The Montessori philosophy was developed in the early part of the 20th century by Maria Montessori. It's a teaching philosophy that places a great deal of emphasis on creative, hands-on learning and student independence. In a Montessori preschool, kids from 2 to 5 years old all share the same classroom, with older preschoolers acting as role models for younger toddlers. Students typically have the same teacher (or "guide" as they are frequently known in Montessori schools) for several years which allows them to develop a closer relationship with their educator.
Teachers allow children to make their own choices and learn at their own pace: for instance, toys and learning materials are arranged in the classroom so that a child can see all the possible options and select a task according to their interests or abilities. Preschoolers in a Montessori school are also encouraged to be responsible and independent. For instance, they usually prepare their own snacks, pour themselves milk, clean up, and put on their own coats.
The Montessori approach allows for children to learn at a much deeper and more meaningful level. Simply knowing something intellectually is not enough and kids will typically gain sensory awareness. A child in a Montessori program will feel, smell, taste, hear, or touch what they are learning about so that it becomes "real" for them. Children will also develop language and math skills with their teacher as their guide.
However, teachers rarely "teach" in the way that most people think of teaching. This particular approach to early childhood education was introduced by a Frenchman named Jean Piaget when he developed the constructivist theory. His theory was that people learn best when they "construct" their own knowledge.
Here is an example of how this type of learning works: for a lesson on the weight of objects, a teacher would supply scales and objects of various weights and maybe demonstrate how a scale works. Children would then be allowed to explore these materials and see what they could find out. Eventually, once the preschoolers had developed their own ideas about weights, measurements and scales, the teacher might give them the terms "weight", "scale" and "grams" so that they would know how to communicate their findings.
In Montessori daycares and preschools, the teacher is never the "star of the show" and does little direct instruction. Their job is to set up a learning environment which will foster children's education of themselves. This is an indirect approach to early education that is ideal for independent, smart and free-spirited kids who are more successful in less structured environments. A Montessori school can also be a good environment for special needs children because they receive individually-tailored attention and are able to develop a bond with their teacher.
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