The children in a Montessori classroom are of a mixed age group, ranging from 2-1/2 to 6. The classroom (or "prepared environment") contains developmental materials designed to provide absorbing learning activities for these varied ages and sensitive periods. Younger children look up to older children who, in turn, have the opportunity to reinforce what they have already learned by helping the younger children. With mixed ages, the children learn to work as a family, yet develop at their own pace.
There are five categories of activities in the primary ("preschool") classroom:
1. Practical Life Exercises
These constitute the foundation of the program, and include such activities as pouring water, spooning rice or beans, preparing vegetables, polishing silver, mirrors, or shoes, tying bows, washing tables, sweeping, buttoning and unbuttoning, zipping and unzipping, buckling and unbuckling. These activities lay the groundwork for the general atmosphere of the Montessori environment. They also help the child grow in independence and competence with respect to care of his/her individual person, care of the environment, performance of physical movements, and interactive social behavior. Concentration and a sense of order are developed, along with good work habits that strengthen and train muscles which will eventually be used for such activities as writing. For the child, there is pleasure in imitating and participating in "adult" activities that lead toward mastery of the environment and self.
2. Sensorial Exercises
By manipulating the Montessori sensorial apparatus, the child achieves a concrete understanding of such concepts as graduated size, weight, and texture. The sensorial exercises also include work with differentiating and grading color shades, as well as matching odors and sounds. Each exercise focuses on refining a specific sense. All sensorial materials serve as keys to all the other areas of learning.
Many of the primary language materials are strongly dependent on the
young child's sensitivity to sensory experience. Among the areas of
concentration are: spoken language, vocabulary enrichment, writing, and
reading. Children learn the shapes of letters by tracing with their
fingers the "sandpaper letters," which are cut from rough sandpaper and
mounted on smooth cards. This exercise is a preparation for eventual
writing of the letters.
One of Dr. Montessori's discoveries was that a child's usual natural inclination is to learn to write - to form letters and words - before learning to read. Interest in reading grows naturally out of work with writing. As with all learning in the Montessori environment, learning to read occurs at various ages and according to the child's individual pace.
In mathematics, as in other areas, manipulation of concrete materials is employed, rather than abstract language, to prepare concepts. Thus the child assimilates mathematical concepts and skills without rote work and drudgery. For younger children, who have a natural interest in counting, the primary materials emphasize this skill. The shapes of the numerals are learned in the same way as those of the letters, by tracing sandpaper numerals with the fingers.
The mathematical operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are learned by manipulating a variety of materials made with beads. Because the materials that teach these skills are concrete objects, the child is not forced to memorize mathematical facts and tables. Memorization of these occurs indirectly through repeated use, obviating the necessity for tedious - and often meaningless - rote learning.
5. Cultural Subjects
The Montessori classroom contains a great many other materials to stimulate and satisfy the child's variety of interests, while giving him/her opportunities for further investigation of his/her environment. A knowledge of geography is achieved by work with puzzle maps of all the continents. An appreciation of fine arts and music is derived from exposure to the work of the greatest representatives of these cultural fields, as well as by the availability in the classroom of materials for drawing, painting, pottery, and origami (Japanese paper-folding). Creative movement and music instruction develop motor abilities and rhythmic perceptions.
An understanding of the natural and physical sciences is attained by means of classroom materials, planting and gardening, and visits to local museums and nature sites for special programs.
Children learn foreign languages with great ease, and Russian is an intrinsic part of the primary classroom. Early exposure to foreign languages is the best preparation for their later mastery.
Although much of the work in a Montessori classroom is done individually or in groups of two or three, there are also daily full class activities, which include singing, games, sharing of experiences, discussions of the country studied during the week, "show and tell," and talking about current events.