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Our Pre-school (Casa dei Bambini) Environment

Casa Our Pre-school (Casa dei Bambini) Environment

What is the Montessori 3 - 6 year old environment?
To a first time visitor to the Montessori Prepared Environment, the room may seem quite different from other pre-schools or early learning centres - the  children's ages range from 3years to 6years, there are no toys and the teacher does not seem to be organising them into different activities or "work stations". In the Montessori room environment, there may be a child reading quietly in the corner, a child pouring water or rice from jug to jug at a table on his or her own, a small group of animated, chattering children playing a language game or a child piling a series of pink blocks on top of each other to make a "tall" tower. There may also be a child who is just standing and watching another seemingly unoccupied or a child who is busy cutting fruit for morning tea.

At the turn of the last century, Dr. Montessori discovered that children under six have an innate ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings just by being part of it. She called this period of learning "The Absorbent Mind" and it is at its peak receptivity during the pre-school years. At this age, the children are intensely curious and need to discover and explore their surroundings. The children are also keenly attuned to their senses at this age and they love to explore shapes, textures, smells, colours, sounds and tastes. They are also at the age where they want to know about other people and customs and where they fit in the grand scheme of things. Children at this age also need to have "everything in its place" and a routine to follow.

The Director/Directress - the educator is the facilitator
In the Montessori Prepared Environment, the Director/Directress is not a teacher who teaches directly to the children. He or she is a "facilitator" who provides the children with opportunities and activities to meet each individual's needs. The children are free to move around the classroom and choose work independently. The children are given an initial step by step presentation with the material and then the Director/Directress steps back to allow the children to explore and discover the properties of that particular piece of material. The children are free to move around the classroom and choose work without the interference of an adult. This freedom allows children to learn at their own pace and develop initiative, independence, inner discipline and concentration.

Why the mixed age groups?
The Montessori preschool classroom is made up of three, four, five and sometimes six year olds (depending on the birthdays) and they stay with the same teacher for a period of three years. The three year olds are entering a stage of social development where they are interested in other people, so they learn from the older children. The older children, as well as gaining a sense of responsibility and positive self esteem, are consolidating and sharing their knowledge by helping the younger children. The final year in this stage is vitally important for the child as a confident and independent worker.

The Prepared Environment
The Prepared Environment is usually divided up into five areas: the Practical Life area, the Sensorial area, the Language area, the Mathematics area and the Cultural area. However, all the areas are closely integrated.

The Exercises of Practical Life
This is one of the most important areas of the Montessori 3 - 6 Curriculum. It provides a link between home and the school environment. Young children like to imitate what the adults do, so the Prepared Environment facilitates this by providing the children with low, easy to reach shelves, small tables and chairs and materials which are child - sized and easy for a three year old to use. All the materials are real. The children pour water from a glass pitcher into a china cup and they use stainless steel child size knives to butter their cracker at snack time or cut fruit for morning tea. In this way, the activity becomes "purposeful" and true to life.
There are four areas within the Exercises of Practical Life:

Care of Self

  •  Buttoning, zipping, brushing hair, brushing teeth, wiping/blowing the nose, washing and drying hands, use of the toilet etc. These exercises will help to develop the child's self - help skills as well as develop vital fine motor skills and independence.
Care of the Environment
  • Care of the pot plants, gardening, sweeping the floor, polishing the ornaments, dusting the shelves, scrubbing tables, washing cloths, flower arranging etc. These exercises will help to develop the child's fine and gross motor skills as well as their sense of achievement and their sense of responsibility and self esteem.
Social Relations
  • "Exercises of Grace and Courtesy greeting, serving a snack, accepting, helping each other, saying "please" and "thank you", etc. As everyone knows, to be an accepted part of the social community, all people have to get along. The children learn dignity and respect for each other in their day to day conversations and interactions.
  • Gross Motor - balance, poise, "walking on the line", "walking around the mats" etc.
  • Fine Motor - pouring lentils from jug to jug, transferring with tongs, transferring with the sponge, etc.
The Practical Life exercises help the children to practice and refine both gross and fine motor skills ready for the more academic curriculum such as reading and writing. If a child cannot hold a jug with a steady hand, then he or she is not ready to use a pencil!

Sensorial Development and Material
The Montessori Sensorial materials were designed to enable children to categorise what the children already know; to sharpen, clarify and classify sensory impressions already experienced through life. They are beautifully designed to appeal to the children and each piece of material isolates one quality, i.e. shape, size, weight, smell, taste etc. For example, so that the child focuses only on the size and dimension of each cube of the above mentioned "Pink Tower", the cubes are not painted in different colours - they are just a pale pink to isolate one quality. The focus is the size only.

Language and Mathematics concepts are indirectly taught through these materials, such as comparative language "big" and "small", as well as matching, sorting, grading and the names of the different geometric shapes, etc.

Language Development and Materials
In the Montessori environment, there is an abundance of language experiences through the materials as well as through stories, discussions, language games ("I Spy") and through the cultural materials, such as the continent folders and language cards.

Writing is taught through the senses and children are first taught the sound and the corresponding letter through the Sandpaper Letters which they trace with their fingers. Gradually, the children start to identify the phonetic sound with the shape of the letter and will start to build words with the Moveable Alphabet preparing them for writing. At the same time, the children are introduced to the Metal Insets and this is where they first start to hold a pencil. As their fine motor skills develop and improve, it is often found that the children will suddenly start to write independently and all by themselves.

Once the children have started writing independently either with the Moveable Alphabet or with a pencil, it is often found that soon after they start to read independently. They start first with simple phonetic words and gradually build up their skills as they learn the irregular sounds and rules of their language. It is important at this time to understand that all children develop these skills at different times and at their own pace. In the Montessori environment, these skills are not forced, but allowed to develop naturally and with the child's own rhythm.

Mathematics Development and Materials (Order)
In the Montessori Environment, children start learning mathematical concepts as soon as they enter the classroom through the Sensorial Materials and through specifically designed materials. Number rods, spindles, beads, counters and sandpaper numbers are all concrete materials used in the classroom to introduce the young child to mathematical concepts. They can explore the operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as well as geometry and place values. The materials allow for exploration, manipulation and discovery where children as young as four and a half can be manipulating numbers from 1 - 9999 as part of their mathematical journey from the concrete to the abstract concepts

Cultural Development and Materials
The Cultural materials hold a great fascination for the young child. They enjoy learning about the world around them and are beginning to understand that there is a bigger world out there. Using the materials, the children get a sensorial impression in Geography (the Land and Water Globe, the Land and Water Forms and associated language and the Puzzle Maps etc.), Biology (Parts of the Fish, Amphibian, Reptile, Bird or Mammal - puzzle) and Botany (the Leaf Cabinet, puzzles of the tree, flower, leaf, root systems, etc). There are many group discussions following the introductions of the Continent Folders or the Continent boxes. Children love to see how other children live in other parts of the world and all these concepts can be introduced using the Cultural Materials.

As the children get older, they start to create little "projects" for themselves using the materials to further their discoveries and many children start to try and find out more information for themselves.

So how does the Montessori Prepared Environment differ from the traditional pre-school?
In the Montessori classroom, the children are recognised as individual with individual learning styles. The children are allowed to move, touch and explore their environment without interference from adults. No child is compared to another and the children are allowed to work at their own pace and natural rhythm. The teacher is more of a "facilitator", providing learning experiences and materials which meet the children's individual needs at a particular time.