The Montessori classroom activities for early childhood are designed to promote purposeful engagement, where the child is completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The benefits include increased focus and more energy, release from boredom and anxiety, and a path of self-direction to find new challenges and build new skills in order to find purposeful engagement again. The results are what Montessori termed “normalization,” a condition of freedom in which the child makes constructive choices and develops deep concentration and true engagement in the learning process.
“Now it is evident that the mind cannot concentrate except upon an object worthy of such an effort. It must contain the means of learning in the most rational way. A faulty or useless object could never attract the lively intellectual interest of the child.”
Dr. Montessori recognized that the “means for development” needed to go beyond toys or games; the youngest children were attracted to real life experiences and were drawn to activities that engaged their senses. She went about designing and implementing purposeful and constructive activity in these two key areas. She then observed the impact of these experiences and how they benefited the intellectual development for the youngest children. In her earliest schools she saw that the impact of building engagement through practical skills and sense training ultimately advanced early academic outcomes.
“The didactic material plays a most important part in this development. These objects are presented to the child; they are graded according to their difficulty, and correspond to the psychic needs of the child. And that is the reason they attract the child’s attention so strongly as to make him delight in his work and incite in him a marked power of concentration.”
She discovered that young children have a keen interest in practical activities that they see adults doing, notably the child wants “to do house, not play house.” She set about creating developmentally appropriate tools and activities that allowed the child to not just imitate the work of adults in the home but really do meaningful practical work. We call these activities “Practical Life.”
Dr. Montessori designed a curriculum around building attention, focus and concentration. These activities are ingeniously contrived to engage the child in sustained and purposeful activity that focuses mental activity, builds concentration and develops attention to detail. The results are what Montessori termed “normalization,” a condition that includes spontaneous discipline, concentration, and engagement.
In a modern definition of these same necessary skills in early childhood, scientists refer to these capacities as executive function and self-regulation—a set of skills that relies on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. The Montessori learning approach provides concrete learning experiences that the young brain needs to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.
The Montessori learning activities are designed to contain the essential features for training executive functioning and building concentration:
- Thoughtfully conceived to have clear and distinct steps, that while challenging, are still attainable by the child without assistance from an adult.
- Devised to engage the child with focused attention and sustained concentration.
- The motivation for the work comes from within and is rewarding in and of itself.
- Chosen because the child wants to do the purposeful work that they see adults do, but are unable due to the size of the tools or the lack of time in a child-centered environment to engage without interruption.
- This purposeful “work” creates feelings of satisfaction that lead to a sense of peace and purpose that is unique and very different from “play.”
- The work fascinates and the child becomes so absorbed in the process that they lose the sense of time passing in the deep engagement of the work.
- The planning of the activity and its steps controlled through design by the adult offer immediate feedback throughout the process which controls the error on the part of the child and helps them develop skills of self-correction.
Unique in early childhood programs is a focus in the Montessori classroom on practical skills (Practical Life) and the development of the senses (Sensorial). This may appear at first to be counterintuitive in education, yet experience shows enormous benefits and reveals the distinctive impact that these activities have in comparison to the more open-ended pretend play activities in conventional early childhood programs.
Children learn to concentrate in Montessori classrooms. It is a phenomenon that startled Dr. Montessori in her original schools and continues to fascinate adults today. The levels of deep concentration attained in Montessori classrooms synchronizes well with modern research in cognitive psychology. The state of complete immersion in an activity that includes spontaneous discipline, concentration, and engagement is associated with high levels of creativity and optimal performance in a wide variety of activities.
Academic success requires the ability for deep engagement in the learning process. This engagement is a combination of motivation, concentration, interest, and enjoyment derived from the process of learning itself. The Montessori learning environment focuses all its attention on promoting the ideal conditions for the youngest to have the time, means and scope for this deep engagement. Observe this for yourself, and you will join me in the satisfaction of knowing that the process really does work!
“This interest, therefore, guides us in constructing in a perfect manner the means of learning and in obtaining that which in the regular schools would be called ‘the maximum efficiency of study.’ It is only by a method which, in giving intellectual learning, concentrates the inner powers, that one observes the direct influence of the learning upon the character and the moral qualities.
In order that concentration may come about, it is necessary that the child should have at his disposal means of development which he is free to use—that is, it is necessary to organize intellectual work for him.
Only ‘normalized’ children, aided by their environment, show in their subsequent development those wonderful powers that we describe: spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others….
Its principal feature never changes. It is ‘application to work.’ An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities and leads him to self-mastery.”
QUOTES TAKEN FROM: MONTESSORI, MARIA (1915) THE ORGANIZATION OF INTELLECTUAL WORK IN SCHOOL, JOURNAL OF PROCEEDINGS AND ADDRESSES OF THE NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION OF THE UNITED STATES ANNUAL MEETING, VOLUME 53, 1915
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