Montessori: What’s It All About? A Complete Guide

One of the most important decisions parents make for their children is the type of education they will receive, and the options seem endless. If you’re looking into schooling options, you’ve probably heard about Montessori schools, but what exactly is a Montessori school anyway?

Montessori schools are schools that use the educational philosophy espoused by Maria Montessori to guide their practices. The foundation of the philosophy is that children are active learners, and given the proper opportunity, environment, and gentle guidance, they will learn and develop without the influence of a teacher.

However, there is a lot more than this that goes into making a successful Montessori school! In this article, we will discuss what a Montessori school is, the characteristics of a Montessori classroom, how the philosophy is backed by science, what a typical day looks like in a Montessori classroom, and everything else you need to know about Montessori.

montessori on a bank note money 1
Maria Montessori‘s image on an Italian banknote

Who was Maria Montessori?

You can’t talk about Montessori schools without talking about its founder Maria Montessori. She was a Progressive Era Italian physician, educator, and some would say scientist who opened her first school for underserved youth in the early 1900s.

At this school, called the Children’s House, Montessori carefully observed the students, and these observations became the foundation of the Montessori philosophy.

She wrote fifteen books that describe her philosophy in detail. While a little dated, they are still relevant and used by Montessori educators today. Some of the most important books by Montessori include:

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Maria Montessori was an amazing woman and educator. She accomplished much despite the limiting gender stereotypes of the time and was active in the field of education research until her death at age 81.

What are Montessori Values?

So, what values did Montessori base her education on? A lot goes into a Montessori classroom, but here we will go over the ideas that really define the Montessori method.

Learning Should be Child-Led

Easily the most important part of Montessori education is that it puts the child in charge of their own learning. Montessori‘s observations led her to the realization that children are naturally curious and interested in learning.

In the proper environment, all students will seek out opportunities to learn and develop their faculties. This simple idea is where the Montessori method begins. All other ideas rely on this one foundational principle.

Students are Individuals

Montessori also believed in treating children as individuals and with the deepest respect. Children should not be patronized or barred from doing activities (like preparing their own snacks) just because they are children.

Additionally, she championed the idea that children develop at their own pace, and that their natural speed is the best pace. Learning should never be forced upon the child.

The Whole Child Should be Developed

Many educational philosophies that come out of the Progressive Era believed in teaching the WHOLE child. Montessori is no different. She insisted that education should focus on the child’s physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development.

Because of this, you will see many Montessori educators incorporating sensory activities, emotional regulation techniques, practical life skills, and even leadership topics into their curriculum.

Hands-On Experience is How We Learn

Experience is everything in the Montessori classroom and especially hands-on experience. The alphabet is learned by tracing a finger along a sandpaper letter, math is taught with manipulatives, and students experience nature up close and personal.

The Teacher is an Observer and Researcher

The teacher’s role in the Montessori classroom is to observe students and analytically create lessons and curriculum that responds to the students’ needs.

The teacher may do some whole class lessons, but most lessons occur one-on-one or in small groups. Even within the lesson, the teacher does not take an active role. They may model the activity or ask questions, but the child is given space to learn through experience.

Montessori Classroom

What Subjects are Taught in Montessori Schools?

All of the subjects you’ve come to expect in a typical school are covered within a Montessori school like math, language, reading, writing, history, and geography.

 Students may still have “specials” or designated times to spend with certain expert teachers (like art, music, or gym), but if not, rest assured that these topics are still integrated into the curriculum.

But Montessori educators also teach some other subjects, including:

  • Practical life: Examples of this include tidying up, washing hands, cleaning objects, dishwashing, putting on a coat, sewing, cooking.
  • Sensorial learning: This kind of learning focuses on cultivating a student’s ability to discriminate between sensory experiences like hot and cold, but also more refined experiences such as differentiating the call of different birds.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is one of the ways Montessori teachers help students develop their emotional capacities. This might include meditation, yoga, or other methods of becoming calm.
  • The student’s interests: Especially as Montessori students get older, they will be encouraged to explore their own interests. They may start their own business, organize a food drive, or put on a play about someone from history.

How these are integrated into the curriculum and to what extent depends on the age of the child. For example, leadership may be a big part of a student-led high school curriculum, but in a preschool, this isn’t quite as prevalent.

