Today’s parents are increasingly becoming interested in educational methodologies and gradually and increasingly believing in the importance of early childhood education. It is increasingly more acknowledged that the first five to six years of life are really crucial to the child’s development. The brain cells are multiplying at a very high speed specifically during the first three years of life.
During this early phase of life, the child is moving towards gaining more and more control over both his physical skills as well as his social interaction with the surrounding environment. (Darroch, 1907). Consequently more non-traditional educational institutions have been emerging in response to the parents’ requests and needs.
Three of the very best approaches specifically have arisen in Europe in the past century, which are the Waldorf approach, the Reggio Emilia approach and the Montessori approach. All three approaches were an absolute inspiration in the process of educational reform, and two of them, the Reggio Emilia approach and the Montessori approach arose from Italy. (Goffin, 2000) So, lets attempt to understand more about the Montessori approach and compare it occasionally to the other two approaches.
Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the founder of the Montessori approach, was the first female physician in Italy and after working in an asylum for the insane as it was called at that time, she was intrigued by special needs children and found that the methods she used with them brought out better outcome. Later in 1907, she opened “Casa dei bambini” and started to work with normally developing children. Along her life journey she came up with a lot of theories concerning child education and development and was nominated for Nobel prize three times till she died in Holland in 1952 leaving behind a rich legacy to explore. . (Mooney, 2000)
One of her most important ideas are that children need furniture that is their own size to enable them to work more independently and as you can see most nurseries and kindergarten’s have automatically now incorporated this idea without even knowing its Montessori related. She also encouraged the use of real life objects, like real glass cups, hammers, knives and scissors to enable the child to acquire the skills more readily. She believed that giving them plastic tools that didn’t really work affected their competence and by giving them real tools, they can learn to use them safely. Accordingly, these tools are organized on child sized accessible shelves that the child can reach on his own. The child freely chooses his item, places it on a table or mat and starts exploring and manipulating it any number of times he/she wishes. When the child has finished, he is instructed to return the item to its place on the shelves. For example; a child could choose the pouring water tools and keep pouring water from a jug to a cup any number of times in a special Montessori sequence till the child decides he’s had enough and return it to its place.
Now this exercise could lead the children to be very organized and systematic but in my opinion it has two downfalls; the first is that the child works individually most of the time, which may lead to loss or underdevelopment in social skills. Thus Montessori schools are advised to boost their programs with group activities. My second concern is the systematic instruction of performing a certain activity with specific steps may lead to a weakness in the creativity skills of the child and hence again Montessori programs should be inoculated with artistic, inspirational freely expressed activities.
Through experience it is way better to follow the child’s curiosity and teach him about what he needs to learn and asks about, than to assume that he must learn something and teach it just because its required. It is like each child has an inbuilt drive that tells him how to learn about his environment and explore it. (Darroch, 1907). The Reggio approach on the other hand is also based on the child being more capable and of unlimited potential but does not require a certain set of defined activities, on the contrary the curriculum is more open ended according to the child’s interest which is the utmost belief in internal inbuilt potential and creativity of the child.
Maria Montessori was a constructivist who believed in the child’s natural intelligence, she divided development into a series of 6-year waves; she named the first 3 years of life “the unconscious absorbent mind” and the second 3 years “ the conscious absorbent mind”(Montessori & Chatting Mc Nichols, 1995). An individualized curriculum is designed for this wave of one to six years; it is characterized by having scope and a certain sequence.
Loris Malaguzzi (of the Reggio Emilia approach) on the other hand, saw the child as a social being since birth, capable and of unlimited potential. His notion of education was through social relationships with peers, teachers, parents while all interacting with the environment (Malaguzzi, 1993) This resourceful child changes systems by interacting with the surrounding and is called “producer of culture, values and rights “ ( Rinaldi, 2001a,p.51).
As for the classroom environment in the Montessori approach, it is very organized, all tools are placed neatly on the shelves and the teachers are more of the “unobtrusive directors” of the classroom dynamics, who create an environment of “productive calm”. Consequently if you observe a Montessori classroom, you may not witness the normal young chats of interactions that are characteristic of preschool and kindergarten classes and you will find the children more silently consumed in their own tasks.
The Waldorf teacher has nearly the totally opposite role as she acts as more of an entertainer with a set curriculum. She orchestrates the learning process and acts as a model for positive discipline. While the Reggio teacher is an observing learner that skillfully nudges the children and scaffolds them to their next level of learning. She is not quiet silent but learns how to ask the children open-ended questions that would stimulate their creativity but preserve their independence simultaneously. She plays a role “ of artful balance between engagement and attention “ (Edwards, 1998)
Both the Reggio and Waldorf environments are more aesthetic than the Montessori classroom environment.
This was just a brief snapshot of the Montessori approach in comparison to more recent educational approaches but as a child psychiatrist and an early childhood educator, I would like to advise fellow educators to continue with a more thorough research of the three systems, then read a vast amount of child psychology research and recent studies and finally come up with a totally new approach that is up-to-date, inspired by the previous approaches and including a cultural consideration perspective. To me it doesn’t feel right to do in the year 2012 what someone has discovered in the 18 hundreds. We can definitely use the previous research but our role is also to challenge it just as Maria Montessori challenged traditional education at her time. Innovation rather than imitation.
Darroch, A. (1907). The children:some educational problems. London:
Edwards, C. P. (2006). Montessori education and its scientific basis. University of Nebraska,licoln, doi:
Mooney, C. G. (2000). Theories of childhood. USA: red leaf press.
By Dr. Mona Youssri
Child Psychiatrist Family Counselor & CLC Founder