Editor’s Note: We know that the authors of this article really meant it to help teachers remember how important setting up children’s environments is to maximize the potential of each child at each stage during the early childhood years. However, because of how broadly they talk about the classroom environment, the principles can also be applied to the home environment. If you are a parent, there may be two “take-aways’’ for you. One might be that you have a better understanding of the many facets to be considered by Montessori teachers as they prepare their classrooms for your child. The second might be ideas for setting up a rich and supportive environment for your child at home. I found it helpful to change the word “materials” in this article to toys or activities as I read through it.
Early Childhood, the period between birth and age six, is the most critical period in postnatal human development and learning. During this time, basic movements are mastered, speech is developed, senses are consolidated, and bodies acclimate to sensory input. With this tremendous development taking place, the environment where children spend their days must reflect the constantly changing needs of childhood.
During their first months, children are in a state of unconscious absorption in which they learn from their environment spontaneously and effortlessly. This period of intense mental activity gradually leads to a state of conscious absorption, allowing for more purposefully chosen activities. At the same time, there is a tremendous quest toward both independence and a need for order. The optimal early childhood environment will have opportunities for children to gain the self-help skills they need in order to build confidence and realize self-liberation; providing order in the physical arrangement of the furnishings, the materials, and the activities offered.
The role of the caregiver, or educator, is to prepare the environment to meet the needs of the unique group of children in their care. There are several factors that need to be considered in order to provide a space that will enrich their experience in a developmentally appropriate manner:
MEETING THE NEED FOR MOVEMENT
As we learned from Dr. Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952), movement is intrinsically satisfying. It also affects psychic and spiritual energies; eventually, it helps children acquire abstract thinking by first enabling them to experience abstract concepts through concrete forms. Young children need to move! Knowing the ages, developmental levels, and needs of the children in your care will enable you to arrange the environment to provide the appropriate amount of physical activity.
Infants and Toddlers: If you are serving infants, who need to creep or crawl, provide open, obstacle-free spaces with warm flooring surfaces of varying textures that they can safely navigate and explore. Toddlers need space for independent exploration, as well as secure objects for grasping and pulling themselves into sitting and standing positions. Later. they will need apparatus for stretching and developing their arm and leg muscles, such as climbing triangles, dome climbers, and short sets of stairs. At this age children begin to learn when and where it is appropriate to run and climb and when it is safer to walk or keep feet on the ground. With guidance, toddlers will start to make the appropriate choices.
Preschoolers (ages 3—6): Preschoolers need spaces to: move back and forth between shelves, tables, and large open floor areas for unencumbered work; individual spaces, such as cozy reading corners, where they can settle, concentrate, and focus; and spaces to congregate in small and large groups. Long narrow openings tend to encourage running, which can be a safety hazard. Try to break up these long expanses with furniture or plants. A combination of child-sized tables and chairs (preferably adjustable to each child’s height); shelves and cubbies that they can comfortably reach; and open floor space will accommodate multiple types of activities.
MEETING SENSORY NEEDS IN THE ENVIRONMENT
Visual Component: Because young children are constantly adjusting to the barrage of sensory impressions they receive, what children see plays an important role in environment preparation. We live in a world focused on extensive visual stimulation. Although there is a trend to provide eye-popping bright colors or bold primary colors in early childhood environments, a palette of neutral colors and/ or colors from nature can be more conducive to learning and to promoting a sense of calm. A subtler background allows the materials to stand out and attract the child’s interest. In addition, urged on by décor manufacturers, early childhood educators (and parents) often plaster their environments with posters and other materials. However, uncluttered walls can be comforting, soothing, and far less distracting. Be selective and discriminating in choosing what is displayed and hang thoughtfully chosen artwork at the child’s eye level.
Considering your lighting is also important. Lots of natural light is optimal in any setting. If artificial lighting is also necessary, using incandescent bulbs will lend a warmer glow to your environment than the cool blue of fluorescents. You might also want to explore energy-efficient LEDs. In any case, remember safety considerations with young children, ensuring stability, taking care with cords, hot bulbs, and shades.
Auditory Component: Have you considered the sounds the children can hear in your learning environment? Just as your classroom can be visually cluttered, noises such as side conversations, small-group lessons, musical instruments, the rustle of leaves, or even the whisper of wind can make the classroom feel cluttered auditorily. Determine which of these noises are appealing and conducive to learning and which are distracting. Try to adjust the ones you’d like to control or mitigate by using sound-absorbing materials such as rugs and carpeting. Add soft pillows and child-sized upholstered chairs to the reading nook. Hang fabric curtains at the windows or draped across ceilings. If your budget allows, you may also want to consider unobtrusive acoustic panels for walls and ceilings.
Tactile Component: Are the surfaces of your furniture smooth and free of dangerous or pointy edges? Do you provide a variety of materials that appeal to the sense of touch, such as soft woolens, smooth silks, warm wooden objects, and cool metals, which encourage the child to explore and discover the unique characteristics of each? For babies and toddlers still crawling and creeping, have you considered the different sensations they feel on their hands and knees as they make their way around on varying surfaces?
Olfactory Component: What smells greet the children? Whenever possible, avoid the use of harsh-smelling chemical cleaners. Allow fresh air to permeate the environment. Objects with appealing scents, such as a cinnamon bark box or a clove box, can be enjoyed by the children. Fragrant herb plants that are safely edible, such as sage, rosemary, and lavender, also make lovely additions. Allow children to use a mortar and pestle to crush them to release their enticing scents into the air.
Choosing Materials: Besides the physical attributes of your home, there are various considerations to take into account regarding learning and play materials:
- Quality: Are the materials constructed to last through use by many children?
- Are they safe and free of sharp edges and small parts not suitable for children under three? Are they attractive and inviting?
- Relevance: Do the materials embody and respect the personal identifiers that make up the diversity of your family and the wider community in which you live, such as race, ethnicity, and languages? Do they take into consideration the children’s interests, and inspire new ones?
- Developmental levels: Do the materials and activities provide appropriate learning experiences for all the ages and ability levels in the class?
- Language development: Does the variety of materials offered expose the children to the vast array of living and non-living things offered by our world and the rich vocabulary associated with them to expand their burgeoning language development? Are there opportunities for them to express themselves?
In Conclusion: Considering these various factors when creating living and learning environments for young children will help you provide spaces that benefit them by enriching their experience in a developmentally appropriate manner that contributes to their physical, cognitive, and social-emotional growth and learning.
Bagnoli, D. (2021) “Montessori by Design: School Spaces That Stay True to the Montessori Method.” Montessori Life. 33 (1). 26 – 35.Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori Method. New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Photos in this article courtesy of Alicia Diaz-David.
Reprinted with permission from Community Playthings www.communityplaythings.com
Marie M. Conti, M.Ed. is head of The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, PA, and a former member of the American Montessori Society board of directors. She has more than 40 years of experience as a Montessori classroom teacher and administrator. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcy K. Krever is a freelance writer and the former Senior Director of Communication & Community at the American Montessori Society. Contact her at email@example.com.