Because of its unique learning style, with more than a century of education to back its use, the popularity of Montessori preschool is growing among parents. By definition, the Montessori Philosophy teaches a progressive curriculum that uses child-directed learning, backed by observation and scientific research, as its core value. Instead of being traditionally taught, kids are encouraged to make their own choices in the classroom, with a teacher to guide them along the way.

At the center of Montessori education is self-direction. Most Montessori education is hands-on and encourages plenty of play and collaborative activities with the other kids in the class. Mixed-age classrooms teach children how to work together and learn from each other as they master life skills.

The origins of the Montessori method

Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori founded the Montessori movement in 1907 based on the idea that “play” is a child’s work and that learning should happen naturally through real-life experiences.

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Montessori concluded that children are highly motivated to learn and teach themselves when placed in a carefully designed environment and given the opportunity to work for long, uninterrupted periods of time.

In a Montessori preschool, children are grasping the same concepts as their peers in a traditional classroom, but the idea is for children to learn individually and at their own pace by moving freely around the room and choosing from a wide range of hands-on, age-appropriate activities that are designed to teach specific skills. “The primary goal of Montessori classes is to help children learn concentration, motivation, self-discipline and a love of learning,” reads the website of the Arlington County Schools’ Montessori program.

What type of learning style is Montessori?

Montessori schools aim to create a calm, child-centered learning environment with an emphasis on personal responsibility. Children are encouraged to take care of their own belongings and personal needs, such as cleaning up after themselves and preparing their own snacks. Schools aim to foster a healthy self-esteem and sense of independence, allowing children to make their own choices and teaching them basic skills like pouring themselves a glass of milk or putting their shoes on the right feet.

“Learning moves from concrete to abstract, from the big picture to small. The child makes the connection or abstraction when he or she is ready,” says Elissa Myers, a Montessori teacher at The Beddow School.Teachers at a Montessori preschool serve primarily as guides to discovery rather than providing direct instruction. “The teacher makes a connection between the instructional materials, and the children literally self-teach many skills, in independent activity,” explains Heike Larson, vice president of parent outreach at LePort Schools, a group of seven Montessori schools in California.

“Children can choose their own work, but it does not mean there isn't any structure. The classroom is very structured in its design and in how a lesson is taught. However, the child is given the freedom to learn how to make choices and do work that is engaging to him or her,” Myers adds.

Next Up: Is a Montessori preschool right for your child?

Originally published July 2013. Updated May 2017.

Is a Montessori preschool right for your child?

Parents unfamiliar with the Montessori teaching method may be inclined to believe that a classroom of this sort is chaotic. When planning to tour a Montessori preschool for her daughter, Christina Donaghy admits she had prepared herself to witness a rule-free, out-of-control classroom and cross the school off of the list. “Instead, after just five minutes, I fell in love and couldn't imagine Olive going to any other school. The room was organized and it was quiet! Each of the children was engaged in the projects they were working on,” she explains.

If your child is independent and enjoys playing on her own, can follow directions and has a long attention span, a Montessori preschool may be the right choice.

What is a Montessori preschool classroom like?

Image: Christina Donaghy/SheKnows

Many Montessori preschools have a range of ages learning together in one classroom (typically ages 3 to 6 for preschool) and children are encouraged to help each other learn. The goal is also to create a non-competitive learning community and encourage positive social interaction and cooperative learning.

“Montessori delivers an unshakable self-confidence and can-do attitude based on true life skills, a pro-work attitude, total ownership of learning and pride in real achievements,” says Larson.

Donaghy explains that the projects are available to the preschoolers on shelves. “If the child has never had a lesson on it then the teacher will go through it with them. Once they've had a lesson they may take that particular project down and work on it anytime. They can work alone or with a friend so they are still playing with their friends, but they are learning at the same time. When they’re finished with their ‘lesson,’ they clean it up and put everything back exactly where they got it from on the shelf. It's amazing,” she says.

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“At just 4 years old, Olive is already writing, reading, counting, tying her shoes, learning about the world, reciting the continents and so much more,” says Donaghy. “Olive has always had a great desire to learn, but I attribute a lot of it to the Montessori style. When they get to choose what they want to do they are more open to doing it.”

Beyond physical concepts, there are social and emotional learning advantages as well. “Respect. Sharing. Common courtesy. These are some of the many huge life skills that Montessori instills in children,” adds Donaghy.