You could argue that all of these subjects are taught within traditional schools, and you’d be right. The main thing that sets the Montessori curriculum apart is the emphasis on practical life skills and sensorial learning. These subjects tend to be seen as “extra” or “side projects” in traditional schools, but Montessori puts them at the center.

Through these subjects, Montessori students learn to be confident and independent community members and learners that trust their own experiences.

Montessori students

Hallmarks of a Montessori School

Maria Montessori was very detailed about her approach to education, and so when you walk into a Montessori classroom, you know it right away. Below we’ll discuss some of the characteristics of a Montessori classroom that set it apart.

The Prepared Environment

The prepared environment is what Maria Montessori called what most people think of as the classroom. Montessori classrooms are set up so that students can be independent and learn in the best ways possible.

What does a Montessori classroom look like? Here are some things you might see in the prepared environment:

  • Student height sinks and counters
  • An area for students to prepare their own snacks or meals
  • Prepared learning activities within reach of the child, often on low shelves
  • Several areas for students to work like tables, cushions, and rugs
  • Orderliness, purpose, and simplicity
  • Space so that students can freely move around

You can’t do Montessori without the prepared environment, and preparing the environment is one of the most important duties of a Montessori teacher.

The Work Cycle

The work cycle is another essential to the Montessori method of teaching. It is a block of time during which students are leading themselves in learning. This might only be 1-2 hours long at the preschool level, but as children enter higher grades, it will last 3 hours, and it is typically done twice a day.

Without this 3-hour block of time dedicated to their independent learning, students do not get to have the satisfaction of completely exhausting their learning.

Montessori observed that students started the work cycle by selecting familiar activities, and then after a brief period where the student seems tired, they select more challenging work. By the end of the work cycle, students should have been able to complete the challenging activity they set out to do. They may even have completed it multiple times until they naturally tire of it.

The lack of interruptions during the work cycle allows students to develop their attention span as well.

Montessori work cycle

The Three Period Lesson

The three-period lesson is a method of conducting a lesson that Montessori borrowed from Edouard Seguin, another researcher on education. Here is how the three-period lesson is broken down:

  • The first period is the naming stage. During this part of the lesson, the teacher would name an object or concept for a student. For example, the teacher would hold up a card with a picture of an island and say, “This is an island.” Then they might hold up a picture of a peninsula and say, “This is a peninsula.”
  • The second period is the recognition stage. In this period, the student would be able to point to the object. The teacher would say, “Show me the island.”
  • The third period is the remember stage. The student must be able to recall the word and the meaning of the word. The teacher would hold up the picture of the island and say, “What is this?”

Most Montessori lessons follow the three-period method, but not all periods are always accomplished. It can take several experiences before a student makes it to the third stage.


Self-assessment is important to the child-led learning experience. This doesn’t mean that the teacher does nothing to assess the student’s learning and progress. Much of the teacher’s class time is spent observing and assessing students.

What it does mean is that the student is not privy to the teacher’s assessment. The student assesses their own work.

When a teacher shows that they believe a student has done something wrong, it takes away some of their independence and makes them strain to learn something that they wouldn’t normally apply themselves to, which isn’t conducive to a child-led learning experience.

A teacher may guide appropriate behavior or remove activities that are being used destructively, but they do not praise or admonish students for correct or incorrect responses.

Most activities are designed to self-correct, which means the activity itself tells the student that they are not going in the right direction.

montessori classroom

Teaching with Truth

One of the things that Maria Montessori found through her observations of children is that they learn best with the truth. Creating imaginative scenarios about a topic only results in children becoming confused.

She also observed that when children were given a choice between pretend play and the real activity, they always chose to do the real activity. For example, a child would prefer to prepare their lunch in a real kitchen with real food than use a play kitchen with play food.

Because of this, she advocated for ditching imaginative play and instead giving children the opportunity to do the real task and work with the real world. This is seen as an act of respect and nurturing.

This does not mean that children don’t get to be creative. They have opportunities to make art, write stories, and create music in meaningful ways.

Mixed Age Classroom

Montessori classes have children of multiple ages in them! It varies from school to school, but for the most part, schools group students into groups that span three years. This is what this looks like:

  • Ages 3-6
  • Ages 6-9
  • Ages 9-12
  • Ages 12-15
  • Ages 15-18

The mixed-age classroom offers many advantages, like opportunities for leadership and letting students progress at both faster or slower rates without stigma.

