INSIDE A MONTESSORI INFANT CLASSROOM
Some Montessori schools are fortunate to have the physical space and community to offer an infant program. This is a fantastic opportunity for families, as parents return to work when their maternity/parental leave is over! As with all childcare and school enrollment decisions; do the research; take a school tour; ask lots of questions; talk to other parents; and observe classrooms.
What should parents expect when starting?
Once you have decided to enroll your infant in a Montessori classroom, there will be changes to your daily routine. This is a whole new world for the child. There will be a settling-in period as any new infant in group care transitions to life outside the home. Most assuredly, there will be a shift in daytime sleep patterns, as a newly enrolled infant adjusts to the new sounds and routines of the classroom. Breastfeeding moms will want to plan for bottle-feeding if unable to come to school and nurse during the day. Schedules and routines are geared towards each individual child in the Montessori infant environment. As development progresses, a child’s napping routines and dietary needs continue to change. For example, a newly mobile infant will most likely require more nourishment during the day. Think of the energy they expend! Families may also experience changes in their child’s home schedule as development progresses.
Parents will want to send their infant to school in simple, comfortable clothing that supports movement and exploration. Shoes aren’t really necessary and may hinder movement in the classroom, although shoes may be needed for mobile infants outside. Many teachers will ask parents for a small supply of clothes to keep in the classroom as spills, leaks, and spitting up are common. Keeping a light jacket at school can be helpful for spur-of-the-moment outside time when it unexpectedly turns out to be a nice day. Always have a supply of diapers at school. Types of diapers (cloth or disposable) vary widely among families and schools. Toileting awareness begins with older infants, and a supply of cloth underwear may be needed.
The caregiving moments shared with an adult are a substantial and important part of an infant’s day. These include: bottles/eating; diapering/toileting; changing clothes; hand washing; and soothing to sleep. “Quality infant caregiving is based on respectful and responsive relation-based care by the adult through sensitive observation of the infant.” (Kovach and Patrick, 2008, p. 13). Teachers will build loving, trusting relationships with each child during caregiving, and this promotes a healthy sense of self and feeling valued. In addition, your child will feel safe and secure with kind, responsive caregiving and consistent routines; this allows children to freely explore and learn about the exciting new world around them. Teachers will be observing your infant for cues about hunger, tiredness, and other caregiving needs.
Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Choice, and the Prepared Environment
An essential element of the Montessori environment is freedom of movement. When not involved in caregiving routines or resting, an infant will be playing on the floor in a safe space for movement and exploration. While this may look mundane to the casual observer, these infants are actively engaged in rapid cognitive and physical development.
“When awake and physically separated from its mother, a baby’s next natural playground is the floor. It is from the ground that a child can learn to develop muscle tone as an opposing force to gravity.” (Goddard Blythe, 2005, p. 183). On the floor, a variety of safe objects are placed nearby so that infants can choose what they want to hold or manipulate. A child’s hands play an essential role in freedom of movement. Maria Montessori wrote and lectured extensively about the crucial role hands play in brain and body development. “Children develop their senses by handling objects.” “Coordination is developed through movement, especially through the movements of the hands.” (Montessori, 2012, p. 167). For immobile infants, items are placed nearby so they can practice reaching, touching, and grasping. Once infants are mobile, they are free to move and explore around the classroom. They may engage in cause-and-effect activities, such as stacking or dumping. Some days a mobile infant may prefer sustained large muscle activity such as a pull-up bar or climbing over a low bridge.
Parents will notice there are no electronic toys (think flashing lights and shrill mechanical sounds) in an infant classroom. “Being entertained by overstimulating objects can influence babies to observe and become passive rather than active participants.” (Kovach & Da Ros-Voseles, 2008, p. 137). Infants are encouraged to explore and make discoveries on their own at their own pace; this empowering freedom of choice promotes cognitive learning and curiosity about the world around them. Another essential practice in the Montessori environment is repetition. A child will play with an object or engage in an activity until they are no longer interested. This supports concentration and working memory—important components of brain development. Typically, once an infant has exhausted their interest in a particular item or activity, they move on to something else. Teachers will observe their readiness for new materials and activities as development progresses.
THERE WILL BE A SETTLING-IN PERIOD AS ANY NEW INFANT IN GROUP CARE TRANSITIONS TO LIFE OUTSIDE THE HOME.
The explosion of language that begins at birth continues in the Montessori infant classroom. The classroom environment will be rich with both verbal and non-verbal communication from teachers. Non-verbal communication includes eye contact, facial expressions, and gentle touches. Teachers will verbally prepare an infant for caregiving procedures and talk through the process with them. Teachers will also offer vocabulary words and richly describe new situations and opportunities. Of course, verbal conversations between a teacher and a young infant are mostly one-sided, but expressive language develops as an older infant begins with simple one-syllable words like ba or ball. Singing simple songs or rhymes is also a part of daily life in the classroom.
