Ever wondered, "What is a Montessori school?" Then you’ve come to the right place! A Montessori school is a type of school (preschool, elementary school, or secondary school) that follows a unique educational philosophy developed by Maria Montessori over 100 years ago.
In this guide, we go over the Montessori definition, the typical Montessori school cost, the history behind the educational method, and the seven key tenets of a Montessori education.
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What Is a Montessori School? Basic Definition
A Montessori school is a school that uses the Montessori educational philosophy, which is named after its founder, Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952).
The revolutionary philosophy aims to foster the growth of the whole child in all developmental areas: cognitive, social, physical, and emotional. In this philosophy, students are in charge of their own learning. They can work in groups or independently, doing activities they choose to do under the guidance of a trained Montessori teacher.
Children are encouraged to be independent and follow their own interests and curiosities by engaging in a variety of activities, projects, and games of their choosing, all at their own pace and without the direct assistance of an adult or teacher (unless required).
Basically, every Montessori school student learns through interaction and direct engagement, rather than lectures, homework, and reward systems. There are no tests or grades—just learning!
Here’s how the International Montessori Index defines the education model:
"Montessori is a revolutionary method of observing and supporting the natural development of children. Authentic Montessori educational practice helps children develop creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, time-management skills, [and] care of the environment and each other. It can prepare them to contribute to society and to become fulfilled persons. The basis of Montessori practice in the classroom is mixed age group (3-6 ages in one class), individual choice of research and work, and uninterrupted concentration."
Montessori schools have multi-age classrooms, mixing children of varying ages so that younger students can learn from and work together with their older peers. In turn, the older students can use their interactions with their younger peers to reinforce concepts they've already learned.
Specially trained Montessori teachers encourage children to do projects on their own in order to help them develop a stronger sense of self-reliance and self-motivation.
This video offers a peek at how a Montessori school functions on a day-to-day basis:
So what kinds of Montessori schools are there? Many kinds!
While most people probably think of preschools when they hear the word "Montessori," there are also Montessori elementary schools and secondary schools.
You can search for a recognized Montessori school in the US with the search engine on the official American Montessori Society (AMS) website.
It’s important to note that the name "Montessori" can be used by any school, even ones that don’t actually follow the Montessori education model, so make sure to look for AMS-accredited schools and/or schools on their way to becoming accredited.
The International Montessori Index advises doing your own research on the Montessori schools in your area before committing to one.
Here are the main characteristics to look for in a Montessori school:
- A certified, Montessori-trained teacher and/or administrator
- A wide range of Montessori learning materials presented in a clean, organized environment
- Happy and kind children actively doing their choice of uninterrupted work
The Montessori school cost can vary significantly depending on age group, location, and other factors.
Per the North American Montessori Teachers' Association, the median annual Montessori school cost can run from as low as $999 to as high as $14,000, with schools targeting younger children typically being cheaper than those for older students.
Be aware that there are also some Montessori programs run by public schools, which have no charge for students.
This is the basic Montessori definition. But what's the history behind this popular educational philosophy?
Portrait of Dr. Maria Montessori
The History Behind the Montessori Education Method
The Montessori education model, or Montessori method as it's often called, was developed more than a century ago by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, scientist, and educator.
In 1906, Dr. Montessori was asked to create and manage a childcare center in a very poor district of Rome that would cater to the area’s most disadvantaged children. Many assumed the children here were incapable of being educated. Early the next year, the Casa dei Bambini, or "Children’s House," opened its doors to the children of the area.
After a short time, the children began to express interest in hands-on activities as well as working with puzzles, interactive games, and domestic "chores," such as cleaning up and preparing meals. They spent many periods in deep concentration and became calmer, respectful, and better behaved.
Dr. Montessori observed this and designed unique learning materials that fostered the children’s growth in different areas of development.
News of the school’s success quickly spread around the world, inspiring other educators to adopt the new Montessori education model. In 1909, Dr. Montessori published her first book, which, in English, was titled The Montessori Method.
Over the next few years, many Montessori schools began springing up all over the world: the first Montessori school in the US opened in 1911.
Today, there are around 5,000 Montessori schools in the US and thousands more worldwide. Evidently, a Montessori education continues to be a popular choice for many parents!
7 Key Tenets of a Montessori Education
A Montessori education has certain elements that differentiate it from non-Montessori schools and schools that claim to be Montessori but actually aren’t.
Here are seven key tenets of a Montessori education.
#1: "Prepared Environment"
The classroom environment is a critical part of the Montessori method, as it encourages children to engage in an array of stimulating activities with both comfort and confidence. This tenet is called a "prepared environment" in Montessori education.
Montessori classrooms are extremely clean and organized, which often surprises parents who expect preschools to be somewhat messy and chaotic.
Montessori teachers lay out the classroom in a logical, predictable manner so that the children know where to go for which activities. They also ensure there is ample space for children to work either individually or in groups and to be able to conveniently move from one activity to another.
Furthermore, children are encouraged to be respectful of the learning materials and put them away after they’re done using them.
Such policies not only keep the classroom clean, but they also instill a sense of responsibility and independence in children from a very young age.
#2: Mixed-Age Classroom
Another important element of every Montessori school is the multi-age classroom.
