Montessori education is characterised by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological development. Montessori schools cite the following elements as essential:

  • mixed age classrooms, with classrooms for children aged 2½ or 3 to 6 years old by far the most common
  • student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options
  • uninterrupted blocks of work time
  • a ‘constructivist’ or ‘discovery’ model, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction
  • specialised educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators



Montessori Education Theory

Self-Construction, Liberty, and Spontaneous Activity

Montessori education is fundamentally a model of human development, and an educational approach based on that model. The model has two basic elements. First, children and developing adults engage in psychological self-construction by means of interaction with their environments. Second, children, especially under the age of six, have an innate path of psychological development. Based on her observations, Montessori believed that children at liberty to choose and act freely within an environment prepared according to her model would act spontaneously for optimal development.

Human Tendencies

Montessori saw universal, innate characteristics in human psychology which her son and collaborator Mario Montessori identified as ‘human tendencies’ in 1957. There is some debate about the exact list, but the following are clearly identified

  • self-preservation
  • orientation to the environment
  • order
  • exploration
  • communication
  • work, also described as “purposeful activity”
  • manipulation of the environment
  • exactness
  • repetition
  • abstraction
  • self-perfection
  • the “mathematical mind”

In the Montessori approach, these human tendencies are seen as driving behavior in every stage of development, and education should respond to and facilitate their expression.


Prepared Environment

Montessori’s education method called for free activity within a ‘prepared environment,’ meaning an educational environment tailored to basic human characteristics and to the specific characteristics of children at different ages. The function of the environment is to allow the child to develop independence in all areas according to his or her inner psychological directives. In addition to offering access to the Montessori materials appropriate to the age of the children, the environment should exhibit the following characteristics:

  • construction in proportion to the child and his needs
  • beauty and harmony
  • order
  • an arrangement that facilitates movement and activity
  • limitation of materials, so that only material that supports the child’s development is included


Planes of Development

Montessori observed four distinct periods, or ‘planes,’ in human development, extending from birth to six years, from six to twelve, from twelve to eighteen, and from eighteen to twenty-four. She saw different characteristics, learning modes, and developmental imperatives active in each of these planes, and called for educational approaches specific to each period.


First Plane

The first plane extends from birth to around six years of age. During this period, Montessori observed that the child undergoes striking physical and psychological development. The first plane child is seen as a concrete, sensorial explorer and learner engaged in the developmental work of psychological self-construction and building functional independence. Montessori introduced several concepts to explain this work, including the absorbent mind, sensitive periods, and normalization.

Absorbent Mind: Montessori described the young child’s behaviour of effortlessly assimilating the sensorial stimuli of his or her environment, including information from the senses, language, culture, and the development of concepts with the term ‘absorbent mind.’ She believed that this is a power unique to the first plane, and that it fades as the child approached age six.

Sensitive Periods: Montessori also observed periods of special sensitivity to particular stimuli during this time which she called the ‘sensitive periods.’ In Montessori education, the classroom environment responds to these periods by making appropriate materials and activities available while the periods are active in the young child. She identified the following periods and their durations:

  • acquisition of language—from birth to around six years old
  • order—from around one to three years old
  • sensory refinement—from birth to around four years old
  • interest in small objects—from around 18 months to three years old
  • social behaviour—from around two and a half to four years old

Normalisation: Finally, Montessori observed in children from three to six years old a psychological state she termed ‘normalisation.’ Normalisation arises from concentration and focus on activity which serves the child’s developmental needs, and is characterised by the ability to concentrate as well as ‘spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others.’


Second Plane

The second plane of development extends from around six to twelve years old. During this period, Montessori observed physical and psychological changes in children, and developed a classroom environment, lessons, and materials to respond to these new characteristics. Physically, she observed the loss of baby teeth and the lengthening of the legs and torso at the beginning of the plane, and a subsequent period of uniform growth. Psychologically, she observed the ‘herd instinct,’ or the tendency to work and socialise in groups, as well as the powers of reason and imagination. Developmentally, she believed the work of the second plane child is the formation of intellectual independence, of moral sense, and of social organisation.


Third Plane

The third plane of development extends from around twelve to around eighteen years of age, encompassing the period of adolescence. Montessori characterised the third plane by the physical changes of puberty and adolescence, but also psychological changes. She emphasised the psychological instability and difficulties in concentration of this age, as well as the creative tendencies and the development of ‘a sense of justice and a sense of personal dignity.’ She used the term ‘valorization’ to describe the adolescents’ drive for an externally derived evaluation of their worth. Developmentally, Montessori believed that the work of the third plane child is the construction of the adult self in society.


Fourth Plane

The fourth plane of development extends from around eighteen years to around twenty-four years old. Montessori wrote comparatively little about this period and did not develop an educational program for the age. She envisioned young adults prepared by their experiences in Montessori education at the lower levels ready to fully embrace the study of culture and the sciences in order to influence and lead civilisation. She believed that economic independence in the form of work for money was critical for this age, and felt that an arbitrary limit to the number of years in university level study was unnecessary, as the study of culture could go on throughout a person’s life.


Education and Peace

As Montessori developed her theory and practice, she came to believe that education had a role to play in the development of world peace. She felt that children allowed to develop according to their inner laws of development would give rise to a more peaceful and enduring civilisation. From the 1930s to the end of her life, she gave a number of lectures and addresses on the subject, saying in 1936,

“Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.”  She was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1949, 1950, and 1951.