Some infants will experience more than one language if parents speak a different language at home. A young child’s brain is especially suited for multiple language acquisition. Most young children easily shift from their home language to the primary language of the classroom.
A love of reading books that starts at home will continue in the Montessori classroom. The infant classroom environment is prepared with easily reachable board books. Once they are mobile, an infant can freely choose a board book to flip through on the floor or offer to a teacher to read out loud. Spontaneous book reading on the floor with a teacher is common as infants adore choosing a book and having a teacher read to them and spotlight the photos or illustrations. The infant classroom books are based in realism: photos, illustrations, and simple text depict real life. This aligns with brain development at this age; the infant’s brain isn’t ready to comprehend abstract concepts or fantasy topics.
MOST YOUNG CHILDREN EASILY SHIFT FROM THEIR HOME LANGUAGE TO THE PRIMARY LANGUAGE OF THE CLASSROOM.
Building Community and Nurturing Independence
Once enrolled in a Montessori school, infants will interact daily with other infants. The value of this social opportunity is priceless. Infant-to-infant interactions promote healthy social and emotional growth as well as nurturing a sense of belonging in their classroom community. Most infants will naturally gravitate toward one another and communicate through facial expressions, sounds, and hand movements. Teachers will supervise interactions and provide positive guidance if needed, such as modeling a gentle touch. Heart-warming moments of early empathy development are common, such as one infant picking up a dropped cup and handing it to their classmate who dropped it.
Another community-building and fun part of the Montessori infant environment are meals or snacks eaten at a table with others. Low tables and chairs allow infants to have a meal with their classmates, once they are ready to begin eating purees or solids that parents bring with them. Some schools may provide snacks and meals for older infants. Infants at the table will also be introduced to drinking water from small open cups and try their hand at using a small spoon. This is lovely to observe! Just as most of us adults enjoy a meal with others, so do infants. Older, walking infants may help prepare the table or clean up afterwards; they are very drawn to these purposeful activities of daily life.
As infants grow older, they will also be invited to actively participate in their body care such as diapering, toileting, and changing clothes or shoes. This supports their growing autonomy and independence.
Time in Nature
Your infant may also be spending more time outdoors than ever before. Being in nature on a beautiful day is a soothing and rejuvenating experience for children and adults. These early years are the beginning of a child’s relationship with nature. Most Montessori infant programs offer time outside the classroom: gazing at the autumn leaves on a tree or smelling the springtime flowers. “Trees, leaves, and flowers are nature’s own mobiles” (Davies and Uzodike, 2021, p. 157). Time in nature and fresh air provide a wide array of sensory experiences for the growing brain. Once an infant is mobile, they will begin joyously exploring the wonders of nature as they use their large muscles for balance and coordinated movement like walking on uneven terrain or climbing a hill. Outside time also promotes increased social interaction among infants as they engage in an activity together and express their delight.
Communication and Working as a Team
Regular communication between parents and teachers is crucial for nurturing a child’s healthy development. Many schools use a digital app or school-specific software to relay daily information to parents, such as eating, sleeping, diapering, and supply needs. Communication goes both ways. Parents should not hesitate to express concerns or ask questions. Teachers and parents must also have open communication about sicknesses and the child’s health. Communication at morning drop-off is important, too. For example, writing a simple note or brief verbal communication at morning drop-off can be very helpful for teachers. “My child didn’t sleep well last night” will assist teachers with your child’s care and needs that day. Many Montessori schools schedule regular conferences so that parents will have uninterrupted time to talk to their child’s teachers, ask questions, discuss developmental milestones, and plan ahead.
The Montessori Journey Continues…
Infant Montessori teachers will closely observe the children and the classroom environment for ongoing healthy brain and body development in the first 18 months of life (classroom age ranges will vary by school). Through kind and responsive caregiving, teachers will build a secure, trusting relationship with each infant and family so that a child can grow and learn at their own pace. Time immersed in a Montessori infant classroom will surely fly by, and before you know it, your child will be ready to begin the next stage of their childhood journey in the toddler classroom.
Davies, S. and Uzodike, J. 2021. The Montessori Baby. Workman Publishing, NY
Goodard Blythe, S. 2005. The WellBalanced Child. Hawthorn Press, Gloucestershire, UK
Kovach, B. and Da Ros-Voseles, D. 2008. Being With Babies. Gryphon House, Inc. Silver Spring, MD
Kovach, B. and Patrick, S. 2012. Being with Infants & Toddlers. LBK Publishing, Tulsa, OK
Montessori, M. 2012. The 1946 London Lectures. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Alanea Williams. began her Montessori journey at SAS Institute Infant and Toddler Center in Cary, NC. During her 18 years there, she earned an AMS Infant/Toddler Credential and was a lead teacher as well as a teacher trainer. For the past 6 years, she has been guiding teachers at the infant/toddler level with The Center for Guided Montessori Studies.
She has a B.S. in Biology from Florida Tech and a M.S. in Fisheries from Louisiana State University.