Why Montessori?

Educational Philosophy

Dr. Maria Montessori revolutionized education with her dynamic theories, which are the basis for Fountainhead’s educational philosophy. Each child is an individual accorded the respect due to every person. At the same time, children are not miniature adults; instead they think and learn in ways unique to their special time in life. Every child is nurtured physically, psychologically, cognitively, and spiritually. Fountainhead Montessori provides an environment for children to literally create themselves through purposeful activity. Children through the age of six experience and learn through all of their senses. Everything is hands-on. When activity is purposeful, developmentally appropriate, and, above all, fun, learning is joyful.

The Montessori Method

Who is Montessori?

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 into an upper-class Italian family. In her professional life, she was first attracted to engineering, but she later changed her mind and decided to study medicine. She was very determined — she was not only admitted to an all-male medical school, but she also became the first woman in Italy to become a physician. Additionally, her profound interest in humanity led her to pursue the study of anthropology, philosophy, psychiatry, and experimental psychology. This, along with the experience she gained from her years of work in medicine, provided a rich background for her eventual life’s work in the education of children. It was this work that, at the time of her death in 1952, left her one of the most honored and respected educators in the world.

Roots of the Montessori Method

Montessori was appalled by the conditions suffered by mentally and emotionally challenged children for whom it was universally accepted there was “no hope.” Her devotion to humanity and her indefatigable determination made her refuse to accept such easy pronouncements; indeed, the more she worked with these children, the greater her certainty that they had no need to be branded “idiots.” After two short years (1898–1900) in her care, Montessori’s charges were reading, writing, and passing exams meant for “normal” children. An amazed world applauded her efforts, but Montessori’s thoughts were already elsewhere. “[While] everyone was admiring my idiots, I was searching for the reasons which could keep back the healthy and happy children of the ordinary schools on so low a plane that they could be equaled in tests of intelligence by my unfortunate pupils,” she said.

This question consumed her. In 1906, having seen countless children bored, distracted, lulled, or repressed in the state schools, Montessori was given an opportunity to establish the first classroom for a group of 60 “little vandals” (residents of slums ranging in age from three to six) in Rome. It was this group of children who demonstrated the “spontaneous discipline,” “explosion of spontaneous reading and writing,” and “free social life” that so astounded the world. In fact, the transformation was so great that there were many that were ready to believe that since Montessori was a medical doctor, the real “miracle” must have been drugs. But the facts were quite different.

The Montessori Method

Dr. Montessori believed that education must be a “help to life.” The goal of her method is to prepare a child for real life rather than just for school. The Montessori Method is based on three interdependent components: the child, the teacher (or as Montessori called her, the “directress”) and the prepared environment.

The teacher is a trained professional who acts to facilitate learning. Using his or her knowledge of child development and the Montessori materials, he or she designs the environment; acts as a resource person, role model, and demonstrator of materials; and is a careful observer and record keeper of each child’s growth, behavior, and needs.

The prepared environment provides a purposeful place for learning. Everything within the environment is designed for the child. This is why the teacher has no desk, nor even an adult-sized chair.) The furniture, shelves, and even the paintings on the walls are at a child’s height. Each material is prepared by the teacher so that by using the work, the child may absorb the lesson built into it. The works are constantly updated to meet the child’s need for new challenges. Thus the environment, through the teacher, responds to the children as they develop.

The child chooses the activities prepared by the teacher, interacts with the other children and adults in the environment, and all the while is learning. Dr. Montessori adopted from biology the term “sensitive periods” to describe what she observed about how children learn.

Montessori found that there are periods of intense sensitivity of short duration when the child shows unusual capabilities for acquiring certain skills and/or knowledge (seemingly to the exclusion of all else for that period of time). Each sensitive period has as its aim the development of a specific ability and the acquisition of a determined characteristic. Once this characteristic has evolved, the corresponding sensitivity disappears — never to return again!