Comparing Montessori with Traditional Education

A Montessori program is based on self-direction, non-competitive and cooperative activities that help a child develop a strong self-image, high levels of academic and social competence, and the confidence to face challenges with optimism. Encouraged to make decisions at an early age, Montessori educated children are problem-solvers who can make appropriate choices, manage their time, and work well with others. They exchange ideas and discuss work freely. These positive communication skills build the foundation for negotiating new settings.


Montessori Traditional
Views the child holistically, valuing cognitive, psychological, social, and spiritual development. Views the child in terms of competence, skill level, and achievement with an emphasis on core curricula standards and social development.
Child is an active participant in learning, allowed to move about and respectfully explore the classroom environment; teacher is an instructional facilitator and guide. Child is a more passive participant in learning; teacher has a more dominant, central role in classroom activity.
A carefully prepared learning environment and method encourages development of internal self-discipline and intrinsic motivation. Teacher acts as a primary enforcer of external discipline promoting extrinsic motivation.
Instruction, both individual and group, adapts to students’ learning styles and developmental levels. Instruction, both individual and group, adapts to core curricula benchmarks.
Three-year span of age grouping: three-year cycles allow teacher, students, and parents to develop supportive, collaborative and trusting relationships. Same-age and/or skill level grouping; one-year cycles can limit development of strong teacher, student, and parent collaboration.
Grace, courtesy, and conflict resolution are integral parts of daily Montessori peace curriculum. Conflict resolution is usually taught separately from daily classroom activity.
Values concentration and depth of experience; supplies uninterrupted time for focused work cycle to develop. Values completion of assignments; time is tightly scheduled.
Child’s learning pace is internally determined. Instructional pace usually set by core-curricula standards expectations, group norm, or teacher.
Child allowed to spot own errors through feedback from the materials; errors are viewed as part of the learning process. Work is usually corrected by the teacher; errors are viewed as mistakes.
Learning is reinforced internally through the child’s own repetition of an activity and internal feelings of success. Learning is reinforced externally by test scores and rewards competition and grades.
Care of self and environment are emphasiaed as integral to the learning process. Less emphasis on self-care, spatial awareness, and care of environment.
Child can work where he/she is comfortable and the child often has choices between working alone or with a group that is highly collaborative among older students. Child is usually assigned a specific work space; talking among peers is discouraged.
Multi-disciplinary, interwoven curriculum. Curriculum areas usually taught as separate topics.
Child learns to share leadership; egalitarian interaction is encouraged. Hierarchical classroom structure is more prominent.
Progress is reported through multiple formats: conferences, narrative reports, checklists and portfolio of student’s work. Progress is usually reported through conferences, report cards/grades, and test scores.
Children are encouraged to teach, collaborate, and help each other. Most teaching is done by the teacher and collaboration is an alternative teaching strategy.
Child is provided opportunities to choose own work from interests and abilities; concepts taught within context of interest. Curricula are organised and structured for the child based on the curricula standards.
Goal is to foster a love of learning. Goal is to master core curricula objectives.


The 5 areas of a Montessori classroom.


Practical life:

Practical life is very important in Montessori education. Care for the person, the environment and common courtesy are taught in this section of Montessori.  The child learns to care for their own being by learning to dress, groom, and prepare snack. They learn to care for the environment by cleaning, washing clothes, and gardening. They learn common courtesy by walking carefully, carrying objects properly, and using good manners. Practical skills such as pouring, using a spoon, folding, using tools, cutting, and beading are all included in the Practical Life section of Montessori. All Practical life works help the child practice hand-eye coordination, gross and fine motor skills, and daily functions. In perfecting these skills the child forms self-confidence, concentration, and a sense of order.



The Sensorial curriculum in Montessori education focuses on the exploration and understanding of a child’s environment. Sensorial materials are designed to isolate each sense, so children can work independently to organise and understand their work without the fear of failure. The senses the child will refine by using the sensorial works during a sensitive period are visual, tactile, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, baric, thermic, and stereognostic. Sensorial works also prepare a child for math, geometry, language, writing, and logical thinking.



Every lesson in Language is presented in order from left to right, giving the child an early concept of reading and writing. Expanding their vocabulary will increase their understanding of the world around them. After learning simple language works that teach order, the child will start to learn sounds using the Sandpaper Letters. The child will then start to hear different sounds in words using the object boxes, which help children build on their foundation of vocabulary, and allow them to hear the initial sounds in different words. The child will then learn to identify the ending sounds, and middle sounds in simple CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words. The next step in the process of language is learning how to spell and read simple CVC words. When a child can read, grammar is introduced starting with the noun, and moving on to articles, adjectives, verbs, prepositions etc. Language is a process of learning that starts out very simple and concrete, and advances to more abstract thinking.



Practical Life and Sensorial works provide a strong foundation for mathematics.  The knowledge gained from both these subjects carries over into the Montessori Math curriculum, where a child is able to discover math with a hands-on approach. Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry are all incorporated to edify each other, and allow a child to physically manipulate the material in order to form a concrete understanding of math, and make it easier to understand more abstract concepts.



Biology in the Montessori curriculum includes works that allow a child to experiment and observe plants and animals. The child will learn what plants and animals need, how they change, and how they are classified. A Montessori environment allows the child to be very hands on, and encourages the child to be outdoors to explore and make scientific observations.

Geography in the Montessori curriculum gives the child an understanding of the world, and the places and cultures not seen everyday by the child. The map of the world gives the child a visual concept of the earth, and how the water and land are divided. The maps allow the child to explore and name the continents, oceans, countries, and states on the earth. The Land and Water Form Trays allow the child to pour water into a cavity and see the creation they made, name it and identify it with natural land and water forms. Geography is very abstract, so to have a model available to physically hold and trace, or pour water into makes learning about the world more concrete and fun.