The Montessori Prepared Environment

By Principal Vincenza Marzano-Kooner

“To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.” – Maria Montessori

One of the most unique aspects of a Montessori learning environment which sets it completely apart from other classrooms is the preparation and sequencing of the materials which Maria Montessori created over a century ago with the children whom she guided. Since her death in 1952, Montessori guides (teachers) have continued using Montessori materials and creating materials inspired by her scientific approach. In her books, Montessori speaks so often about the importance of the prepared environment where each child can cultivate confidence, independence, and mastery.

“The environment itself will teach the child, if every error he makes is manifest to him, without the intervention of a parent or teacher, who should remain a quiet observer of all that happens.” – Maria Montessori

Usually, shelves in the Lower Elementary room are arranged by curricular area – Language, Math, Practical Life, and Cultural studies. Guides rotate the shelves throughout a school year, due in large part to the observations of the children by the adult guide. She notices which materials are relevant and enticing to the children, and she also observes when the children are no longer intrigued. When new materials appear, interest is stirred and activity is contagious amongst the children, who want to manipulate the concrete materials with their hands and other senses.

“The environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his mission.” – Maria Montessori

The center of the 6-9 year old mixed-age classroom is Cosmic Education, the scope and order of the stories of the Universe from largest and oldest to the most recent and familiar. The vastness of the Cosmic curriculum in particular – from astronomy, physics, and chemistry to geology, geography, and life sciences – demands fluidity of movement as the children move through the Great Lessons. The children’s best and first teacher is the real material which they are given to touch, such as real plants in need of water, real fossils of trilobites, and real igneous rock that was once ejected from a real volcano.

“The child must live in an environment of beauty.” – Maria Montessor

Regular change on the Cultural shelves mimics the inevitable and continuous changes on Earth – from the growth of continental plates from vulcanism to the erosion of rock through the Work of Wind and the Work of Water to the migration of humans due to natural hazards and civilization. These grand ideas are presented as key experiences to spark the imagination of the child.

“To do well, it is necessary to aim at giving the elementary age child an idea of all fields of study, not in precise detail, but an impression. The idea is to sow the seeds of knowledge at this age, when a sort of sensitive period for the imagination exists.” – Maria Montessori

Math shelves contain materials which the child can use independently or with a partner after an initial lesson from an adult Montessori guide. The materials are also sequential and attuned to different learning styles. For example, several different materials can be used by a child learning a math operation, such as addition. The Golden Beads are all the same color and require the child to use her pincer grip, which is developing at the 6-9 ages, with great care and precision. The Stamp Game is similar to the Golden Beads in terms of quantity and place value concepts, yet variations include size, shape, and color (also reinforcing place value – green representing units, blue representing tens, and red representing hundreds). 

“The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult.” – Maria Montessori

The Small and Large Bead Frames are often an option preferred by children with strong spatial and kinesthetic learning styles, especially those who have tired of using the Stamp Game in a plane; the Bead Frames allow exchanging to happen in the vertical sphere. The Bank Game allows children to work together in small groups, role-playing using the expanded form of the operations. In most Montessori classes, the children eventually (and ideally) work with such confidence and independence that they hardly register the observing presence of their adult guide.

“The teacher’s first duty is to watch over the environment, and this takes precedence over all the rest.  Its influence is indirect, but unless it is well done there will be no effective and permanent results of any kind; physical, intellectual or spiritual.” – Maria Montessori

Language shelves contain materials (usually card materials) which are self-correcting and self-explanatory for a child to use – again, after an initial lesson with an adult Montessori guide, by herself or with a partner. Children learn sounds of vowels and consonants using Phonics towers, language relationships (such as compound words, synonyms, and homophones) using Word Study drawers, and parts of speech (such as nouns, adjectives, and prepositions) using Grammar boxes. 

“Not upon the ability of the teacher does education rest, but upon the didactic system.  When the control and correction of errors is yielded to the materials, there remains for the teacher nothing but to observe.” – Maria Montessori

Children keep track of the drawers they complete in order to find appropriate partners of any age, and many children enjoy the maturity and responsibility of giving lessons to their peers. The adult guide watches and intervenes only when needed, redirecting the child back to the material and using questions to assist in the child’s own discovery. Children help each other in the same way as the adult models them, avoiding telling an answer and instead asking questions or walking through the prepared environment to locate resources such as a dictionary, atlas, or thesaurus.

“Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.” – Maria Montessori

Practical Life is an area of the Montessori curriculum which is central to the 3-6 year-old Primary classroom, however since Lower Elementary children ages 6-9 are also still developing fine motor, gross motor, sensory integration, and self-regulation skills, the activities and materials on the Practical Life shelves provide great relief and reprieve for children from the abundant (and sometimes rigorous) academic materials. 

“The exercises of practical life are formative activities, a work of adaptation to the environment. Such adaptation to the environment and efficient functioning therein is the very essence of a useful education.” – Maria Montessori

Practical Life materials are hands-on – such as braiding, sorting, and weaving. Practical Life materials are creative – such as watercolors, clay tablets, and building blocks. Practical Life materials soothe and calm the whole body – such as yoga, jumping rope, and carrying hand weights. These shelves are favorites for children in need of a “brain break” who often return to their intellectual work soon after with renewed energy and concentration.

“The materials, in fact, do not offer to the child the content of the mind, but the order for that content.” – Maria Montessori

One of the most iconic places in any Montessori learning environment is the Peace Table, a beautiful space where children may sit by themselves or with a friend with whom they have conflict. In a Primary room, a single rose in a vase on a table symbolizes Peace. In my Lower Elementary classroom, I have decorated our Peace Table (which sits close to the floor) with a soft scarf, a Tibetan singing bowl, a Chinese meditation egg, and a few lovely gemstones. Maria Montessori respected children as emotional, intellectual, social beings. The adult guide may give a lesson on how to use the Peace Table – either for internal balance or for interpersonal problem-solving – yet it remains in the child’s power to decide if and when to use the materials.

“The children must be free to choose their own occupations, just as they must never be interrupted in their spontaneous activity.” – Maria Montessori

The scope and sequence of the Montessori curriculum and classroom set-up is quite intentional, not unlike the scaffolding of a building under construction – or a theater stage. Children are unaware of the preparation of their learning environment – from lessons to materials to shelf layout and rotation. They do not need to know all the content or all the steps in order to grow. They only need to feel secure that they are free to explore and discover in an organized fashion. 

“Freedom without organization is useless.  The organization of the work, therefore, is the cornerstone of this new structure.  But even that organization would be in vain without the liberty to make use of it.” – Maria Montessori