Natural Materials

You’ll find that Montessori materials are made of natural materials like wood. You’ll find most activities incorporate elements from nature with pleasant or interesting sensory experiences. For example, math is taught using smooth stones and beads.

What you won’t see is a lot of plastic items or brightly colored items that are bright without purpose. You also won’t find a lot of technology. Clearly, Maria Montessori didn’t have a stance on the use of a computer in the classroom, but most schools save that for third grade at the very earliest, and it is not at the center of the classroom.

Because of this, Montessori classrooms are often described as being inviting and calm. Their senses are not stimulated for the sake of stimulation, which allows students to take up focused work.

Montessori uses natural materials

Writing Comes First

That’s right. Montessori schools teach writing before they teach reading, and it works amazingly well, and the most faithful Montessori schools teach cursive first.

Montessori educators do this because it works. Students pick up cursive writing much easier than print writing, and once they’ve learned to write the letters and build words with the sounds the letters make, reading is a cinch.

Most Montessori students leave preschool as beginning readers and proficient writers, and amazingly, it is accomplished without pressuring the student to do so.

What does a Typical Montessori Day Look Like?

What a typical day looks like for a Montessori student depends on what age group they are in. Younger students usually have a bit less work cycle time, more outdoor time, and more group time than older kids.

Let’s take a look at what you can expect based on the age of your child.

A Typical Day in a Montessori Preschool

The exact order of these elements may vary slightly depending on the age of the children and the specifics of the program, but most preschools will have each of these components during the day.

  • The work cycle. The day typically starts with a 1-2 hour work cycle. Students come in and settle into work right away. The work cycle is the most important part of the day. It starts right away to prevent interruptions.
  • Snack Time. After the work cycle, students may have a snack or be encouraged to use the bathroom.
  • Rest/Circle Time. Most teachers find that this is the perfect time for some rest since students were working hard during the work cycle. In Montessori, rest is associated with group time or circle time. The student can relax while stories are read, and songs are sung. This is usually about 30-45 minutes.
  • Outdoor Time. At this age, Montessori puts emphasis on movement. Students get ample outdoor time or opportunities to move their bodies in big ways.
  • Lunch. After all that moving around, students are ready to enjoy lunch. Even in preschool, students may help set tables and prepare the classroom for lunchtime.
  • Quiet time. Students tend to fall into a lull after all the activity of the day. Quiet time might be a nap, storytime, or time for mindfulness exercises.
  • Second outdoor time. Some teachers like to include a short time outdoor right before dismissal.

A Typical Day in an Early Elementary Montessori School

Early elementary includes some of the same elements from the preschool classroom, but have a bit more structure and more time for learning, which is developmentally appropriate at this age.

  • The work cycle. Early elementary educators also tend to start the day with a 2-3 hour work cycle. Students come in, and the students put their things away and get started on the serious work of learning.
  • Group time. It might not be called circle time, but it’s the same idea. It is time for the whole class to come together. There may be announcements, sharing, or group lessons. Typically this is only 15-20 minutes at this age.
  • Outdoor time. Time for movement is still important at this age, but the amount of time is usually a little less than in preschool. Students may spend 45 minutes to an hour outside.
  • Lunch. Students become increasingly involved in setting up lunch and cleaning up after lunch.
  • The second work cycle. The main difference between early elementary and preschool is that students have a second work cycle. Because Montessori is child-led, if a student still needs quiet time or rest, they can choose to do that instead, but most are ready and enjoy a second work cycle.
  • Second outdoor time. At this age, many educators prefer to end the day with outdoor time. This gets the children ready to go, and parents can pick up their children as they wish.

A Typical Day in a Late Elementary Montessori School

The late elementary Montessori school is similar to the early elementary, but there are longer work cycles and less outdoor time. This does not mean that they do not go outdoors. Montessori, at every age, emphasizes the need to explore the natural environment. This may be done as part of a lesson or during the work cycle.

