestones and serve those needs.

At Villa di Maria, you’ll find separate environments designed to serve children 14 months through 3 years—the Young Children’s Community; 3 years through 6 years—the Children’s House; 6 through 9—Lower Elementary; and 9 through 12—Upper Elementary.

So, back to those questions at the top: Isn’t it confusing to have multiple grades ages in one classroom? Put simply… no. And in fact, we believe it makes more sense than the preschool – 12 system of traditional schooling. Nowhere else in life are we placed exclusively with others our exact age. Dr. Montessori believed the classroom should be as accurate a reflection of the child’s culture as possible—Montessori education prepares children for life. And the age-specific environment just doesn’t happen in the real world. In the mixed-age environment, children learn to work alongside, and collaborate with their older and younger peers.

In fact, the mixed-age classroom allows children to take on different roles in relation to their peers over the course of their time in each environment. On the younger end of the age range, children are careful observers of their older peers, gaining inspiration and motivation from their work. As they move into their final year in their environment, their culminating year, children take on leadership roles. With two years of experience settling into the routines and values of their classroom, the older students are ready to model positive behavior and inspire the younger children with their beautiful and challenging work. The older children, themselves, develop patience and compassion as they assist and encourage their younger peers in areas of struggle.

But what about grade-level work—how does the guide teach all the right lessons to the right students? The mixed-age classroom supports each child’s individual learning pace within their plane of development. Children have the opportunity to work with older students in some areas and younger students in other areas. For example, if a child is struggling to master subtraction, giving a lesson to a younger student could help. Teaching someone else how to do something cements that learning in their own brain. When they are ready for more challenging math work, they can be paired with older students for a challenge. The diversity of ages in the classroom promotes the value of unique learning styles and timelines. We all have areas of strength and weakness. We each progress to understanding and mastery in our own time.

Additionally, the multi-age classroom allows the child to develop leadership skills in his culminating year. The older children model positive behavior, as they’ve had two years to settle into the routines and values of that classroom. They also inspire the younger children with their beautiful and challenging work projects. The older children develop patience and compassion as they assist and encourage the younger in areas of struggle.

What all child development research tells us is that, while there are certainly milestones that will be met for most children at certain stages, these stages are not neatly divided into one-year segments. There is no age-prompted switch that automatically turns on for reading or algebra. Each typically developing child in a learning environment will hit their milestones within a range of ages. And this is exactly what the mixed-age environment offers.