Montessori Elementary Homeschool Blog - with documentation of our infant Montessori, toddler Montessori, and primary Montessori experiences; as well as preparation for the upcoming adolescent Montessori homeschool years.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

What should be in a Montessori environment?

I started one blog post and it became two! So I just finished writing them both together, then I'm separating them, so you might see some similar sentences here ;)

What physical things and areas should be in a Montessori environment, homeschool or otherwise?

For many of us homeschoolers, on the internet, we get overwhelmed - or we get bored - when we set up what we think is the perfect Montessori environment only to discover that it's not working for us the adults, or it's not working for the child(ren).

In that case, it's not a Montessori environment ;)
The environment must meet the needs of the children. 

At all ages, there is a freedom of movement, a freedom of choice of work, a respect for the internal workings of the child... but how those needs are met vary with age. At infancy/toddler, we provide smaller spaces with various items to explore. At primary we have more "academic-looking" materials, and the child has few to no requirements for his 3 hour work cycle (keeping in mind that group dynamics help the classroom setting; at home the adult does need to provide SOME guidelines). Kindergartners are moving into the initial use of work-plans, so that by elementary there is a work plan or work contract, along with a work journal. Nothing prohibitive - this does not make it "school by choice" (meaning a child must do all typical school work but at his own pace or in his own order) - instead, the plan is worked out between child and adult, with some items to ensure proper foundation/framework and the adult helps guide the child in his project planning.

Yes, that's right! Projects! Elementary children should be working on PROJECTS! Research; timelines; creating their own materials! OH! The FUN!

If your elementary children are not exploring their own interests (or they express an interest and you fill in too much, too fast for them), consider backing off for a bit. And examine your environment.

Start with the psychological environment - what nuances are you putting out there in your speech, your gestures, your focus during your child's school time. Are YOU learning? Exploring? Connecting with the world? Asking questions and seeking answers? Using your own creativity to explore possibilities?

Then start to consider the tools you need to get there or remain there.

The most obvious inclusions in a Montessori environment will be the materials described in the albums of your choosing (and YES, you should have albums - pulling it together from the internet is not going to give you REAL Montessori - I've been there! I know!).

The one trouble with albums is that not everything is laid out so precisely when it comes to the physical and psychological nature of the environment, hence the emphasis by many about not really "getting" Montessori unless you've been trained. But even training doesn't promise full understanding; I have many trained Montessorians come to me with videos of their environments and ask me, "What is going on here? It's not working - what should I do to change it?"

The following is a list of items and areas that SHOULD be in a Montessori environment that may or may not be specifically delineated in your albums (but it IS there if you have a truly Montessori set of albums - and very likely is in the theory album (that if you don't have - you have NO IDEA what you are missing ;) ):
  • art area (some albums have art lessons, some don't; some have it in practical life or in culture; but it is rarely in an elementary set of albums - because it is presumed that you have the supplies for the children to research and create their own projects)
  • project-making supplies (boxes for dioramas, posterboard, mat board, clay, etc. - while this area kind of goes along with "art", consider this the "junk drawer" of creative art projects)
  • historical tools of the (various) trade(s) - you might rotate these in/out or explore them on Goings Outs to historical locations -- in primary we like to teach the children to wash cloths on a washboard; in elementary we can use hand-mills, soap-making tools, combing cotton or wool and spinning it into yarn, and much more.
  • hand-craft work such as weaving, knitting, crocheting, cross-stitch, sewing... in primary this is practical life; in elementary it is part of the child's life.
  • Minimal tray work in elementary; minimal themed sets; we want the children to be thinking, imagining, creating - and to be building practical skills so that they can fulfill their imaginations. Too much planned out for an elementary child or too many (in this case, too many is a very low number) themed sets and the children's imaginations are thwarted and/or are developed in an artificial manner. You provide the basic materials and LET them start combining stuff to create their own themed sets. 
  • Science supply area (in elementary) - you want the generic supplies available, along with a few resources to generate ideas, so that if they have a question about something, they can work it out relatively quickly. Anyone using AMI-style elementary albums now have the option at Home Science Tools to purchase a kit for the geography and biology albums - with just about everything you need in one package! (I do not make any money when you purchase that kit - it is simply something I set up to make the obtaining of the needed materials easier for those who are using AMI elementary Montessori albums). 
  • I cannot under-emphasize: STREWN BOOKS. Read a book yourself that you want your child to read; let him see you read it. Have a small book basket in each room with a small number of books you'd like them to read. Just this environmental touch provides a huge fuel for interest-led studies. 
  • A work-plan and work-journal - elementary. Accountability. Not something that hinders, but something that provides boundaries. It is interesting to note that the most creative artists will tell you they need boundaries in order to harness their creativity and create something beautiful. Totally open-ended? It just won't happen. Framework and foundation. 
  • Beautiful works of art - not just 2D work, but all forms - nice tables and chairs and furniture (or nicely covered!). Think "aesthetics". When the mind is at peace, it can flourish in beautiful ways. 
  • Space: your elementary child in particular needs space to spread out - he will get messy and look disorganized; while he still needs to be expected to put this things away properly when he is done, while working he SPREADS. Let it happen! ;) 
  • Outdoor space - playing, plants, animals, air. 
  • Phone books and other resources for locating appropriate Goings Out. 

Consider that you WANT the children to be creative and have as many practical skills as possible in the creative arts, BEFORE they hit the emotional/hormonal times of adolescence. Trust me on this one. And if you don't trust me, there was previously a Margaret Homfray video up where she said the same thing. ;) 

The above listed materials sound a lot like project-based learning, because PBL indirectly stemmed from Montessori. But I have separated that post out for tomorrow! ;)


  1. I had our art area outside the school romm until now, becoz that is the only thing my daughter would do if given a chance! With the new work plan system I am going to move it back in! Loved reading this post!

    1. I fought my son regarding Legos for the LONGEST time. Then it hit me - I keep telling everyone else to integrate those interest (slap self on forehead in shame) ;) Yeah, he's a happy camper now and I am seeing a HUGE benefit from his work extensions into Legos. It sounds like your daughter's art is my son's Legos ;)

  2. Where are the Margaret Homfray videos....I have actually been searching the past few days to try and watch the whole lecture series and I cannot find any that will play. Any suggestions?

    1. It seems her videos have been removed from the 2 or 3 places I knew had them.... I can't find them either! I'll post a new blog post if I find them ;)

  3. Updating this post to include the link to the kit at Home Science Tools to purchase the materials that correspond with the AMI geography and biology albums: