A Little Bit of Thought Goes a Long Way

When I was a 3-6 (preschool) assistant, I vividly remember what would happen each August: I thought the classroom looked perfectly fine, but a few weeks before school, the directress in the room would suddenly pull everything off the shelves, re-arrange and swap materials, and keep tweaking right up until the first day of school.

Once I had completed the Montessori training and had my first classroom, I suddenly understood. Even though I had set up the classroom when I was first hired, each year I had the desire to change and rearrange.

There are lots of reasons for this; one is that you’ll have returning students and you want to have some new materials for them, and another is that you might have realized a better way of arranging and organizing. Also, you might be wanting to study a new subject or idea that you haven’t in the past.

For whatever reason, I think it’s nice to step back and re-evaluate your Montessori environment every year. As all of you know, I’m a big fan of “trying it out” to see if something works rather than assuming that it will or won’t. After making changes, we must be committed to observing for awhile afterwards to see if our changes have been positive or not.

There are so many things to keep in mind when setting up a Montessori environment, but one of the most important is that you are the link between the children and the environment. By environment, I include the basics of the classroom like rugs, tables, and plants, as well as all the materials on the shelves. The kids need you to make the materials come alive.

In the 3-6 (preschool) age group, much attention is paid to arranging the materials and the room in a lovely, inviting manner. I’ve heard tales of color-coordinated handwashing works where the tray, bowl, sponge, soap, and washcloth are all the same color. 3-6 directresses will put out sparkling pitchers, bamboo trays, and velvety bags for beads and shells with an emphasis on beauty and natural materials.

Unfortunately, sometimes not nearly as much attention is paid to the set up of the materials in the elementary environment. Elementary kids don’t need to be “enticed” to work like preschool kids, some say, so it doesn’t really matter how the materials look on the shelves. Sadly, I’ve visited more than a few Montessori schools where the elementary classroom was messy and the materials unattractive.

It really doesn’t need to be this way, however. Just a little time and attention can make elementary work extremely attractive. For example, many years ago my dad visited Japan and bought me a lacquered musical jewelry box. It’s really too small for much jewelry, but I kept it because it was a special gift from my father.

When I began teaching elementary, I realized that the music box was just the place to keep a few small cards, one for each type of noun category (“Person/Place/Thing”, “Common/Proper”, etc.) I put it on the language shelf and the kids couldn’t keep their hands off of it. The types of nouns work became the most popular work in the room!

While this is true of any method of education, I think it’s even more true of Montessori: the more time and thought you put into arranging your classroom and materials, the more chances kids will have to really catch that “spark” of learning.

I use my Comprehensive Lists to plan for the year for both kids (my daughter, 4 1/2 and son, almost 8). Specifically for my son, I use the elementary workplans. I tailor the workplans to fit the work we’ve already done and to fit his specific interests – the reason I left these in Word was so that all of you could also make changes to them as needed.

With all of that in mind, here are a few questions I’m thinking about for this next year:

1. What materials do I need for the first month of school?

2. What worked really well last year (set-up, schedule, presentations, etc.) that I can do again this year?

3. What didn’t work very well that I want to do differently?

4. Is there a way of arranging the classroom (shelves, tables, materials) that I haven’t tried yet?

5. Have I looked at the learning environment from a child’s perspective?

6. Is there an adult that can take a look at the environment and give me feedback?

7. What presentations am I doing the first week of school, and do I have all the necessary equipment? Have I reviewed the presentations on my own to make sure I know what to say and do?

Here are a few of my previous posts that should be helpful:

The Underlying Organization of a Montessori Classroom Here’s where I explore the typical layout of a Montessori classroom, including the colors that go with each curricular area.

Nametags and Such How to make nametags for each student, and how to use them. While they’re mostly for elementary, I think they could be used in preschool and definitely in a home setting. You can find free templates for nametags here.

Tips and Tricks for the Montessori Classroom A few pictures of one of my former classrooms, with some ideas for organizing the materials on the shelves.

7 Tips for Setting up a Montessori Classroom Some ideas for creating the ideal Montessori environment.

Conference Summary 2: The Preparation of the Adult A write-up of a Montessori conference I attended last year, with some fantastic insight into how to prepare yourself for being effective in the classroom.

Here’s to a fantastic school year!