Foundations of Education


Describes the intersection of child psychology, educational philosophy, and classroom design in early childhood Montessori education.

Key Concepts

  • absorbent mind
  • prepared environment

Graded Tasks

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Montessori Education and the Prepared Environment

CREDIT: The text below is adapted from: Hutchison, David. (2004). A Natural History of Place in Education. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 80 - 87.
"When I first pointed out the great value of an environment specially adapted ... to the needs of little children, this idea aroused great interest in architects, artists, and psychologists, some of whom collaborated with me to settle the ideal size and height of the rooms, and the decorations desirable in a school where concentration was to be favored. Such a building was more than protective and might almost be called ‘psychological.’ Yet its value did not depend entirely on dimensions and coloring - which are not enough in themselves - but it depended on the things provided for the children’s use, for the child needs tangible things on which to focus his attention. Yet these things ... were not decided arbitrarily, but only as a result of prolonged experimentation with children themselves." (Montessori, 1949, pp. 222-223)

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Maria Montessori’s (1870-1952) notion of the prepared environment may be the most explicit example of the intersection of child psychology, educational philosophy, and classroom design in K-12 education. The founder of one of the most widespread independent school movements in the world, Montessori originally trained in Italy as a medical doctor before gaining a sound reputation and international following for her work with developmentally challenged and non-handicapped preschool children. Montessori developed a theory of child development and a method of instruction that extends in large measure from her clinical and empirically disciplined study of the child in a self-directed learning environment. Just what Montessori meant by ‘self-direction’ goes a long way in distinguishing this tradition from other alternatives in education.

Montessori (1949) posited the notion of the absorbent mind as a way of contrasting the young child’s relationship to the world with that of the older child and adult. Only with a mature faculty of mind, argued Montessori, does a person know the world through conscious reasoning and abstract conceptualization. Young children, on the other hand, are absorbed in the concrete reality of their world. From birth to age six, the child builds up her mind and senses through the absorption of the environment, first, at the level of the unconscious, and later, through the willful manipulation of concrete materials in a structured learning environment:

"What [the child] wants to do is to master his environment, finding therein the means for his development.... From the age of three till six, being able now to tackle his environment deliberately and consciously, he begins a period of real constructiveness.... His hand guided by his intelligence begins to do jobs ... that construct the basis of his mind.... It is as if the child, having absorbed the world by an unconscious kind of intelligence, now 'lays his hand' to it." (Montessori, 1949, p. 167)

Impressions from the world not only penetrate the young child’s mind, they also form it. The basic mental faculties that will support all subsequent learning are formed during this early sensitive period. Through instinctive (birth to age three) and willful (age three to six) interactions with the world, or more pointedly, actions on the world, the child develops a formative cosmology of the world and begins the long process of placing herself in relationship to it:

"There are two tendencies: one is the extension of consciousness by activities performed on the environment, the other is for the perfecting and enrichment of those powers already formed.... [At the age of three] the mind’s power to absorb tirelessly from the world is still there, but absorption is now helped and enriched by active experience. No longer is it a matter purely of the senses, but the hand also takes part.... [The child’s] intelligence no longer develops merely by existing; it needs a world of things which provide him with motives for his activity." (Montessori, 1949, pp. 167-8)

The most striking example of learning by absorption is that of language acquisition, the universal process by which children all around the world subconsciously and seemingly without effort pick up their native tongue. Children everywhere learn the subtleties of language, including its grammar, syntax, and semiotics, in direct and intimate relationship with the world. Montessori argued that many of the same learning principles that hold true for language acquisition also hold true for cognitive development in the early years of a child’s life.

First, cognitive learning is an individual exercise and cannot be taught. It is the young child’s self-regulated interactions with the world that spurs on cognitive development, not the explicit lessons given by a parent or teacher, nor a child’s social interactions with her peers. Second, young children delight in repetitive activity that subconsciously impresses and reinforces basic physical, spatial, and mental concepts on the mind. Throughout early childhood, independence and self-confidence are strengthened through the child’s achievements in these areas. Finally, all cognitive learning throughout this period occurs through the reciprocal interaction of environment, motor skills, and mind. In short, children learn by doing.

