The Early Childhood Curriculum
The Montessori environment for children ages 3 through 6 is organized according to four basic avenues of curriculum, as follows:
1. Coordination of Movement through Exercises of Practical Life activities respond to the children's natural desire for independence and to their interest in taking care of themselves and their immediate environment. These are the "humble tasks of daily living" that so deeply interest young children. The primary goal of this avenue is to help children gain muscular coordination. Additionally, they help children develop concentration and physical independence. Practical Life exercises provide inviting opportunities for movement that assist in the control and refinement of both gross and fine motor skills, teach sequencing and logic, teach a practical skill, and build character. Activities begin with simple opening and transfer lessons and advance to activities such as washing, polishing, gardening, and food preparation. Whether a beginning or more advanced activity, the process is the same: the Montessori teacher invites the child to an activity, demonstrates the entire activity including the clean up and putting away, and then gives the child a turn to do the activity independently. The child has seen clearly each step, such as how to carefully spoon beans from one bowl to another or how to remove the eyes from a potato before peeling or how to lace a shoe. The child is able to independently practice the skill for as long and as often as is desired. Most skills taught directly or indirectly lead to increasingly complex tasks. These activities foster concentration since the cooperation of the body, the hand, eyes, and mind are required. Character qualities such as carefulness and thoughtfulness are part of the lesson modeled by the teacher and then practiced by the child.
In addition to practical life activities, movements to specific rhythms on the line also refine coordination and help develop equilibrium - they also help build a strong foundation for music and dance. A test of perfect control of movement is "the silence game" at which time the child delights in joining the group to make absolute silence. Because Montessori also discovered that children of this age love to learn and practice good manners, the Montessori program includes regular lessons on grace and courtesy and ample opportunity to practice these skills.
2. Sensorial Foundations of Intellectual Development is one of Maria Montessori's greatest gifts to early education. These scientifically designed materials help the child to form clear concepts through experience and help to refine the senses. Constructive activities for each of the five senses which isolate a concept, such as dimension, color, texture, taste, smell, or sound are demonstrated to an individual child by the Montessori teacher and then are made available for the child's independent exploration. An example of a sensorial material for the visual sense is the pink tower that has ten cubes, from one-centimeter cubed to ten centimeters cubed, and they each diminish in size precisely by one centimeter cubed. Since the cubes are all painted the same color, the only distinguishing characteristic is the size. To build the correct gradation, the child may need to experiment for a period of time with the hands doing the work and the eye as the guide. An example of a Montessori activity for the auditory sense is the set of Montessori bells. They are identical in size and shape, with the only distinguishing characteristic being the sound. The child first is invited to listen to each distinct sound, later match identical sounds, and later still to make the gradation of an octave of sounds with eight bells. Children learn to play familiar tunes on the bells and even experiment in composing their own music. Development of the voice through singing is also an important part of the program. Sensorial refinement developed during these early years is permanent. Concepts formed through concrete experience are the foundation for abstract thought and are direct preparation for the developing mathematical mind.
3. Development of Language begins by helping the young child increase in the working vocabulary of objects of every day life from the child's experience, such as names of foods, animals, flowers, and other items found in the school, home and garden. In order to help the child's understanding and mastery of spoken language, the items are classified by subject and are clearly enunciated by the teacher.
The child is helped to prepare for writing and reading by indirect activities that develop strength and coordination of the hand, awareness of individual sounds in words (phonemic awareness), and visual discrimination of shapes and forms. When the child is ready for direct work in writing and reading, concrete activities are shown to the child such as sandpaper letters, which introduce the phonetic alphabet through three senses: touch, sight and sound. After learning the sounds of the alphabetic letters (one sound, one letter) the child learns to build short vowel words with a moveable alphabet, such as c - a - t. Blending the sounds and reading of short vowel words follows; next comes experience in reading sentences and later long vowel words and words with other phonetic patterns. The child is considered a "general reader" when the reading is organized according to subject and not according to phonetic pattern. The child then has learned to read and begins reading to learn.
In the Montessori language program, the children continually go back to familiar materials with a new interest. Objects earlier presented for vocabulary now have labels to read. Puzzles of geography and zoology can be traced and labeled or books can be made of the separate pieces. Sensorial materials can be measured and qualities defined. Individual and collaborative projects that involve reading, writing and exploring the bigger world invite the child to learn and increase in awareness. Most Montessori preschool graduates are able to read and write with confidence before entering the elementary school.
Exposure to cultural subjects, such as science and history, comes through exploration of the natural environment and the increased awareness of time as it is lived throughout the year with changing seasons and cultural celebrations. Life is lived in the Montessori environment and it is shared with plants and animals that are studied and cared for by the children.
4. Early Preparation of the Mathematical Mind is achieved through use of manipulative materials which present abstract concepts in concrete form, thereby laying a foundation for higher math in later years. Montessori materials allow children to learn at their own pace. Only when they have had sufficient practice with suitable concrete materials do they advance to more complex operations and concepts.
The presentation of math materials begins with learning to count quantities from one to ten. When it is seen that the concept of number being quantity is understood, the numerals are taught, and finally, the quantity and the numerals are associated with each other. From there the decimal system of units, tens, hundreds, and thousands is presented in various displays and games. Children experience with interest the arithmetic operations of addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division with the beautiful golden bead material. Advanced counting continues exploration of the number system. Many lessons with varied material give the children opportunity to practice arithmetic operations with the result that many of the facts become memorized effortlessly. The beauty and order of the materials appeal to the young children who find the mathematics' precision to be interesting and the order comforting.
This early experience with interesting manipulative materials helps every child become confident and capable. Collaboration, not competition, is the shared experience with classmates. Studies confirm that with only one year of Montessori math in the preschool, children score higher years later on math tests, but most importantly, Montessori children are not intimidated by math, they love it.
Underlying the avenues of curriculum, which directly support physical, social and cognitive development and which form a solid basis for academic learning, Montessori programs characteristically have a spiritual foundation which is evident by the respect shown to the children and to the life all around them. Even in non-sectarian Montessori schools, there is generally a reverence for God and religious expressions in art and music. The standard is always the Golden Rule.