The Curriculum

Children from birth through age six are building the structure and character that they will have for the rest of their lives. While imagination and pretending play vital roles in this development, children need real, accurate information with which to build that structure and character. For this reason, Fountainhead Montessori’s curriculum is reality-based. This means that, as far as possible, teachers use accurate — even scientific — language and materials. For example, animals are studied along with their natural environments. They don’t speak like humans, and they don’t wear clothes. Literature may be entertaining and fun, even silly, but it doesn’t include fairies or superheroes. At Fountainhead, fantasy may come from a child’s imagination, but it is not imposed on the child by the teacher. Beliefs and a heritage of stories and traditions are respected as being best left to the family.

The curriculum of the Montessori Method includes exercises of practical life, the sensorial materials, language (writing and reading), mathematics, and cultural subjects.

Exercises of Practical Life (“Help Me Do It by Myself”)

The exercises of practical life are the foundation of the Montessori philosophy of education. They provide the “motives for activity” that constructively channel the child’s natural need for activity. Practical life exercises are individual work units made up of materials the child is likely to see in use in the everyday environment. Each individual work must be colorful, attractive, and related in its use to one of four main areas:

Control and Coordination of Movement. Exercises for learning to pour, carry, fold, cut, polish, walk, sit, and move gracefully, etc.

Care of the Person.Exercises for learning how to wash hands, dress and undress (buttons, zippers, snaps, buckles, lacings, bows, safety pins, hooks and eyes), toileting, nose blowing, etc..

Social Relationships. Also known as Grace and Courtesy. Learning to be polite and thoughtful of others, to listen and respond to other children and adults, to take turns when necessary, and to mirror the respect shown to them by their teachers and fellow students. Also learning to walk, stand, and sit properly, serve items such as food properly, and generally show respect for the environment and others.

The direct aims of the practical life exercises are order, concentration, coordination, and independence. As the child is introduced to each activity, practices it through repeated use, and masters the skill or concept designed into the work, these four essentials are developed at the same time. Mastering these skills builds self-confidence through pride of accomplishment and assures the development of initiative.

The Sensorial Materials (Educating the Senses)

Dr. Montessori observed that young children absorb information about their world through their senses. Yet education or training of the senses has generally been ignored by traditional education. Montessori developed special apparatus and activities to remedy this. Experts today are beginning to catch up with Montessori in their discussions on the importance of sensory integration.

Adults can easily pull up a mental image for concepts like long or short, heavy or rough. By using, for example, the red rods that increase in length from 10 to 100 cm, children develop such abstract references for themselves. Dr. Montessori has said “the function of the sensorial materials is not to present the child with new impressions (of size, shape, color, and so forth) but to bring order and system into the myriad impressions he has already received and is still receiving.” In addition to ordering all these sensory impressions, the sensorial materials help to refine such impressions.

It is amazing to see a four-year-old child order colored tiles from darkest red to palest pink when an adult can barely perceive the differences between these gradations of colors.

Through this refinement of the senses, which includes fine motor control and hand-eye coordination, and the sensorial materials, along with the exercises of practical life, the child is prepared for writing, reading, and mathematics.

Language (Writing and Reading)

Dr. Montessori discovered that children can actually learn to write before they learn to read. By breaking down writing into small, developmentally appropriate tasks, young children can learn to write and read with ease.

The physical act of writing is complex and involves many factors. The writing instrument must be held correctly by the three fingers that grip it; the hand must be capable of moving lightly across the paper, and coordination must be developed to permit the mind to direct the hand to move with precision. Most of the activities in the practical life and sensorial areas have as an indirect purpose the preparation of the hand to write: holding the knobs of the solid cylinders with the three writing fingers, touching the rough and smooth boards as lightly as possible, tracing around the insets and frames of the geometry cabinets, etc.

The drawings made with the metal insets directly prepare the hand for writing, and give the child control over the writing instrument. The sandpaper letters are lightly traced by the child as he repeats the sound of each letter, thus learning the letter phonetically and visually, and committing it to his muscular memory through the tactile system. When he knows several letters, he can begin to build simple phonetic words using the movable alphabet (a form of mechanical writing — the child usually cannot yet read what he has built at this early stage). Reading generally follows the many stages involved in preparation for writing. It often comes explosively, when the child suddenly discovers that the letters he has been fitting together actually form a word he understands — “f-r-o-g is frog. I can read!” This discovery is often followed by a lengthy period of devouring every word in sight.


Mathematical concepts are easily acquired by children at very early ages when they are exposed to materials that clearly illustrate the abstractions they represent. The number rods show the qualities of “one” through “ten” as no other materials have yet been able to do; sandpaper numbers permit the child to trace and learn numerals visually, orally, and through the muscular-tactile sense, just as with the sandpaper letters. Other materials bring the child, gradually, into counting in sequence; understanding odd and even numbers, the decimal system, concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; skip counting (counting in multiples of two’s, three’s, etc.); and fractions. The relationship between arithmetic, geometry, and algebra is constantly emphasized in the mathematics materials. This foundation prepares children to understand more easily the role of higher mathematics in later life, and they therefore come to appreciate its relevance to their own lives.

The Sciences

Children have an insatiable curiosity about the world around them. The teacher takes advantage of this wonderful incentive for learning by using biology, zoology, physics, geology, geography including diverse world cultures, and even history as jumping-off points for preparing the environment and materials. If the children discover a roly-poly bug on the playground, the teacher may set up a terrarium with a magnifying glass for observing the bug for a short time before returning it to its natural habitat. From there the children might make booklets describing the parts of the roly-poly in exact scientific terms. This work would incorporate process skills, drawing, and writing. Another activity might be making models of roly-polies in paper or clay. These activities could lead to learning about the differences between roly-polies, which are crustaceans, and most other bugs, which are insects. The teacher might use models of insects for sorting, grading, and counting. Thus the cultural subjects become a part of the complete environment.


Essential to the Montessori Method is the concept of freedom within limits. Creativity can flourish in this environment because children feel safe, respected, and accepted. A child may explore the possibilities of any material as long as it is being used in a way that does not damage it and is safe and respectful to the needs of others as well.

Knowing the proper use for a material releases creativity rather than inhibiting it. Just as a musician trains to make music on a violin and does not use the instrument as a hammer or a weapon, a child uses the red rods, gold beads, scissors, or markers — each material with its own purpose. The trained Montessori teacher is thrilled to see a child use a material in a positive new and creative way. Along with the Montessori materials, music, art, movement, and storytelling flourish in each classroom. There are special areas and times of day for certain activities, yet when a child is working “freely, within limits,” it’s always the right time and place for curiosity.


Being in a class with other children and teachers rather than parents presents many new challenges for a child. In fact, learning to get along in such a situation is part of why school is important for young children.

To make this first school experience a positive one, discipline must be based on respect. As far as is developmentally appropriate, children are respected as independent individuals with rights to self-determination and self-direction. Such an attitude leads to a strong sense of self-esteem and dignity. Respect for the rights of other children and adults along with respect for materials in the environment are fundamental rules of conduct at Fountainhead. By defining the limits within which children may act and by being explicit about the reasons for these limits, a child learns self-discipline and self-control.

The concept of justice is also developed in this way. To the greatest extent possible, disputes between children are settled by the children themselves based on principles of conduct at school. Corporal punishment is not employed by the teachers, and physical abuse between children is not tolerated. In all situations, teachers deal with the consequences of an action rather than making a judgment about the child’s character. For instance, a dispute about who has a right to a particular material is settled by the principle that the person who first chose the work has a right to use it, without interference, until finished. The teacher might say, “It’s Alice’s turn now. You may have a turn when she puts the work away. May I show you another work while you are waiting?”

If a child has injured another child, he or she is responsible for helping to repair the damage to every extent possible — for example by helping clean and bandage a cut or by providing ice for a bruise. The teacher could say, “I see Billy is hurt. Shall we help him?” If a child makes a mess, that child is responsible for cleaning it up. At first the teacher may point out the mess and suggest how to clean up — putting a work back on the shelf where it belongs or getting a sponge to wipe up a spill. Later, the child’s own sense of responsibility prompts the necessary action. The children and teachers demonstrate community responsibility by taking individual responsibility for their actions.

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Is Montessori right for my child?

Observe a class and see if Fountainhead is the best placement for your family. By observing a class, you will get a feel for the environment and curriculum. Feel free to observe multiple classrooms to make sure you have the best fit possible for your child.

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