Montessori and Classroom Communities
Maria Montessori was one of the first academics to link children’s emotional development to their ability to learn at an optimal rate. To support the development of social skills, emotional intelligence, and academic wellbeing, Montessori designed the concept of a classroom community to support the development of these skills over time. But how is such a community built and maintained?
The importance of community has been an essential component of Montessori education since its earliest days. Doctor Maria Montessori called her early childhood classrooms ‘Children’s Houses’, being a place where children belonged and felt comfortable, and also a place where they were responsible. The ideas of grace and courtesy (eg. greeting a guest who enters the classroom), and care of the environment (eg. tidying up after lunch) have continued to be crucial to Montessori learning, now over 100 years since its inception.
Despite community building being present in the Montessori environment, one could think that it directly contrasts with the flexible curriculum that is one of the defining features of the program. This refers to the method teachers employ of ‘following the child’, letting children work on the materials they choose, and at their own pace. However, this ‘freedom within limits’ contributes to the creation and preservation of community in two key ways.
Firstly, it empowers children to make their own decisions, to work at their own skill level, and to personally conquer challenges. The Montessori classroom is specifically set up so each of the 5 curriculum areas has a range of materials set at different skill levels. This means that all children can participate, and contribute to the classroom, whilst working on different, self-chosen materials. Everyone can be accommodated at the same time, and children are not separated from their peers if they need special attention, or are behind their peers in one particular area or another. Montessori is integrated and inclusive, and is proved to benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing an open and welcoming community (Mills et al. 1975, Pickering 1992).
Secondly, Montessori education encourages sociability, with children able to explore, experiment and create with other children of different age groups thanks to the mixed-age classes. Maria Montessori herself describes a daily situation within the Montessori work cycle where a child must wait for another to finish on a specific Montessori material before they can use it. She notes that “important social qualities derive from this. The child comes to see that [they] must respect the work of others, not because someone has said [they] must, but because this is a reality that [they will meet] in [their] daily experience.” This reality referring to the collaboration and communication needed in any community setting.
Likewise, it is not unusual to walk into a Montessori classroom and find children in pairs working on more challenging materials, one sometimes guiding the other to find the solution. Educator Lori Bourne also emphasizes the importance of Montessori ‘line time’ in being a “powerful way for a group of children to build a sense of family – to really bond together.” After the Montessori work cycle, many teachers gather children on the line for group time, where they combine together in song, lessons, and stories. In due course all children in the classroom benefit from social cohesion, and the idea of classroom community is transferred into actuality.
The Montessori classroom community is unique from any other early learning setting. Children are actively challenged to collaborate and contribute to class life, meaning every individual is important to the community. By being inclusive, Montessori classrooms are safe places where they belong and can grow, surrounded by peers and teachers whose goal is to help them thrive. This ultimately nurtures children’s social and emotional wellbeing.