Montessori posited the notion of the prepared environment as a constructed and ordered learning space, set apart from that of older children and adults, where young children could go to further their learning through repetitive and individualized hands-on exercises that promote cognitive growth:

"The structured environment for learning involves the use of a wide range of didactic apparatus.... Children thrive on learning when they choose those materials which seem to fulfill a specific need in them. The focus of the Montessori curriculum is on mastery of one’s self and environment.... Repetition is necessary for the child to refine his senses, perfect his skills, and build up competency and knowledge.... The child revels in repeating those things which he knows best and does well." (Hainstock, 1986, p. 68)
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In early childhood Montessori education, the prepared environment is a constructed and ordered learning space, set apart from that of older children and adults, where young children further their learning through repetitive and individualized hands-on exercises that promote cognitive growth. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)
When you first walk into a Montessori preschool, the first thing you are likely to notice is the orderliness of the classroom. Manipulative materials are carefully laid out along the walls and easily accessible to the children. Child-sized tables where two or three children can work independently, but alongside one another are placed throughout the room. The classroom is brightly colored, child-scaled, and clean. Montessori also wanted the classroom to be beautiful (Lillard, 1973, p, 59), but most of all it should be functional. The functional congruence of the environment with the cognitive developmental needs of children is of paramount importance and outweighs any “purely aesthetic considerations” (Standing, 1984, p. 268).

At its core, the Montessori method is straightforward and it is this straightforwardness which structures in advance the roles and routines of both child and teacher. Upon arrival, the young child goes to a shelf to choose a didactic material with which to work. She takes her chosen manipulative to a desk or floor space and puts it to repeated use for as long as she wishes, but in the exact way she has been instructed. At her discretion, she returns the material to its storage location and chooses another material with which to work. Meanwhile, the teacher carefully monitors each child’s progress, models appropriate sharing and courteous behavior, handles discipline situations as they arise, prepares the Montessori apparatus, and, when developmentally appropriate, introduces one or more children to the proper usage of a new manipulative.

It is important to note that the description given above conforms to what might be described as the prepared environment proper. There is a whole other dimension to the Montessori preschool experience which incorporates practical life exercises, gardening, and playhouse like settings for role-modeling cultural activities. So too, in recent years, some Montessori schools have begun to compliment the conventional Montessori method described above with group activities that involve music, drama, and other social pursuits. Nevertheless, it is the prepared environment proper which forms the basis of all Montessori preschool programs, both historically and at present.

The foremost aim of the prepared environment is to render the child autonomous and independent of the adult. Effective learning is the result of the child’s focused interactions with the Montessori materials, rather than the teacher’s mediation of that interaction. Teacher intervention (when the materials are being used correctly) is an obstacle to growth and the child’s striving towards independence, rather than a contribution. The same holds true for the child’s peers. Cognitive learning is judged to be a largely asocial activity in early childhood. It is reducible to the quality of a young child’s focused interactions with the manipulatives that make up the Montessori curriculum.
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The Montessori child does not need to look to adults for guidance on using the Montessori materials. In the prepared environment, each manipulative has been carefully crafted to impress a specific concept on the child’s mind. Built into most materials is a feedback mechanism (control-for-error) that can often correct a child’s use of a material without the need for adult intervention. The structuredness of the prepared environment aims to reduce not only interruptions by other children, but also potentially distracting mediation by the teacher. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)
Not surprisingly, there are explicit rules that determine the usage of space and materials in a Montessori classroom. For example, children are taught to share and engage in courteous and orderly behavior when moving materials to and from their shelf space:

"Within the Montessori classroom there is only one set of didactic materials, unlike schools where there might be several sets of the same kind of toy. The didactic materials are arranged similarly in all Montessori schools.... According to Montessori, finding things in their proper places and putting them back again satisfies the child’s need for order.... A child may take a didactic material from the place where it is stored and when the child has finished using it, the material must be put back in its place and in the same condition it was found." (De Jesus, 1987, p. 16; 27-8)

