by Letty Rising
When the topic of Montessori education comes up with people who know a little bit about it, often what is described is a 3-6 classroom. After all, this is the age of development where Maria Montessori started her work with the children in Rome when she was fresh out of medical school, and was the age group that she spent most of her time with.
I think the Montessori movement has mirrored her focus, as currently there tends to be more 3-6 Montessori environments than any other age level. So it makes sense that when people talk about the Montessori approach, that they might lump all of the planes of development together.
However, the elementary environment is distinctly different from the 3-6 environment….and it should be! The environments are prepared in response to the children’s developmental instincts, urges, and inclinations.
Let’s look at some of the ways in which elementary classrooms are noticeably different from 3-6 environments.
One of the characteristics of the elementary child is that they have a “group instinct.” They not only enjoy working together, but this collaborative work is necessary and important for optimal development. Through group work, children engage in discussions, negotiations, debates, and dialogues. They acquired language in the first plane, and now they are practicing how to use it in different ways, and how to refine their communication skills.
In contrast, in 3-6 classrooms you will find children mostly working alone, or in pairs. They are often seen working alongside one another but not in a collaborative fashion.
Elementary Classrooms are Noisier
It goes without saying that an environment where students are engaged in group work lends itself to lots of conversation, and when there’s lots of talking going on, the classroom will be noisier than a 3-6 classroom, where children are largely working alone or in pairs.
Gathering Supplies for Work
In the 3-6 classroom, almost everything a child needs to complete an activity is found on a self-contained tray displayed on a shelf. That way, the child is able to take a tray off of the shelf, find a place to sit, and rely on the notion that everything they need for the activity is on that tray.
This is not true for elementary! When an elementary child is considering using a material on a shelf, they also need to think about where to find a pencil, where to find paper (and think about what kind of paper they need!), where to find a clipboard. And if a child is planning a “big work,” such as a poster, a timeline, or even a science experiment, they need to think of all of the materials they will need to execute the project or activity, and gather them together from various areas of the class.
One of the amazing aspects of the elementary classroom is that children have lots of opportunities to exercise their executive functioning skills, and having increased options that no longer involve having work or activity completely self-contained on a tray gives them practice planning for what they need, thinking about where each of those things are in the environment, gathering those things together, and creating something fantastic.
We Give Them the Universe
The 3-6 child learns all about the world. In fact, Maria Montessori originally wanted to introduce the world in the elementary years, and she discovered along the way that children of this age were very interested in learning about the earth, so she decided to show them the earth, its landforms and continents, and its people, plants, and animals.
However, in the elementary years, we give them the keys to the universe! There is no topic that is off limits in terms of knowledge acquisition. Children are introduced to cosmic education and receive lessons in the topics of math, language, geometry, history, geography, biology, art and music. These presentations are a starting point for further interest-based research.
Repetition Looks Different
In the 3-6 classroom, children repeat activities over and over again. It’s as if they have an inner urge, or instinct, to do so, which drives them to master and perfect fine motor skills and aids in development of concentration. You might walk into a 3-6 classroom and observe a child washing a table for an hour, and then see them return to this same activity the next day! Or you may see a child take out the Red Rods, a Montessori material, and use them every day for a week. Children this age love to repeat by doing the same activity over and over again.
The elementary child, however, no longer derives satisfaction from this kind of repetition. Elementary children like to repeat by way of variety, and through “big work.” When an elementary child is mastering multiplication, they have several materials in the classroom they can use to help them: the large bead frame, the checkerboard, the bank game, the flat bead frame, just to name a few!
Another way that repetition occurs is through “big work.” When a presentation is offered, children often engage in follow up work. This follow up work often is bigger than a typical 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, such as a poster or a timeline.
Materials Look Different
Sometimes elementary teachers get excited when they see three part cards or nomenclature cards, and there is an inclination to buy numerous sets of cards and put them into various neat little trays and set them on shelves. However, the elementary child is not as drawn to these cards as they were in the early childhood years. We certainly do have nomenclature cards, especially in the areas of geometry and biology, and it’s so much fun to create picture and story cards, where there are a bunch of photos showcasing an animal doing different things, and matching text to the photos.
However, what is even more fun is to have a limited amount of nomenclature or picture and story cards available, and encourage the children to do some research and make their OWN cards. It’s a far more involved process, and they enjoy repeating by way of making their own materials. Some of them may even want to display their own cards on the shelves next to other cards.
The Absorbent Mind is Replaced With the Reasoning Mind
During the first plane of development, the absorbent mind is at center stage. This is why children are able to acquire so many knowledge and skills, such as walking and talking and even learning a foreign language, with seemingly little effort.
However, when the child enters into the second plane of development, the absorbent mind is no longer at play, and instead the reasoning mind comes to the forefront. The child is no longer just interested in knowing the names of things, they want to know “how,” and “why.”
When people think of Montessori, even those who know very little about the method usually know that independence is a huge factor. However, the focus moves away from physical independence activities surrounding dressing, eating, toileting, and etc, to the arena of intellectual independence. Elementary children are now being exposed to the ideas and thoughts of others, and are beginning to formulate their own opinions and ideas that may be separate from their family of origin.
Order of the Mind vs. the Environment
While we can hope that the attention to detail and order that is cultivated in the first plane of development will continue into the second plane, this is not always the case. It has been observed many a time instances of previously orderly 5 year olds moving into elementary environments and becoming less orderly than before. But is it true that they are really less attuned to order? Not exactly! They are shifting their focus towards order in their minds. As they are now in a stage where abstract thinking and imagination is developing, there is a lot of classifying and organizing happening within the mind.
This might mean that external orderliness is not as apparent, but it’s mostly due to the fact that there is much energy being expended on internal order. As a Montessori elementary teacher, you will likely not see in the elementary child the same level of tidiness that is observed in a 3-6 classroom. However, it is reasonable to expect that even if the project or follow-up work area is in disarray during the activity, you can set the expectation that work areas be tidy at key times of the day, such as before lunch, or before going home at the end of the day.
As you can see, there are LOTS of ways in which the elementary environment departs from the early childhood environment, in terms of how it’s prepared, and how the children interact with the guide and with each other. The reason for this is because the elementary child is now in a new stage of development, so what worked for the younger child will likely not work for older children.
So if you are a new elementary teacher and are excited about putting card material on the shelf and creating self-contained work on trays, you will be sorely disappointed because the children of this age won’t be drawn to these things in such a way that they would have when they were younger. If you can keep in mind the needs and characteristics of the elementary child, you will be able to prepare an enriching and engaging environment that appeals to their interests and ignites their imaginations.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several pubic and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. She currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.