Children are not divided up by grade or age, as they are in regular schools; instead, Montessori classes span a few years in age so as to encourage mentorship, strengthen observational skills, and reinforce the concepts children have learned.
Here are the typical age groups of Montessori classrooms:
- Infant: Varies, but usually birth to 15/18 months (or when mobile)
- Toddler: Varies, but usually 15/18 months to 3 years
- Early Childhood: Ages 2.5/3-6
- Lower Elementary: Ages 6-9
- Upper Elementary: Ages 9-12
- Secondary: Two- or three-year age gaps between students up to 18 years old
#3: Trained Montessori Teachers
A large part of a Montessori education is having teachers (historically, "guides" or "directresses") who have been trained specifically in the Montessori method and therefore know how to operate a Montessori classroom and support children in a way that most effectively facilitates their developmental growth.
Montessori teachers spend time observing children so that they can know when and how to guide them to learning materials and activities that are age-appropriate and that the children personally express interest in.
Here’s how the AMS defines the role of the teacher in a Montessori school:
"A trained Montessori teacher is well versed not only in Montessori theory and philosophy, but also in the accurate and appropriate use of Montessori materials. She has observational skills to guide and challenge her students, a firm foundation in human growth and development, and the leadership skills necessary for fostering a nurturing environment that physically and psychologically supports learning."
So how do you know whether a teacher is certified in the Montessori method?
A trained Montessori teacher will have credentials in the age group they teach issued by any of the following Montessori organizations:
- American Montessori Society (AMS)
- Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)
- Any Montessori teacher education program accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE)
#4: Montessori Learning Materials
A Montessori school would be incomplete without approved Montessori learning materials.
Materials must be developmentally appropriate and teach the children an array of critical skills, from domestic work, such as cleaning and setting the table, to learning how to count with colorful beads.
Common materials found in a Montessori school include the following:
- Arts and crafts materials
- Classification cards
- Movable alphabet letters
- Puzzle maps
You can even buy your own Montessori materials and toys online!
#5: Child-Directed "Work"
Montessori teachers don’t really "teach" the children as much as they do guide them in their chosen "work."
In Montessori terms, "work" means "purposeful activity." It’s essentially any activity the child chooses to do and that the teacher believes will allow the child to develop specific skills.
At a Montessori school, the logical, predictable flow of the classroom space also encourages children to explore many different types of work at their own pace and comfort level.
#6: Uninterrupted Work Periods
At a Montessori school, children not only get to pick the activities they wish to do and the materials they want to work with, but they also get to work for long periods of time on their own (or with other kids); this is known as the "free choice" or "uninterrupted work" period.
Remember, Montessori teachers aren’t there to "teach" in a traditional sense but to guide students to what they’re most curious about and want to learn.
Uninterrupted work periods are crucial to the Montessori method. They teach children that they can figure things out on their own and instill in them a sense of maturity, responsibility, and self-motivation, as well as strengthening their ability to concentrate.
Free periods also allow children to focus on their own skills and interests at their own individual pace, rather than the pace of other students.
The length of this free choice period typically ranges depending on the ages of the students:
- Infant and Toddler: Two hours daily
- Early Childhood and Elementary: Two to three hours four to five times a week
- Secondary: Two hours for core subjects (English, math, history, science, foreign language)
#7: "Practical Life Activities"
A Montessori education strives to instill in children basic life and domestic skills, a knowledge of etiquette, and proper hygiene through what are called "practical life activities."
These activities may include the following (varies depending on age group):
- Cleaning up materials and toys
- Hand washing
- Pouring drinks
- Saying "please" and "thank you"
- Slicing food
- Setting the table
- Tying things, such as shoelaces
Key Takeaways: So What Is a Montessori School?
What is a Montessori school? The most basic definition is that it’s any school that follows the Montessori education philosophy, which was developed by Maria Montessori, an early 20th-century Italian physician and educator who ran a childcare center in an underprivileged area of Rome and later saw success with her unique approach to education.
The Montessori method aims to develop every part of a child—cognitive, social, physical, and emotional—by letting them pick what they want to learn. Specially trained teachers guide children to suitable activities while monitoring their personal interests and skills.
The main tenet of a Montessori education is hands-on engagement; there are no tests, grades, or homework assignments. In addition, Montessori classes are multi-age, with age gaps of up to three years, to allow for mentorship and peer-to-peer learning.
Many Montessori schools exist around the world, with 5,000 in the US alone. A Montessori school can cater to any age from infant to 18 years.
As for the Montessori school cost, tuition can range significantly depending on location, age group, etc. Typically, though, you’ll pay at least a few thousand dollars a year in tuition (possibly more than $10,000 at some schools).
A quality Montessori school will always abide by the seven following tenets:
- "Prepared Environment"
- Mixed-Age Classroom
- Trained Montessori Teachers
- Montessori Learning Materials
- Child-Directed "Work"
- Uninterrupted Work Periods
- "Practical Life Activities"
Ultimately, it's your choice whether you want to send your child to a Montessori school. While this educational philosophy might be different from what you're used to, it's worth giving a shot if you are excited about teaching your child creativity, independence, and respect.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.