  • The work cycle. Once again, the day begins with the serious work of learning. This time is usually used for individual work.
  • Group time. The class comes together for whole class lessons or announcements. This is typically 20-30 minutes or longer if there are lessons.
  • Lunch. Students are completely independent at this stage.
  • Second work cycle. At this age, students grow more social, and they may begin working in small groups more often. The second work cycle is usually used for projects or larger group lessons. The second work cycle does not always happen every day, especially if students do specials or students require specialized education services.
  • Outdoor time. The day still ends with some outdoor time, usually about 30 minutes to an hour.

We haven’t included information on what a day looks like at the secondary level because of how schools interpret the Montessori method at this age varies widely as well as the regulations they must follow.


The Science Behind Montessori

Montessori may have started her Children’s House over 100 years ago, but she was precise and scientific in her study of child development. All of the recommendations she made were based on her observations, and through pedagogical experiments she conducted with the help of children.

The Montessori method is rooted in science. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that researchers continue to show that students do well in Montessori schools.

  • Lillard, Angeline S Frontiers in Psychology October 2017— This study compares academic learning in two preschools. It found that Montessori students did better than their peers in a traditional preschool in academic areas, although there was no difference in soft skills like problem-solving.
  • Lillard, Angeline S Journal of School Psychology June 2012—This study found that a classic Montessori approach worked better in preschools than a lower fidelity approach and a traditional approach. Preschool students in the classic Montessori preschool had greater gains in executive function, reading, vocabulary, math, and social problem-solving.
  • Lillard, Angeline S Journal of Montessori Research May 2016—This study looked at the influence of non-Montessori materials in the Montessori classroom. When non-Montessori materials were completely removed from the classrooms, students made great gains.
  • Besancon, Maud Learning, and Individual Differences 2008—This study found the Montessori students at the age of 12 did better at creative thinking tasks than traditionally schooled students.

What these studies show when looked at together is that Montessori works, and the closer you get to Maria Montessori‘s original philosophy, the better the outcomes. Research on the Montessori method is challenging because setting up a randomized control trial is near impossible. There is always something that undermines the research, like the fact that different teachers are in charge of the class, or children’s parents selected the schools.

However, what is clear is that Montessori works. And of course, it does because it is based on scientific observations, not off the cuff assumptions about childhood.

Montessori classroom

What to Look for in a Montessori School

The best Montessori schools are those that follow Maria Montessori‘s philosophy as closely as is reasonably possible, given how much things have changed in the past 100 years!

But we can’t dance around the fact that some educators equate a Montessori education with Montessori tools. The philosophy is much deeper than that.

Here’s what you should look for in a Montessori school:

  • The prepared environment. The classroom should be inviting, orderly, and peaceful, and the students should be able to go about their day independently.
  • A schedule. Teachers should have a schedule that includes at least one work cycle. Its length should be developmentally appropriate. It should also include plenty of time outdoors for young children.
  • Reduced or no technology. Montessori classrooms should not have computers, tables, or televisions, especially in the early grades. In third grade, typing instruction might begin, and you may see a computer.
  • No pretend play toys. The presence of pretend play toys in the classroom is a sign that a teacher is not following Montessori closely. There’s nothing inherently evil about pretend play toys, but students prefer doing the real task over pretending. Instead of pretending to wash dishes, they’re given the opportunity to actually wash dishes! If pretend play toys are prevalent, it may mean teachers aren’t allowing students the freedom to participate in the real task.
  • No rewards. True Montessori educators believe that learning itself is enough of a reward for students. Including rewards in the classroom may lead students to feel they need an external reward for learning.
  • An observant, flexible teacher. If you have the opportunity to observe a work cycle, take it. You should see a teacher that is observing their students, giving individual lessons, and gently guiding students without insistence.
  • Accreditation.  The American Montessori Society accredits Montessori schools. This doesn’t mean that an unaccredited school is terrible, but accreditation goes a long way toward showing that the educators are following Montessori principles. Click here to learn more about Montessori school accreditation and licensure.

What is Montessori About?

Montessori is about developing independent, confident, life long learners that have the social, emotional, practical, and cognitive skills required to care for themselves and look after their community. This is the aim of many methods of educating youth, but Montessori backed up this goal with scientific, evidence-based practices, which is the true heart of Montessori‘s philosophy.

It is no surprise that the practices outlined over a hundred years ago are still effective for teaching children today.

Read more about if Montessori school is right for every child, or check out our article on Montessori lesson plans.

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