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Montessori Philosophy

Must-Know Montessori Glossary of Terms

The unknown energy that can help humanity is that which lies hidden in the CHILD.

Must-know Montessori glossary of terms for parents, caregivers, and educators to help understand and embark on a Montessori journey.

At the beginning of our Montessori journey, I had encountered terminology which was unfamiliar or unique to Montessori philosophy and schooling. Dr. Maria Montessori introduced many new terms and concepts to describe how children developed and learn. Although she had introduced such terminology almost a hundred years ago, these terms are still widely used today in the Montessori community. Since you may encounter these terms as you learn about the Montessori method of education, I have put together this compilation of Must-Know Montessori Glossary of Terms that I have encountered most often. I hope you will find these definitions useful.

The unknown energy that can help humanity is that which lies hidden in the CHILD.
The unknown energy that can help humanity is that which lies hidden in the CHILD.

Must-Know Montessori Glossary of Terms

  • Absorbent Mind” – The first six years of life are immensely important in terms of learning. During this period, children have extraordinary abilities to learn almost effortlessly. From birth through approximately the age of six, young children experience a period of intense mental activity that allows them to “absorb” information from their environment quickly and easily without conscious effort. “Absorbent Mind” is characterized by a “young child’s behavior of quickly and effortlessly assimilating the sensorial stimuli of his or her environment, including information from the senses, language, culture, and the development of concepts.
  • Children’s House – Originally known in Italian as Casa dei Bambini, the Children’s House was Dr. Montessori’s first classroom for children 3-6 years old. Currently, in many Montessori schools, this is the name of the classroom for children ages 2.5 (or 3) to 6 years; other schools call the classroom for this age group Casa, preschool, primary, or early childhood.
  • Concrete to Abstract – A logical, developmentally appropriate progression that allows the child to develop an abstract understanding of a concept by first encountering it in a concrete form. For example, when the child learns the quantity to the numeral association by first holding numbers rods and then associating them to a particular numeral. Or, such as learning the mathematical concept of the decimal system by working with Golden Beads grouped into units, 10s, 100s, and 1,000s.
  • Control of Error – Self-correction that is built into Montessori materials and teaching methods,  where the child can independently identify and correct the error. Montessori materials are designed so that children can receive feedback about the work progress while they work, allowing a child to recognize, correct, and learn from an error without adult assistance. Putting control of the activity in the child’s hands strengthens one’s self-esteem and self-motivation.
  • Coordination of Movement – Refining of gross and fine-motor movements during early childhood development. The Montessori classroom offers opportunities for children, who learn to complete tasks independently, to refine their movements. Thus, children are attracted to these activities, which help coordinate their movement, especially to those meticulous activities that require precision.
  • Cycle One, Two, Three – Some Montessori schools refer to classrooms by cycle. Cycle One for 3-6-year-old children, Cycle Two for 6-9-year-old children and Cycle Three for 9-12-year-old children. See Mixed-Age Grouping.
  • Cosmic education – Maria Montessori believed that children early on should understand the concept of the “vision of the universe” and discover how all of its parts are interconnected and interdependent. In Montessori schools, children in Elementary programs (between the ages of 6 – 12) learn about the creation of the universe through stories that integrate the studies of astronomy, chemistry, biology, geography, and history. These lessons help children become aware of their own roles and responsibilities as humans, as members of society and as Global Stewarts. Cosmic education helps children to explore their own “cosmic task”, to understand their place in society and their unique, meaningful purpose in the world.
  • Didactic Materials – Didactic meaning “designed or intended to teach” specially-designed instructional materials —many invented by Maria Montessori—that are a hallmark of all Montessori classroom. They have a control of error built into them. They are designed to teach a singular concept and are presented in a specific order.
  • Director (Directress) or Guide – In the Montessori classroom the lead teacher/s are historically known as a Directress and assistants are often known as guides. Maria Montessori did not see the role of the adult as a teacher but rather to direct or guide the children to purposeful activity based on the adult’s observation of the child’s readiness and interests. The child develops their knowledge through hands-on learning with the didactic materials they use. Currently, some schools still refer to the lead teacher as “directress” or “guide,” while others use the more recognizable term, “teacher.”
  • Deviation – A term used by Montessori to describe a child – “Deviated Child” – who demonstrates certain “misbehavior” as they lack certain character or their character is not properly formed, resulting in undisciplined movement. In other words, the child’s horme has not diminished much and they are lacking the skills and determination of self-control. They still need to be overseen by an adult. Some “deviation” examples include wandering thoughts, lack of focus which might be disturbing to peers or inability to choose and decide to work on activities found on the shelves.
  • Discovery of the Child book –Maria Montessori went beyond the conventions of the day to seek a new way of knowing and loving a child. In the book, she describes the nature of the child and her method of working more fully with the child’s urge to learn.