While children are free to change exercises as they wish and move about the classroom for the purpose of exchanging manipulatives, they are not free to use the Montessori materials in any way they see fit. This is because each manipulative has been carefully crafted and perfected, often over the course of several years, to serve a particular purpose and impress and/or reinforce a specific concept on the child’s mind:

"We started by equipping the child’s environment with a little of everything, and left the children to choose those things they preferred. Seeing that they only took certain things and that the others remained unused, we eliminated the latter. All the things now used in our schools are not just the result of elimination in few local trials, but in trials made in schools all over the world.... We found there were objects liked by all children, and these we regard as essential.... In every country this was confirmed." (Montessori, 1949, p. 223)

Montessori also chose the materials she did because of the satisfaction and inner peace children exhibited as they took ownership of the materials and used them to build up their minds:

"The sensorial materials are each designed to convey an abstract idea in concrete form.... A tower of cubes demonstrates volume and size; a series of rods, the concept of length.... [Where] feasible the sensorial materials are composed of sets of ten objects, giving the children an indirect exposure to the basis of the decimal system.... The exactness of these materials appeals to the human tendency for precision and gives the children an experience of the realities upon which human technology is based." (Lillard, 1996, pp. 35-6)

The combination of a well thought out developmental vision and overtly structured learning environment has made the Montessori tradition something of an enigma in educational circles. On the one hand, there is a strong congruency between the prepared environment and Montessori’s carefully articulated cognitive developmental theory that endears the Montessori method to the progressive and holistic education movements with which it is commonly associated. Montessori’s developmental theory has much in common with Piaget’s theory of cognitive development which itself has been applied to modern progressive education. (Unlike Montessori, however, Piaget did not see a role for formal education in promoting a young child’s early cognitive growth.) Likewise, the more esoteric elements of the Montessori tradition (e.g. her Christian mysticism and conception of the child as a spiritual embryo) are congruent with the holistic focus on the spiritual development of the child. Yet the issue of freedom, a tenuous notion in both progressive and holistic education (Hutchison, 1998), arises as a sore point for some observers of the Montessori system who have at times criticized what they see as the rigid and anti-social nature of the prepared environment proper (e.g. Polakow, 1992). Montessori counters this sentiment with the following:

"The children in our schools are free, but that does not mean there is no organization. Organization, in fact, is necessary, and if the children are to be free to work, it must be even more thorough than in the ordinary schools." (1949, p. 244)

In Montessori’s view, a child’s self-discipline and love of learning (i.e. work) emerges spontaneously. Neither need be imposed from without. She believed that the child identifies in tasks the opportunities to develop her human potential. The child concentrates and perseveres on tasks for long periods of time (Montessori, 1995, p. 202) and her excitement grows as she makes new discoveries about the world (Lillard, 1973, p. 68).

From the Montessori perspective, a highly structured environment makes sense in so far as it directly provides the cognitive inputs yearned for by the young child during this early sensitive period. What appears to the outside observer as severe restrictions on the use of materials, fantasy play, and child interaction intentionally supports the Montessori belief that cognitive learning, until the age of about six, is an individual enterprise that demands each child’s focused attention as she strives toward independence in thought and action.


De Jesus, R. (1987). Design Guidelines for Montessori Schools. Milwaukee: Center for Architecture and Urban Planning Research, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Hainstock, E. G. (1986). The Essential Montessori. New York: New American Library.

Hutchison, David. (1998). Growing Up Green: Education for Ecological Renewal. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lillard, P. P. (1973). Montessori: A Modern Approach. New York: Shocken.

Polakow, V. (1992). The Erosion of Childhood (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Montessori, Maria. (1949/1995). The Absorbent Mind. New York: Henry Holt.

Standing, E. M. (1984). Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Penguin Books.

Montessori Education Analysis

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