A Montessori Approach to Homeschool: Where to Start
The essence of Montessori education is raising children as thoughtful, self-aware, and engaged members of society -- as whole people. So what does that look like in a homeschool environment, and where should you begin? Montessori graduate and mother, Ayva Cowell explains.
By Ayva Cowell | Assistant Editor
The Big Idea
“A child is not a stranger, one simply to be observed from the outside. Rather, childhood constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that a man is made… Whatever affects a child affects humanity, for it is in the delicate and secret recesses of his soul that a man’s education is accomplished. ” (Dr. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood)
Grace. Independence. Confidence. Freedom. Respect. Dignity. Self-awareness. The thing about Montessori is that the idea is BIG. Bigger than you or I or our own kids. And yet, simultaneously, the approach is laser-focused on every individual child.
It has been said that Montessori is, in essence, making sure a child has in her environment what she needs to fully grow and develop as a whole person. And what Dr. Maria Montessori saw in children was no less than the entire future of humanity.
Over five decades of close observation of children and their learning outcomes, she developed a rich, interconnected curriculum to support their optimum development into kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and capable builders of society.
Yes, mama… taking this on as a home educator may feel like a tall order. And it is. But we’ve no doubt you’re up to the task. Here’s where you can start.
Some Core Principles to Consider
There's no question that there are deep layers of complexity and detail that underpin the Montessori principles. It's a reality that can lead many curious home educators in another direction.
And it's true: Dr. Montessori's work can be dense and intricate. It's why the teacher training courses are so comprehensive and, arguably, intense. That being said, it may also be the only education system and curriculum so thoughtfully considered and developed. (Focused specifically on birth through age six, the Montessori approach does offer a component for older years as well, though in some places it is less widely adopted.)
Whether or not implementing a full Montessori curriculum at home is of interest to you and your family, there are many ways to incorporate key elements that will help you nurture the growth and development of an engaged, creative, life-long learner under your own roof. We’ve compiled some essential ideas to get you rolling.
The Prepared Environment
Order in environment = order in mind. This is a great place to begin, because it underlies so many of the other principles.
A minimalist before her time, Dr. Montessori observed that children have the best outcomes when their environment is simple, tidy, logical, and accessible.
The Montessori space is incredibly well organised; it's often referred to as carefully considered. The furniture and tools are all child-sized, and the sequential, carefully designed learning materials are placed neatly on low shelves so as to be easily seen, used, and put away. The whole space, which is built around natural materials like wood, silk, and wool, is light, beautiful, and worthy of respect and care -- just like the children it's designed for.
"A minimalist before her time, Dr. Montessori observed that children have the best outcomes when their environment is simple, tidy, logical, and accessible."
While you may not be ready to take this approach to your whole home, you'll definitely want to prepare one learning area with those concepts in mind.
Here are some tips:
- Focus on low, uncluttered shelves to accommodate the learning materials, which can be arranged individually on small trays for easy carrying by your little ones.
- Have a few throw rugs handy for floor work, hang some interesting art at their eye level, and provide as many adult-quality tools as you can in their size.
- A favourite Montessori activity is arranging fresh flowers in small glass vases for the space... consider adding that to your routine!
- Establish the practice of working on one activity at a time, and returning the materials as they were found before moving on. In essence, think: everything has a place, and everything in its place.
A Sense of Choice & Control
There is no question, as most home educators understand, that everyone learns more effectively when they are working on something they feel drawn to. We know it as self-directed learning, and it's an essential element of this style of education.
The sense of control that children feel within a prepared Montessori environment is one of its hallmarks, and it's a driving force behind the confidence and independence they develop as a result. Within the carefully considered space, each child shapes her own day; she selects materials that appeal to her, one at a time, with guidance from her teacher only as necessary.
Once you prepare a Montessori-style learning environment in your own home, you'll likely notice how it can promote exploration, focus, and engagement. There are many resources available to guide you as you learn about the materials and the order and manner in which they should be presented; within that framework, though, give your child a chance to choose their destiny each day. You'll need to be present to observe, facilitate, and support, but allowing her time to be her own will foster her sense of self-awareness, dignity, and freedom.
"Within the carefully considered space, each child shapes her own day; she selects materials that appeal to her, one at a time, with guidance from her teacher only as necessary."
Movement as the Key to Cognition
This approach is about hands-on learning whenever and wherever possible, so if you have textbooks in mind, you'd be well advised to look elsewhere. Thanks to a strong belief that movement and cognition are closely linked (which has now been repeatedly supported by an impressive depth and breadth of research), Dr. Montessori saw the stationary child as something to be avoided.
Hence, children in a Montessori classroom move about quite a bit to use the learning materials, and to take part in many practical life activities like preparing snacks, watering plants, and tidying. All the learning materials are thoughtfully designed so each lesson is reinforced by the movement and use of the hands, bringing body and mind together as a whole unit.
In addition to adding as many Montessori-specific learning materials as you can to your environment, you'll want to get your kids moving in any way you can imagine.
- Consider parking your stroller and get your little ones on their feet as much as possible.
- Think walking, running, climbing (inside and out!) and participating in many daily life activities, as early on as you can manage.
- Helping in the kitchen and around the house, gardening, and caring for animals, for example, can all be incorporated; Montessori has a strong focus on practical life activities.
A quick YouTube search will give you plenty of inspiration when you see Montessori kids as young as 18 or 20 months making omelettes, washing dishes, and acting as productive, contributing members of their household!
"The Montessori learning materials are thoughtfully designed so each lesson is reinforced by the movement and use of the hands, bringing body and mind together as a whole unit."
