A Montessori preschool classroom may look confusing to parents unfamiliar with Montessori.  3-year-olds are in the same class with 4, 5, and 6-year-olds, and as if that weren’t a bit strange in a world where most preschools and practically all elementary schools have narrow age groupings, in a Montessori preschool class, each child does his or her own thing. There are few, if any, large-group lessons that are so common in other childcare or preschool settings.

So parents new to Montessori legitimately ask:  What is it that enables these very differently sized and differently skilled children to all thrive in the same class?  How do you ensure a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old both are challenged and learning optimally?

One part of the answer has to do with the Montessori materials, with which the children spend the bulk of their time in the preschool class.

A Montessori preschool (or Primary) classroom has four main areas: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language and Math.  Each area is defined by shelves filled with a wide range of materials, some of which are simple enough for a not-quite-3-year-old (e.g., squeezing a sponge in Practical Life), and others which are challenging even for the most academically advanced 6-year-old (e.g., the Large Bead Frame, which supports arithmetic into the millions).

When you observe in a well-run Montessori preschool classroom, it’s possible to see the full range of materials in use.  All of the materials are out and accessible at all times.  Each child is free to work with any of the materials, with only three restrictions: a child may only take a material from a shelf (never from another student); the child must have had a lesson on how to use that material; and he may use only one material at a time.

The teacher, or Montessori guide, carefully observes each child under her care, and tailors which lessons to give according to each child’s individual readiness.  A lesson—or Montessori “presentation”— is neither a lecture nor a large-group activity.  Instead, it’s a brief, hands-on demonstration, usually delivered one-on-one for younger students, and occasionally in small group for 2nd or 3rd year students.  The teacher shows the child how to use a material, with slow careful movements and few words, and finishes by inviting the child to repeat the activity.  When the lesson is done, the child may continue to work with the material or return it to the shelf.

Important to note here is that the lesson is not when learning happens.. Instead, learning occurs when children work with the materials, often repeating the same activity many times of their free choice or returning to them once they’ve been shown a new variation on the original presentation. In effect, the material is the child’s actual teacher; the teacher is really a guide whose role it is to connect the child with the materials (hence the name, Montessori guide.)

  • The Montessori materials are carefully structured in a sequence that leads a child toward ever more advanced knowledge.  This is in contrast to many preschool programs, which offer a wide smorgasbord of toys that can be played with in any order.In the example below, you can see how materials start simple and get progressively more complex, embodying more advanced concepts as the child progresses through the program. (Note that ages are only rough indications; each child moves on to the next level whenever he has mastered a previous material.)

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  • Many materials possess a control of error.Children can judge, by themselves, when they have completed an activity correctly: the cylinders only fit in the Cylinder Blocks one way; the Trinomial Cube box can only be closed if it’s been assembled correctly; water spills and needs to get cleaned up if we don’t aim correctly when pouring; the mats won’t stand up in the bin if not rolled tightly; math problems often have control charts or cross-check steps, so children can independently check their work. Instead of spending much time correcting children, Montessori guides help children acquire the ability to self-monitor and self-correct.  This is an additional way that the materials make it possible for 3-year-olds and 6-year-olds to be optimally challenged in the same classroom!The built-in control of error has an important, long-term benefit for the children, too: Montessori preschoolers become friendly with error. They realize that mistakes are not something to be ashamed of, but helpful pointers towards areas where they can improve themselves. This focus on getting better, rather than being good, is essential for a child’s long-term success: it fosters a growth mindset in students, which has been shown to be essential for success in school and in life.

The 3-year cycle of Montessori Primary has many benefits for children. With the wide range of materials, each child can work at his or her level. A 4-year-old who is advanced in language can work on writing or reading tasks that may still challenge some 5½-year-old peers.  At the same time, she can also work on motor skills, for example, alongside a 3-year-old, for whom that is a natural strength.

The multi-age classroom thus becomes a real community, where children of different ages and abilities all thrive as the unique individuals they are.  In Dr. Montessori’s words:

The activities of others do not arouse their envy or painful rivalry, nor are they themselves inflated with empty pride. A little child of three works peacefully alongside a boy of seven and is as contented with his own work as he is about the fact that he is shorter and does not have to envy the older boy’s height. They all grow up in the most profound peace.