  • Erdkinder – term “child of the earth” in German which describes a Montessori learning environment for adolescents ages 12 – 15 that connects them with nature and engages them in purposeful hands-on work. Erdkinder programs are often referred to as “farm schools” where children learn to contribute to the community.
  • Freedom of Movement – Montessori classrooms are thoughtfully designed to encourage children to move about freely and choose their own work. However, such freedom must be within reasonable limits of appropriate behavior, following classroom ground rules, and enabling children to exercise their own free will while ensuring that their chosen activities are respectful of others and their environment.
  • Grace and Courtesy – In Montessori schools, an area of Practical Life where children learn positive social behavior. Children receive lessons and role-play situations including using manners and moving gracefully, and are formally instructed in social skills they will use throughout their lives, for example, saying “please” and “thank you,” greeting guests warmly, interrupting conversations politely, and requesting rather than demanding assistance.
  • Ground Rules – Classroom rules in a Montessori classroom which indicate proper behavior in the classroom. At all age levels, children are free to work with any material or activity displayed in the environment so long as they use it respectfully. Children may not harm the material, themselves, or others.
  • Horme – An unconscious will of the child to do what they need to do to, where the child is being driven by an inner urge to self construct. It is the desire to act on tendencies to fulfill their needs during the appropriate sensitive period and to have the energy to make the developments necessary at a particular phase.
  • Mixed-Age Grouping (or Multi-Age Grouping) – One of the hallmarks of Montessori education is that children of mixed ages work together in the same class. Age groupings are based on the Planes of Development as identified by Dr. Maria Montessori. By having a “prepared environment” and by creating a structure that meets each child’s developmental needs, children are able to benefit from this mixed-age environment, which Maria Montessori believed would enhance their learning experience. Generally, an older child has a chance to reinforce what was learned by teaching mastered concepts to younger ones. S/he learns to be patient and tolerant, assisting and helping younger children, often taking on a leadership role and serving as a role model. A younger child, on the other hand, experiences new challenges and learns from older children through observations, as well as has peers to look up to for assistance or guidance if needed. So, in the end, each child is given an opportunity to learn and progress at his or her own pace in a multi-age environment where there is no pressure, no competition, no grades. Because each child’s work is individual, there is cooperation rather than competition between the ages. This arrangement mirrors the real world, in which individuals work and socialize with people of all ages and dispositions. Typically, children from 2.5/3 – 6 years of age are grouped together in an Early Childhood classroom. 6 – 9-year-olds are grouped in the Lower Elementary (grades 1 – 3) and 9 – 12-year-olds are grouped in the Upper Elementary (grades 4 – 6). At the Secondary level, groupings may be 2- or 3-years. Children from birth – to age 3 may be grouped in varying multi-age configurations, and are commonly grouped from birth to 15/18 months (or when mobile) and 15/18 months to age 3.
  • Montessori – A term referring to Dr. Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori Method of education, or the method itself.
  • Myelination – a crucial developmental milestone, where a protective myelin sheath of insulation (soft white fatty coating) is formed around the nerve fibers, allowing electrochemical messages to travel from the brain to the muscles.
  • Nido – (or ‘Nest’ in Italian) is a Montessori warm, caring environment for infants from 2-18 months, though not all schools that offer an infant program use this term.
  • Normalization – A natural developmental process where the child reaches a point of a love of work or activity, concentration, self-discipline, and joy in accomplishment. Dr. Montessori observed that children in Montessori programs exhibit normalization through repeated periods of uninterrupted work during which time they work freely and at their own pace on their own chosen activities. Normalization occurs where a child learns to focus and concentrate for sustained periods of time while deriving satisfaction from their work. Normalization occurs when development is proceeding normally. The four characteristics of a normalized child are: (1) Love of work; (2) Concentration; (3) Self-discipline; (4) Sociability or joyful work. So, a ‘normalized child’ is a happy, well-adjusted child who exhibits positive social skills in the Montessori classroom.
  • Planes of Development – Four distinct periods of growth, development, and learning identifies by Dr. Maria Montessori that a human being progresses through: ages 0 – 6 (the period of the “absorbent mind”); 6 – 12 (the period of reasoning and abstraction); 12 – 18 (when adolescents construct the “social self,” developing moral values and becoming emotionally independent); and 18 – 24 years (when young adults construct an understanding of the self and seek to know their place in the world).
  • Practical Life – The Montessori term that encompasses “domestic” work to maintain the home and classroom environment. Practical Life also includes self-care and personal hygiene, and grace and courtesy. Young children are very interested in practical life skills which form the basis of later abstract learning.