A Focus on Intrinsic Motivation
Unlike conventional schools, Montessori classrooms don't offer any extrinsic rewards or punishments. That's right... no grades, gold stars, or detentions. This approach is focused on protecting the natural, intrinsic motivation of humans to explore and learn. A large body of research has shown, without doubt, that extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsic motivation, and in some cases can negatively affect cognitive functioning, creativity, and prosocial behaviours like kindness and empathy.
Your mission (if you choose to accept it!) is to fiercely defend that built-in desire for lifelong learning. In your homeschool, that could look like trying to give your little ones the opportunity to have a whole experience that is their own... not forced, judged, interrupted or applauded. Recognising that their experience is enough can be challenging. But emphasising mastery of material over scheduled performance will bring an important Montessori goal to life in your home environment -- the love of learning for learning's sake. No Paw Patrol stickers required!
"In your homeschool, that could look like trying to give your little ones the opportunity to have a whole experience that is their own... not forced, judged, interrupted or applauded."
Choosing collaboration and cooperation over competition gets much easier when you remove the grades, tests, and stars from the picture. Another feature of Montessori classrooms is their mixed-age approach. Children of varying ages spend their time together and thus organically experience student to student learning. As they work together, they learn together and from one another.
It's easy to answer the question every homeschooler gets tired of hearing... what about socialisation?... when it comes to Montessori, because this model suggests that in optimal conditions, our kids spend time with humans of all ages.
Living, working, and learning alongside a wide variety of other productive people can bring out the best in us, and open our eyes to the intricacies of life on a grand scale. Joining mixed age groups of any kind, volunteering in your community, and spending time building positive relationships with friends and family can give your Montessori-homeschooled children just what they need to develop prosocial behaviour and skills.
"Living, working, and learning alongside a wide variety of other productive people can bring out the best in us, and open our eyes to the intricacies of life on a grand scale."
Learning in a Meaningful Context
Unlike the disembodied approach to knowledge that is so prevalent in traditional education, the focus on relationships across the entire Montessori curriculum helps children easily assimilate new information and ideas. By making connections across subject areas and to the outside world very clear, the strategy is to help each child piece together the big picture. A collection of facts, Dr. Montessori felt, was of no use.
She wanted to support children in seeing that everything in the universe is interrelated, and she realised that skills and knowledge learned in context were better understood and retained. This is reflected in her design of the learning materials, and the significant role of nature in her curriculum.
Regardless of learning style, we all learn best by interacting in some real way with material. So bring context to your homeschool lessons by doing! Instead of telling your child how bread is made, make some yourself. Learn about nature in nature -- look for animal tracks with a companion guide or collect the leaves of different trees for tracing and colouring. The possibilities for exploring this principle are endless.
Just think: real life learning. Ditch the textbooks and offer tactile experiences that are relevant and build on your family's current interests and knowledge!
"Learn about nature in nature -- look for animal tracks with a companion guide or collect the leaves of different trees for tracing and colouring."
Secure, Supportive Interaction with Adults
Dr. Montessori was very specific about the way her teachers worked with children. She saw that their mannerisms, style of demonstration, and word choices all played important roles in learning outcomes. As such, she focused on the ways in which teachers can build strong, secure relationships with their students.
As a homeschool parent, you are likely already perfectly positioned to guide your little ones in Montessori style, which advises genuine warmth and sensitivity towards the needs of every child. Providing a safe, secure base while remaining open to and supportive of independent exploration (some key concepts of healthy attachment parenting) are things to keep in mind.
And in demonstrating the use of curriculum materials - simplicity, precision, and objectivity are the qualities you're after. Beyond that, keen observation and a strong respect for your child as a brilliant, whole person are key!
"Provide a safe, secure base while remaining open to and supportive of independent exploration..."
Steps & Resources
Bringing Montessori into your homeschool -- however that looks to you -- will likely require some additional reading, learning, (and maybe even training!) for you and/or your partner.
A clear place to start is, of course, with Dr. Maria Montessori's books themselves. The Absorbent Mind and The Secret of Childhood are both great reads. The Joyful Child by Susan Mayclin Stephenson is also worth considering for wee ones, and the brilliant Montessori: The Science Behind The Genius by Angeline Stroll Lillard does an incredibly deep analysis of the current science which has come to light supporting virtually all the principles that Dr. Maria Montessori intuitively built into her curriculum.
While there have long been accredited training courses and curriculum packages available for Montessori teachers (that some homeschool parents have taken on!) NAMC (North American Montessori Center) recently developed a comprehensive homeschooling-specific curriculum that may be worth exploring.
Have questions? Have we missed something? Let us know in the comments below so we can keep this article a helpful free resource.
*A note from the author:
Now a mamma who has taken a Montessori approach (alongside other influences) to raising my son, I’ve always had a strong interest in the core ideas of this system. A graduate of the full Montessori program myself, I’ve spent a great deal of time researching and considering the intricacies of Dr. Montessori’s work and how it’s played out in my life. All that being said, I am not an accredited Montessori teacher. This piece and the ideas it contains is based on those years of reading, exploring, and considering this system, in addition to the many online and print resources that are readily available to all parents wishing to dive deeper.
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Mulberry Assistant Editor
Ayva is our Assistant Editor. She's currently the mama of one chatty toddler and has a baby on the way! A Canadian writer, photographer, and graphic designer, she lives on the road with her son, husband and two giant dogs. When not exploring field or forest with her pack, she can usually be found stand-up paddling, reading profusely, yoga-ing, or some combination of the above!