Can you create a Montessori classroom on a desert island?

This was one of the questions explored by the Challenge Pavilion panellists during the Montessori Everywhere event created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Montessori’s birth.  The focus of the discussions was to revisit the four pillars of the Montessori approach – one of which is the Environment.  It is the most tangible of the four pillars, often associated with the organisation of the Montessori materials and activities in order to entice the child.  There is of course much more to the favourable environment prepared to meet the needs and interests of the children.   The adults are an integral part of this environment and the principles which underpin the pedagogy are very evident in the quality of the observed practice. It is also one of the powerful legacies of the Montessori approach which can be witnessed in the majority of early years provision today.

The child-sized furniture and purpose-built learning environments are taken for granted today; they are part and parcel of quality provision.  In fact, the environment is often referred to as  “the third teacher” – a phrase borrowed from Loris Malaguzzi (one of the founders of the Reggio Emilia pedagogy). Malaguzzi recognised the power of the physical environment, alongside the role of the teacher as the facilitator of shared learning, and that of the child as the one with the capacity  to teach him/herself from an environment which reflects not only the needs and interest of the child but also the culture and community (Reggio Emilia).  We find reference to Montessori pedagogy in several of the Reggio publications, and I feel that these connections demonstrate the power of the legacy of early years pioneers.  I always feel a strong connection with the Reggio environments because of their aesthetic appeal and the light.  They are beautiful! 

It is not by accident that the discussion about the environment came to us from far flung parts of the Earth – United States (Jana Morgan Herman), Nigeria (Junnifa Uzodike), Nicaragua (Marvin Reyes who now works in Germany) and myself with both eastern and western European experience. It is curious to note that whilst we all share passionately in the Montessori legacy we each brought a unique lens to the conversation.  The role of beauty of the environment was the first question explored, highlighting the significance of the cultural differences mirrored in the environments. 

Junnifa explored the challenges of commercially made materials and resources which so persistently reflect the “whiteness of the Montessori world” despite its global appeal.  Marvin pondered over the difficulties of sharing outdoor education and experiences with colleagues and his unique role as a male Montessorian.  His enthusiasm for working with young children was infectious and his invitation for other men to join the profession heart-warming.  All of us were enthused by young children’s joy at climbing trees and the value this experience brings to their development. Junnifa reminded us of the changing qualities of the prepared environment for the 6-12 year olds and Marvin shared the day when he brought the “outdoor into the classroom” in a large bucket of snow and how much they all learned about the properties of water through this first-hand experience. 

This whole conversation celebrates the power of the child as a spontaneous, curious learner and the gifts adults can offer by observing and carefully preparing and maintaining the environment:  respect, trust, learning through discovery, offering time and space to really engage and satisfy the children’s curiosity.

I invite you to join us by previewing the original discussion and also to participate in Montessori Europe Connect webinar on Tuesday 17 November 19.00 CET (18.00 UTC). Register here.

During our discussion we will revisit some of the questions posed on the day:

  • Why should it be possible to create a Montessori classroom on a desert island?
  • Why should sustainability be part of everyday life of the Montessori classroom?
  • How can we make the classroom be a mirror for each child and as well as window to the world? 

Barbara Isaacs, November 2020

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