Children’s natural inquisitiveness and love of learning is inspired and supported through the guidance of a trained teacher. The directress, or Montessori teacher, gives children the opportunity to be spontaneous and interact with independence and reasonable freedom of choice in meaningful activities. The trained guide prepares the environment where children can follow their instinct to work and learn. The children’s natural love for engaging in meaningful activities is provided for with purposeful and individualized lessons created for their developmental ability.

Through their work, children develop focus, concentration, persistence, and discipline. Within this structure they progress at their own pace and rhythm according to their individual potentialities and motivation. The biggest job a child has is to create their own personalities during this important time of their life and Montessori education allows them to do this without interrupting their natural development.

The Practical Life area of the prepared environment is typically divided into four main areas. These four are dedicated to the control of movement, the care of the environment, the care of self, and grace and courtesy. Each of these areas utilize particular, common activities from everyday life which a child is familiar with. This familiarity, in combination with their appearance, breeds attraction, drawing children to these objects. The lessons with these materials seek primarily to accomplish the development of order, the development of concentration, the development of coordination, and the development of independence for the young child, with mastery of the skill itself as only of secondary and incidental value.

Working in practical life becomes the basis for the work that the child will do during the rest of their stay in the Montessori classroom. Cleaning a table, spooning activities, clothes-washing, learning how to listen to a lesson patiently, preparing a work environment, either by taking a tray to a table or rolling out a rug, all serve as ways in which the practical life area primes a child for success in later challenges. Cleaning a table from left to write and top to bottom prepares a child for the direction of writing papers; Spooning activities help to develop and strengthen the three fingered pincer grasp and muscle memory he will need for writing itself; The complex sequences in clothes washing set a child up for success in the difficult mathematical equations that he will later face. Peace conferences and other lessons in grace and courtesy provide them the tools necessary to navigate the very complex social world that can seem at times, overwhelming.

The most important ways that the practical life area prepares the child for success, however, are undoubtedly the development of the four direct aims of the area. A child who can concentrate for long periods of time, coordinate his movements and activities, act independently, and maintain an ordered way of thinking, acting, and maintaining his environment and social circumstance will find it difficult to fail at later Montessori tasks, and, in fact, at life generally.

In many schools, there exists a false dichotomy between the indoors and outdoors. An unusual belief seems to have taken hold whereby the indoors are identified as the location where children are to do work intellectually, and the outdoors is the place where they are to play in their bodies uncontrollably. Now, certainly the outdoors is more conducive to gross motor activities and some slightly different rules ought to apply for safety, but we believe that that line between the two is far from clear. We believe that we should think outside and stretch our bodies inside. In short, children are not disembodied heads when they walk through the doors of their classroom, nor should they be “disem-headed” bodies when they are outside. To this end, we treat the outdoors primarily as an extension of the practical life area of the classroom but also as a place to expand on children’s exposure to the sciences, math and language activities and a place to increase their sensorial exposure to the world.

To the extent possible (which is to say, weather and ratios permitting) we like the outdoors to be continually available to the children. Independence is one of the primary goals of the practical life area of the classroom and as such we feel that children are best served when they can decide for themselves when they need to be outside and when they would prefer to be indoors. They have and are developing their own internal regulators and loci of control and we would encourage that they learn to identify for themselves when they need to move and when they need to be still; when they need sunlight and when they need to warm their cold, pink hands indoors.

The out of doors is also a great place to improve their abilities to care for plants and animals. This spring, we hope to expand on this and build some raised beds for gardening as well as to add goats, chickens, and ducks to our rabbits and fish, so that our students have many such opportunities to practice the daily care of other living things and to experience firsthand processes of agriculture as well as the life cycle itself.

Whether digging for fossils, tending a garden, or counting tree rings, the nature based outdoor environment allows not just an understanding of how the “inside” world is applied, but a deep appreciation for nature itself. Maria Montessori wrote

“There must be provision for the child to have contact with Nature, to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in Nature …. so the child may better understand and participate in the marvellous things which civilisation creates”

We do not believe that children can learn about the world we intend for them to inhabit in rooms with no windows. Natural light, wood, stone, metal, and plants are the things they wish to experience on a sensory level. Plastic zigzags and squishy rocks are no replacement for real trees dropping leaves, real chickens laying eggs or real goats chewing on fence posts. We encourage our children to learn about the world not by being outside observers but by being in it; a part of it.

