A nineteenth-century Italian educator who advocated for children’s rights world-wide, Dr. Maria Montessori pioneered a child-centered approach to education that has become a global movement. Based on a deep respect for — and belief in — the ability of young children to go beyond the traditional classroom limits, the Montessori philosophy works to teach the whole child, supporting the development of real life skills along with academics. Built upon a structured daily schedule and developmental progression, a Montessori education puts the child’s interests at the center of the experience which unfolds at their own pace.
Revolutionary when created, Montessori principles stand in dramatic context to the prevailing belief at the time: that children were deficient adults who need to be told exactly what to do — until they (magically?) became old enough to think for themselves. Today, Montessori’s thinking is part of the progressive pedagogy that informs our project-based curriculum at Prisma.
Structured around five areas — language arts, sensorial, math, cultural studies and practical life — the Montessori philosophy incorporates a kinesthetic learning style that engages all five senses: touch is especially prominent. A traditional Montessori school will be well stocked with manipulatives to help kids develop fine motor skills as they master real-world tasks, like learning how to fasten and unfasten clothes.
But learners will also hone other senses, exploring the world through hands-on activities and experiences: baking, taking walks in nature, and exploring a new environment are all considered Montessori activities. They do all this in a mixed-age cohort, in order to encourage peer-to-peer learning through imitation and collaboration.
The Montessori teacher is an important presence: expected to lead students through concise, simple and objective lesson plans, they help foster a child’s love of learning by facilitating rather than dispensing wisdom. They also stay with the students beyond a single school year, facilitating deeper student-teacher bonds.
With all the emphasis on the prepared environment, it can be a significant investment to develop a homeschool program that uses only Montessori learning materials. (Some free Montessori materials are available online for parents who have the time to DIY, but in many cases even printables come with a price tag.)
In addition to the high cost of learning materials and the logistical complexity of creating a Montessori home, the traditional program only runs from pre-k to 12 years old. For these reasons, many homeschooling parents — especially at the middle and high school level — try for more of a ‘Montessori-style’ homeschool curriculum than an exact reproduction.
If you’re interested in incorporating the Montessori way into your homeschooling journey, rather than following a set Montessori homeschool curriculum, here are four foundational things to try that inform our approach at Prisma.
Montessori believes in the capability of children to go beyond the expectations of the traditional system of education — from basic chores for a two year old to completing simple home repairs by the age of 12. To help children realize their potential, they are given freedom to choose the direction they take within the framework. This freedom — a core part of the Prisma experience where learners get to choose how to spend their day outside of their workshops — fosters a sense of responsibility and leads to deeper learning.
For families that have spent much time in traditional school, it can be a challenge to move away from a teacher-led environment. We see this with new learners at Prisma: as young people develop executive functioning skills (and parents learn to trust their kids’ capabilities), there’s an initial period of overwhelm — often followed by quantum leaps in growth.
We find that when kids are given a topic to explore and set containers of time in which to explore it, they’re more likely to build the skills of initiative and follow through. The trick is finding a balance between structure and freedom: students can’t be expected to know what they don’t know — or what they want to learn — until they are introduced to a topic, an approach, or a set of resources.
For example, we provide a diverse, multimedia library of materials to help introduce learners to a topic, rather than leaving them to their own devices. Of course, if they come up with their own materials, we support that too: it’s a great sign they are developmentally ready to take that next step.
The Montessori day unfolds according to the same regular schedule, acknowledging the importance of ritual and routine in child development. However, within that set schedule, there are extended periods of time for students to work on their chosen area of focus. They can decide when they’re finished and move on to something else — as long as they clean up first.
Different from traditional school where the bell rings at set intervals — whether or not students are ready — this approach honors the way we all learn at our own pace and is more likely to support the ‘hard fun’ of learning.
For homeschoolers, it can be a particular challenge to keep to a schedule — and still respect the needs of the whole family (working parents included). At Prisma, not only do we provide a flexible and consistent schedule, our coaches also work one-on-one with families to figure out what kinds of study habits and learning environments would be most beneficial for each learner.
In today’s automated world, it’s more important than ever to keep learning experiential, whether you take a project-based approach or simply incorporate hands-on activities into your homeschool routine. Dr. Montessori thought kids should be prepared for real life by doing meaningful work, which could include everything from having your kids figure out how to troubleshoot a clogged toilet by watching youtube videos, shop for the most energy-efficient refrigerator, or start a neighborhood business shoveling snowy walkways.
Because homeschooling is more efficient than a traditional classroom, it’s possible to finish the academic portion of your day more quickly — and then use your extra time to engage in hands-on activities.
Peer learning is a big part of the Montessori method. At Prisma, our mixed-age cohorts attend workshops together in which they debate and discuss, with their coach serving as a guide to keep things on track. As they collaborate and critique one another, they challenge each other to do their best work and support each other when they face obstacles.
If your current homeschool setup doesn’t allow for a mixed age group, you can find other opportunities for peer learning through extra-curriculars, athletics or clubs. (For more on homeschooling socialization, see our guide.)
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