A preschooler works on the concept of teen numbers at the Montessori Family School in Berkeley. Credit: MFS

This story is brought to you by the Montessori Family School.

The easiest way to understand what is special about an authentic Montessori classroom is to see it in action.

During “work period,” you’ll find children picking trays of beautifully painted, multi-colored objects from a carefully arranged shelf of other “work” trays. A child will find a spot to work, either on a rug or at a table, and will methodically lay out each piece of the set. Some children work alone, others in pairs or groups. Seeing a child (as young as 3!) work with this level of precision and independence never loses its shine.

There is a low hum of noise in the space, often punctuated by a cry of excitement or laughter, which is a sign that the social and intellectual needs of students are being met simultaneously. This is the development of the whole child. Because Montessori education includes the belief that social-emotional learning is integral to the classroom, a child quietly conversing with another child during work time or a child observing other children working are both considered important learning opportunities. Silence, while sometimes helpful, is not seen as the only measure of an engaged classroom. Laughter and discussion are important moments in which students integrate what they’ve learned throughout the day.

Tours and open houses

Early Childhood Campus • Berkeley (ages 3 – 5) Tours on Tuesdays, 9:30 a.m.

Kindergarten Bridge – 8th grade • El Cerrito, Classroom tours for Kindergarten Bridge to 3rd grade on Thursdays, 9:30 a.m.; Classroom tours for grades 4-8 on Tuesdays, 9:30 a.m.; Open Houses (in-person) Thu, Jan. 27 & Feb. 10 at 5 p.m.; Sun. Feb. 13, 10 a.m.

Teachers make themselves quietly present and available. They give small lessons, gentle reminders, and are always present for questions or learning opportunities, but are judicious in determining if intervention or assistance are in the child’s best interest. At times, they simply observe students working with a high amount of self-direction.

If you spend more time in the classroom, you might see two children meeting over a ‘peace rose’ to work out a conflict or disagreement. These conversations that clarify hurt, state intent, and repair the situation begin in preschool and are the foundation of Montessori’s peace education.

You’ll also probably see children meeting to create or refresh the rules and guidelines of the classroom or playground. A chosen leader among the children might direct the conversation, calling on raised hands and helping to summarize what is discussed and decided. Children begin to take a large level of responsibility for their learning environment, their classroom agreements, and one another at a young age. This culminates in planning trips in which accommodations, meals, activities, transportation, and schedules are all generated by students. Teachers guide and oversee, but children show themselves to be incredible engines when bringing their vision to bear.

Middle School students work on Montessori cultural studies, including philosophy and natural sciences, in the outdoor classroom. Credit: MFS

In middle school, this independence is at its peak. This year, our 7th and 8th graders will travel to the United Nations in New York City to participate in the Montessori Model United Nations, an exciting culmination of the work toward community, mutuality, respect, and world citizenship that is our aim. Students represent a UN country and present well-researched positions on issues from that country’s perspective and policies to hundreds of peers. What better way to prepare children for a world of interconnection than putting in many hours of research and planning in order to so deeply understand another culture?

Dr. Maria Montessori opened her first school in Rome in 1907.  She was a scientist, an educator, and the first female physician in Italy. She founded a revolutionary pedagogy based on deep observation, adaptation, respect for children, and the desire for world peace. 

Montessori created three-dimensional, hands-on materials that could teach concepts through concrete objects before making that concept an abstraction; the idea of ‘four’ was presented as four beads before it became the numeral 4, so that children would really understand what it then meant to then take two beads away from four. The classrooms are set up to be beautiful and alluring — beyond toys or games, what we call ‘works’ are discrete sets of objects that form a very specific learning purpose. The beauty of these works is something that motivates the child to seek out that work, experiment with and understand it, and become proficient in it. 

A lower elementary grade student studies zoology using the Montessori 3-part naming cards. Credit: MFS

Check out a lesson by Trina Rymland on the moveable alphabet to learn one of the many ways we teach language at the Primary level (3 – 6 years old). A follow-up video explains the purpose and scope of this important Montessori material. Then watch Emily Howard, our Upper Elementary (grades 4-6) Head Teacher, give a lesson on test tube division.

Many of Montessori’s foundational concepts, such as using manipulable objects to learn, that were revolutionary in the early 20th century have been adapted and taken up by schools of contemporary education. 

Montessori Family School focuses on guiding children on the path to independent learning, self-esteem, and self-advocacy. We want them to feel free to achieve in academics. We are able to provide multiple levels of skill range for an individual child in our multi-age classrooms. 

And, as academics are only part of a whole childhood, from age 3 and up, we also wish them to have practical skills that will serve them in life. From sweeping their home (care for their environment), to brewing tea for their friends or family (care for others), to knowing when it’s time to take a brain break in a quiet area and read a book (care for oneself), we see all such activity as purposeful work worthy of respect. A pervasive quality of the school is its classroom energy of industriousness and confidence: the expanded belief in what our children can do in the world and for themselves. 

To learn more about how a Montessori Family School education can transform a child’s life visit montessorifamily.com or email us directly at admissions@montessorifamily.com to start your exploration.

This story was written and paid for by the Montessori Family School. The private school, with its preschool in Berkeley and K-8 in El Cerrito, celebrates 40 years of learning-by-doing and focusing on kindness and empathy.