Another opportunity afforded to children outdoors is to care for others as well as themselves and their environment. With faster movement and gross motor comes more opportunities for collisions with fellow students. Larger building projects allow more interaction in larger groups that creates opportunities for the children to come into conflict with their cohorts. These experiences are important so that they can learn to be conscious of their personal space and that of their friend’s. They are also given the opportunity to learn to navigate difficult social circumstances involved in conflict resolution and healthy interaction with their peers.

Finally, a purpose of practical life that is well, and perhaps even better served outdoors, is the care of self through learning to recognize and mitigate risk. Though we don’t wish to believe it, since these are our “hearts on legs” running around in the world, risk does exist, and children do see and recognize this fact even if we as parents refuse to. To overcome their fears regarding it they engage in a process of limit testing that allows them to learn how far and fast they can go, how heavy they can lift, how high they can jump or climb, how tall they can build and how much they can endure. Though we emphatically do not wish to see them actually hurt, we do want to afford them the opportunity to fulfill their needs for exploration and risk mitigation. The trick then, lay in providing materials outdoors that create the feeling of risk without the actual risk of injury. The plastic, sterile environments that are commonly used are of very little interest to children as they often sense, almost immediately, the fakeness and, in fact, the safety of it. To avoid this we attempt to utilize primarily natural materials with rough edges: Places they can fall from, things they can learn to balance on, areas where they can bump their elbows, and so forth, all provide them the relatively safe opportunity to learn to understand risks and care for their own bodies. The lessons learned from skinned knees are an invaluable part of their development, and to take from them the opportunity to learn early to care for themselves, to test their limits, and navigate risk is to ensure that they will either test these limits much later when the stakes are higher or worse, or never test them at all and be fearful of their failures and mistakes rather than delighted at the opportunities for growth that only our failures and mistakes can grant us.

We see it as a place for the building of Giant forts, the rolling of tires, the feeding of animals, and the skinning of knees. We see it as a place to experience failures and learn from them without regret. A place to learn our limits and respect for our bodies. To work by ourselves or alone. In short, we see our outdoor environment as an indispensable extension of our classroom and an inseparable part of understanding and navigating life.

Early childhood mathematics, in Montessori education, serves as the conceptual bridge between the concrete world of practical life and sensorial thinking, which the child has begun to leave behind, and the abstract world of complex thought the child is trying very hard to enter. In practical life, the child has learned to follow a series of ordered steps in a number of activities from hand washing and table scrubbing to tying a bow and pouring equal servings of liquid into multiple cups. These ordered steps are not unlike the steps required in following an arithmetic operation. In the Sensorial area the child has grown accustomed to dealing with groups of ten, providing a connection to the decimal system while advancing their understanding of spatial characteristics and dimension. This practice, with ordered steps, leads to concrete understanding of the world that mathematics is designed to measure.

The Montessori math materials, like all other Montessori materials, possess a number of characteristics which attract the child and provide the circumstances appropriate to their development. First, they are visually appealing and able to be manipulated, which invites the child to touch them. Second, they possess inherent controls of error, allowing the child to make and learn from their mistakes without the addition of any possibility of embarrassment or shame they might experience in being corrected by a teacher. Lastly, they allow the child to bridge the gap between difficult concepts. From having worked with groups of ten in previous works, the children are able to then count to larger numbers by counting in tens, hundreds, or even thousands. From this, they can begin to count by twos, threes, fours and so forth, laying the groundwork for multiplication.

In this way, with the properly ordered use of tangible, clearly colored, and thoughtfully designed materials, the child is gifted with a deep-seated inherent understanding of the decimal system, fractions, logarithmic scales, the concept of zero, place values, odd and even numbers, and so on. With material after material, the child is given the power not only to hold in their minds these difficult concepts, but also to recall and understand what they mean in the real world in a way that few adults ever become capable of.