Montessori is misunderstood: A reply


Recently we published a story about what kids get up to at Montessori kindergarten – an affectionate story that highlights the difference between the Montessori system and other types of preschools. Written by a mother who sends her child to a Montessori kindergarten, she is a fan of this educational approach but acknowledges that some of activities her son engages in during his day there might seem unusual to the uninitiated.

But the Montessori community were quick to point out that all the ‘weird things’ that were included actually make sense when you understand Montessori. And that what happens in one kindergarten does not necessarily happen in all kindergartens. There are more than 22,000 Montessori schools around the world in more than 110 different countries. So making the blanket statement that a particular practice happens “In Montessori” is seriously underestimating the diversity of this approach!

And so to give the ‘weird things’ some context, Jessica from Montessori Child wrote this reply:

1. “No-one comes through the door without a hand-shake”

This assumes that hand-shakes are automatically ‘business-like’.

Let’s start by considering why handshakes are so common in business (at least in Australian culture). It is because handshakes achieve two goals simultaneously; they initiate a connection and they show respect. A handshake is unique because it establishes some physical contact without imposing artificial or unwanted intimacy. Some children prefer to greet their Montessori teachers with a hug. Some. Not all of them. So it would be inappropriate for Montessori teachers to use a hug as a ‘standard’ greeting. A handshake is a nice balance – it offers a gentle touch but it respects personal space. If a child wants to move from the handshake to the hug (as so many of them do!) then this is warmly welcomed!

2. “No nappies for anyone who can walk”

Firstly, not all Montessori environments enforce this as a rule. In many Montessori environments, we make suggestions to parents and offer support with toilet learning but we don’t tell parents how to parent and we don’t undermine their choices by doing the exact opposite in the classroom.

And the reason for the “thick terry toweling underpants” for our children is not so the soiled underpants feel “gross” – but so that the child feels something! Nappies are designed to ‘draw the moisture away’ so it is often difficult for a child (or an adult!) to even notice when they are wet. On the other hand, a child using the Montessori-style underpants will definitely feel it when the underpants are wet or soiled. This sensation gives the child a signal, helps put them in tune with their body, and gives an innate motivation to want to change into fresh clothes and to want to try using the toilet next time.

3. “They sleep on the floor”

Is there something strange about letting children experience freedom of movement?

‘Floor beds’ are certainly widely used in Montessori environments. A floor bed isn’t just “sleeping on the floor”, it’s a beautifully prepared and comfortable sleeping area that is low enough for a child to get on and off independently. Sometimes there’s a low bed frame, others choose to just use mattresses. It depends on the context. The binding principle is simply that children are able to choose when to be in bed and when to be awake. Something that we, as adults, take for granted.

There are definitely challenges with using a floor bed, it’s not an absolutely perfect or smooth system, but there are also challenges with cots – most notably the excessive crying from a child who is wide awake but rendered completely stuck! A floor bed allows a child the dignity and liberty of moving from the sleeping space to move safely around their special environment.

4. “They scrub bricks, wash windows and polish silver”

This assumes that we automatically think of cleaning as a ‘chore’.

In our adult lives the cleaning is usually an obstacle in the way of what we really want to do. But it’s different for a child. They look at cleaning as something fun to do when it’s a choice that they are free to make. This is because cleaning is, undeniably (and whether we like it or not!), a big part of adult life. Children see adults cleaning, tidying, working, mending. And they want to be like us! Children are driven by an innate and unquenchable desire to imitate the adults in their culture. This is how they become social beings and actualized individuals, it is how they develop a sense of belonging and a feeling of identity. We think it’s ‘cute’ when children play doctors or dress up in mummy’s shoes…so why is it so strange that they would also want to wash the windows like mummy does on the weekend or cook the dinner like daddy?



5. “Parents are also put to work”

This assumes that a child’s community should be completely separate from the adult’s community.

The practice of asking parents to help out is definitely not unique to Montessori, it’s pretty commonplace for schools to have various parent committees or working bees. It benefits everyone if a school has a sense of community and if parents and educators work in partnership. Volunteering for a parent group at a Montessori school isn’t just about “wiping down pencil cases”, it’s about getting to know other parents who might be sharing your experiences. It’s about being physically on the school premises so you feel that you truly belong there, so you’re not just a visitor in a foreign land. Spending time helping the school also says to your child, “I care about this place – your environment is important to me.”

Supporting your school community is also great role-modelling for your child. We talk about wanting children to be generous and to care for others, so we need to show them what this looks like. Donating your time, energy and expertise helps to show your child that this is a part of your family values. That will make things a lot easier when you’re eventually asking your child to donate their time, energy and expertise to tasks that will benefit your home or family.

6. “They are eerily quiet”

This assumes that children must be loud, chaotic and crazy in order to have fun.

Sure, Montessori classrooms are certainly a bit “quieter” than the average early learning environments but guess what – that’s just what happens when children are engaged! There’s no “eerie” about it because it’s completely natural – something that the children are doing, not something we are doing to them. When they’re encountering experiences that are developmentally appropriate, stimulating, interesting, inspiring and enlightening they don’t need to run in circles shouting at the top of their lungs! They’re having too much fun to want to do that. We don’t force children to ‘be quiet’, we just offer them a range of different opportunities and some of these inspire quiet focus, while others provoke meaningful discussion and collaboration, but very few instigate random loud noise for its own sake.

In the classroom it’s rare that it’s ever “very quiet” – it’s more of a “productive hum”. The productive hum is still not a crazy clatter of cackling, but it’s the ambient noise of happy chatting, joyful giggles, and materials being moved and manipulated as children learn through play. The assumption that all kids want to be loud and crazy also completely ignores the fact that humans experience a wide range of personality types and traits. We’re happy to understand that there are lots of quiet, introverted adults who prefer a night in with Netflix to a bustling party…so where do we think those adults come from?

7. They arrange flowers and say Grace

This assumes that manners are just delivered to a child one night by the Manners Fairy.

It is true that “In the world of Montessori there is a big emphasis on being a nice person” but how is this ‘weird’? Montessori values values so much that there is a whole curriculum area devoted to them – it’s called “Grace and Courtesy”. Helping children develop social graces and courteous manners is as important as helping them to learn to count or name colours. Humans are social creatures. Every single day of our lives we will engage in social interactions. So learning how to engage in these interactions politely and effectively is quite simply one of the most important skills a person can ever acquire.

Culture isn’t just something that happens at a national level, it’s something that develops in localities, neighbourhoods, families and classrooms. In Montessori we simply recognize that the classroom community is the child’s first experience with a social culture outside of the home, so we work hard to make it a pleasant and positive one.