  • Practical Life Activities – One of the five areas (others include Sensorial, Language, Mathematics, and Cultural and Science) of the Montessori environment. Practical Life activities resemble the work of the home where young children in Montessori classrooms learn to take care of themselves and their environment. These are purposeful activities showing children how to maintain their environment and make a meaningful contribution while improving control, coordinated movement, and concentration. Practical Life Activities include care of self (hand washing, getting dressed, brushing teeth, cooking), care of the environment (watering plants, cleaning, dusting, mopping) and grace and courtesy (moving gracefully, using manners). These activities develop concentration and help toddlers and preschoolers learn to work independently while preparing them for later work with reading and math. Older children usually participate in more advanced activities such as cooking, gardening, and even operating a business.
  • Prepared Environment – The teacher prepares the environment of the Montessori classroom with carefully selected, aesthetically pleasing materials that are presented sequentially to meet the developmental needs of the child. Well-prepared Montessori environments contain appropriately sized furniture, a full complement of Montessori materials, and enough space to allow children to work in peace, alone, or in small or large groups. Children learn best and become confident individuals in an environment where age-appropriate activities are available, where they can choose their own activities, and where they can progress at their own pace using self-correcting materials. Montessori tells us to “follow the child.”
  • Primary Classroom – A classroom for children ages 3 – 6 years in some Montessori schools. The American Montessori Society, however, uses the term ‘Early Childhood’ and defines the age range as 2.5 – 6 years.
  • Purposeful Work – Through thoughtfully designed meaningful activities, the child can succeed and in essence, the child is asking us to “Help me do it by myself.”
  • Respect for the Child – A concept that children are different from adults and each other, and thus each one is unique, deserving respect and consideration.
  • Sensitive Period – A critical developmental ‘window of opportunity’ when the child is biologically ready and receptive to acquiring a specific skill or ability —such as the use of language or math. During such a period, the child is particularly sensitive to stimuli that promote the development of that skill and s/he may produce spontaneous bouts of concentration and repetition. Maria Montessori observed that young children are intrinsically motivated to engage in activities within the environment that satisfy their developmental needs. A Montessori teacher prepares the environment to meet the developmental needs of each sensitive period.
  • Sensorial Materials – Designed to develop and refine the 5 senses—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Each scientifically designed material isolates just one specific quality such as color, size, or shape, allowing a child to focus attention on that one characteristic. Sensorial Materials teach children to sort, classify, and order, as well as develop a vocabulary to describe objects in the world around, thus building a foundation for speech, writing, and math.
  • The Human Potential – Education begins at birth… and never ends. If children’s developmental needs are met, children will be able to maximize their potentials, whatever they may be. Dr. Montessori extended this premise to the world as a whole, where fulfilled and well-balanced adults would begin to behave better towards each other, leading eventually to a world at peace.
  • The 3-Period Lesson – A 3-step technique for presenting information to the child. In the first period — the introduction or naming period, the teacher demonstrates what “this is _.” (The teacher might say “This is red” while pointing to a red color tablet.) In the second period —the association or recognition period, the teacher asks the child to “show” what was just identified (“Show me red” or “Where is red?”). Finally, in the third period — the recall period, the teacher asks the child to name the object (“What is this _?” she would ask the child while pointing to the red tablet.) Moving from taking in new information to passive recall, to active identification reinforces the child’s learning and demonstrates the mastery of the concept. If the child cannot accurately show or identify the object, the teacher would proceed again with period one. In a Nut Shell: Step 1 is naming “This is _ … ” Step 2 is identification “Where it _? or Please pass me the_ …?” Step 3 is recollection “What is this?”
  • Three Hour Work Cycle – Maria Montessori observed that children, when left to work freely, would work in distinct work cycles. The cycle with two peaks and one valley lasts for three hours. The Three Hour Work Cycle is protected and provided in Montessori classrooms so that the child has three hours of open, uninterrupted and independent work, free from distraction or interruption. Many classrooms provide two, three-hour work cycles, a cycle in the morning and a cycle in the afternoon.
  • Work – In a Montessori classroom, all children’s activities are called “work” which is any purposeful activity. Maria Montessori observed that children learn through purposeful activities of their own choosing. While “work” sounds like a serious endeavor, Dr. Montessori observed that children exhibit joy and experience this purposeful activity as play.
  • Work Cycle – Within the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom, children are taught to complete the beginning, middle, and end of any activity, which is the entire work sequence. There are four main attributes to the Montessori cycle of activity:(1) Choice e.i. choosing an activity; (2) Preparation e.i. picking the activity from the shelf and carrying it to the floor mat or the table; (3) Work (completing the activity to completion, perhaps repeating the full sequence of the activity multiple times); (4) Return (cleaning up and returning the materials to the proper place to maintain order and so that the activity is ready for the next child or for the next use). Upon the completion of the work cycle, the child experiences a sense of satisfaction to have fully completed the task.

*Many definitions are from “Teaching Montessori in the Home: the Pre- School Years” by Elizabeth G. Hainstock.


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