The Underlying Organization of a Montessori Classroom

This is the time when many schools and homes are setting up for the coming school year. Commonly, classrooms go through several incarnations before teachers and parents hit the combo that’s “just right”. Arranging and rearranging the materials, shelves, tables, and chairs can be a lot of fun, but it’s tempting to always wonder if there’s another, better way that you just haven’t tried yet.

A few simple principles should always be adhered to – they represent the classic Montessori classroom layout. As you can imagine, a preschool classroom layout is slightly different from an elementary one. The differences mirror the changing nature of the elementary child as they move from a wholly concrete environment to a more abstract one.

In a 3-6 classroom, the area closest to the entrance of the room should be, if at all possible, practical life. Sometimes this depends on where the sink is, but since it is the first place that most young children begin working when entering 3-6, it needs to be the first thing they see when entering the room. After that, each of the curricular areas proceeds around the room.

3-6 Classroom Order:

Practical Life

It’s easy to see the progression here; sensorial materials are usually the next step after practical life. Since many sensorial materials rely on the decimal system (10 cubes in the pink tower, 10 red rods, etc.), these materials transition nicely to math. Many children recognize numbers before letters, but soon they are ready for language materials. After the acquisition of language comes the ability to learn about culture – biology, history, geography, physical science, art, and music.

In elementary, practical life exercises become integrated with the actual care of the classroom and materials; it’s no longer a separate section. Sensorial materials become the geometry area. Now, language takes the spotlight as the first area of study, and the cultural materials are separated into their own distinct areas.

6-12 Classroom Order:


Botany precedes zoology, naturally, since plants are structurally simpler than animals. The category of history now encompasses art, music, health, astronomy, chemistry, physical science, and any other field of scientific study. (The Fundamental Needs of People, a history exercise, provides the key to these curricular areas).

Each area of the classroom also has its own color scheme to help with the organization of materials. They are as follows:

Language – yellow; subcategories of pink, blue, and green for phonetic material

Math – red; subcategories of green (units & thousands), blue (tens), red (hundreds), and red (addition), green (subtraction), yellow (multiplication), and blue (division).

Geometry – blue

– green (naturally!)

Zoology – red (for blood; represents animal kingdom)

– blue

History – black

These colors are used for materials (borders, cardstock, labels) and the containers the materials are put into. There’s some overlap (geometry and geography are both blue), but the materials in those two areas differ enough that it won’t be confusing. Within each area, the work should be arranged in order from easiest to hardest whenever possible. A perfectly color-coordinated elementary language area (click picture to enlarge):

Everything I’ve mentioned so far is the ideal in terms of classroom layout and material color-coding. They are just guidelines, and there is flexibility in actually implementing these guidelines. How your classroom is arranged will depend on the shape and size of the room, the types and number of shelves, the amount of materials, and the amount of money you have to spend. Every classroom – school or home – will be different.

Another note: I don’t mean to imply that a child can only work with the materials in order. Far from it! A child can easily do a practical life work and then move to the cultural area and take out some nomenclature cards. Still, you will notice that a child newest to the 3-6 classroom will spend more time in practical life and sensorial, and possibly need some encouragement (and some one-on-one presentations) to move beyond. In elementary, the children should be working from all areas of the room right from the beginning.

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14 Responses to “The Underlying Organization of a Montessori Classroom”

  • Amy said at July 5th, 2007 at 6:44 pm :

    Terrific, Lori, and so timely! Thank you! Are there similar guidelines for a toddler classroom, or would that be very close to a preschool setup?

  • montessori_lori said at July 6th, 2007 at 7:49 am :

    The toddler classroom would be very similar to 3-6, only with fewer materials in each area and only the simplest materials of each type.

    Also, in the Practical Life area, there would be a large amount of “pre-Montessori” materials – puzzles, bead stringing, etc.

    And, many toddler classrooms include some items you might find in an infant room, like stairs/bridge to climb and a long low mirror on the wall.

  • Meredith said at July 8th, 2007 at 2:15 pm :

    Great post Lori, and very timely indeed! For the multiple age classroom, we will keep the youngest child’s items down low and the older kids items up higher, hopefully this will work OK. One question I do have is what is in the yellow bins in the beuatiful picture you posted? I noticed there are no Metal Insets either, is that because it is an elementary set-up? Thanks so much, always enjoy visiting here!

  • montessori_lori said at July 9th, 2007 at 8:37 am :

    Yes, putting the younger kids’ work down low and the older kids’ work up higher would be one of those many “tweaks” that we all do =)

    The yellow bins contain all the Montessori elementary language work, like word study cards – everything from animal homes to singular/plural to homophones to compound words. It was Sister Mary’s language area in the training center school where I interned.

    There was at least one more language shelf, although that’s the only picture I have. You’re right about the metal insets – generally they’re for preschool only.

  • Meredith said at July 9th, 2007 at 12:03 pm :

    Thanks so much Lori!!

  • nikki said at January 14th, 2009 at 12:10 am :

    Hi Lori! Thanks a bunch for this! I just have one question -about color coding- are there additional colors under the broad category? For instance, Zoology – I’m printing your Vertebrates cards – should I back the Birds, along with Fish, Mammals, etc. with Red?

  • Lori Bourne said at January 14th, 2009 at 7:17 am :

    Hi, Nikki! Yes, traditionally all the zoology cards – verts and inverts – are backed on red. However, I just print them all on white cardstock and laminate; backing them takes too long. I just use red containers for zoology and that works just fine.

  • Michelle Irinyi said at August 2nd, 2009 at 9:11 am :

    Great post, Lori! While it’s true in the elementary classroom many of the Practical Life Activities are integrated into care of the classroom and enviornment, I always had a separate Practical Life are in my elementary classroom. There, I kept quilting, cross stitch, latch hook, knitting, origami and cooking supplies. The sewing really helped those who needed calm work and was especially helpful for those who were still working on fine motor skills.

  • Designing a Montessori Classroom said at January 25th, 2010 at 3:06 pm :

    […] The Underlying Organization of a Montessori Classroom […]

  • carey montgomery said at February 24th, 2010 at 1:20 pm :

    This is what I was looking for — thanks. I work in a public montessori with 6 primary classrooms, and they all are very different. I like how you logically thought out the set up for primary. Howerver, we have sensorial, science, practical life, which then art. It feels like a lot of times, children feel that the sewing, weaving, crocheting, etc. is part of art. It might be that our Art teacher is also montessori trained and she has introduced to the children that art is a part of our world?

    My daughter is now in lower elementary and when she comes to visit me in primary she always goes to the metal insets because she loves them so!!!


  • Lori Bourne said at February 24th, 2010 at 3:27 pm :

    Hi, Carey! Funny you should mention that.

    In many 3-6 classrooms, including the ones I’ve worked in, the art and practical life areas are next to each other because the classroom starts with practical life and continues around the room in a circle (in the order I mentioned) and ends with art, putting art and practical life next to each other. As you mentioned, it makes sense because there’s a lot of overlap.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Simone said at March 7th, 2012 at 1:05 am :

    Does the color scheme also apply to the 3 – 6 classroom?

  • Lori Bourne said at March 7th, 2012 at 5:15 am :

    Yes, the color scheme is across the board for every age group.

  • Chinese checkers « Vint Hill Montessori said at July 16th, 2012 at 7:28 pm :

    […] sure yet how the materials will be arranged. We'd love to create some approximation of the traditional areas of a Montessori elementary classroom, but space and budget will place some limits on our ability to do so. Most of our materials have […]