Montessori Materials Flow

Primary to Elementary, Concrete to Abstract

Inspired by Aristotle and John Locke, Dr. Montessori believed that nothing could exist in the intellect that did not first exist in the senses. One of the hallmarks of Montessori education is the elegant materials, designed to lead children from concrete to abstract representations of a variety of ideas.The Primary materials, which are self-correcting and introduce the child to basic concepts like numeration, phonetics, and geometric shapes, also facilitate the transition from Primary to Elementary, both in terms of curriculum flow and in helping the child situate herself in a new environment.

On the child’s first day of Elementary, she will walk into the classroom and see many of what Dr. Montessori referred to as “old friends.” Having used many of the materials already, the child experiences an immediate sense of familiarity with her new environment. She will encounter and use many of the materials she used in Primary, but at a higher level. The pink tower, for example, is in the sensorial area of the Primary classroom, but on the geometry shelf in the mathematics area in Elementary, where it will be used to study the concept of volume. In this way, the Primary child’s work with the pink tower is indirect preparation for her later work with operations on volume. All of the materials, in fact, that the child works with in Primary are direct or indirect preparation for her work during the Elementary years; the materials can be viewed as a bridge linking the different levels of the curriculum.

The geometry materials offer a useful illustration of how a child works with the same materials, yet on entirely different cognitive levels, in both Primary and Elementary. A sensorial material at the Primary level, the geometric plane and solid figures are explored in a variety of ways. Circles, squares, triangles, and other polygons are manipulated in order to feel the difference between straight and curved edges, obtuse and acute angles. In metal inset form, the polygons are carefully traced, promoting coordination and fine motor control as preparation for writing. The constructive triangles material encourages the child to form new shapes by placing two or more triangles together. Two triangles, depending on which kind, will make any number of different quadrilaterals; six equilateral triangles will form a hexagon. Concurrent with manipulation and other sensorial exploration, the Primary child learns the names of the polygons and solids.

Fast forward to the Elementary years, where the child will encounter the same materials, but on the geometry shelf in the math area. Although the child will continue to manipulate the planes and solids, he will begin to study them from a mathematical perspective as well, identifying and measuring, for example, types of angles, bases, altitudes, and diagonals. He will learn how to measure perimeter and area of polygons and volume and surface area of solids. The child is able to explore these properties on an abstract level thanks to his emerging power of reason—one of the “sensitivities,” or distinguishing characteristics of the Elementary-aged child (this transition congruent with the observations of Jean Piaget).

Dr. Montessori wrote much about the “sensitive periods,” or natural dispositions that children have toward certain activities during specific times in their development. While the Primary child can distinguish, sensorially, between a square and a rectangle, the Elementary child, in the sensitive period for reason and abstract thought, can conceptualize and articulate, for example, why all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. And while the Primary child knows that two triangles placed together form a rectangle or other quadrilateral, the Elementary child, because he has learned to measure angles, can also extrapolate that since the sum of any triangle is 180 degrees, the sum of the angles of any quadrilateral, formed by two triangles, must be 360 degrees, or 180 X 2. It is a short leap from here to begin the formal study of geometry theorems, part of the upper elementary geometry curriculum.

The materials lead the child from sensorial exploration to abstract reasoning in a carefully designed and stepwise sequence that spans the Primary and Elementary years. And while the Primary child who moves on to a non-Montessori setting for the Elementary years will still have gained some knowledge from her sensorial work, the Montessori child who has worked with the full spectrum of the materials, from Primary through Elementary, will have gained not only more knowledge, but a more thorough understanding of complex ideas in mathematics, language, science, and more.

By Cindy Conesa

The Montessori Three-Year Cycle and the Importance of the Third Year

The three-year multi-age Montessori classroom is not an arbitrary configuration of convenience, but an implementation of the “planes of development,” or four distinct periods of growth: 0-6 years; 6-12 years; 12-18 years; and 18-24 years. Dr. Montessori, along with other developmental scientists, observed that the child’s development follows a path of successive stages, each with its own particular needs and dispositions—cognitive, social, physical, moral and emotional; and much occurs during each plane as preparation for the succeeding one. It follows then that the more fully the child realizes his potential in each plane, the stronger the foundation for the next stage of development.    

Each plane is divided into two sub-planes, on which Montessori classrooms are based (0-3 years; 3-6 years; 6-9 years; 9-12 years; 12-15 years; and 15-18 years). Montessori teachers are trained to meet the child’s needs with a three-year developmental curriculum oriented to the inherent characteristics of a particular plane. The curriculum, like development, is sequential, and by completing the three-year cycle in an environment specifically designed to address her developmental needs—whether in Primary, Elementary, or Secondary—the child’s possibilities for working toward her potential are maximized.

Given “normal” development, most children will reach the milestones of a given developmental phase within the appropriate time frame, but as children do not all develop at the same rate, some will reach specific markers sooner or later than other children. This is one important reason why Dr. Montessori grouped children together in three-year spans: all are working toward the same developmental goals characteristic of their respective plane. The third year in a Montessori classroom can be thought of as the “capstone” in this respect; literally the “finishing stone of a structure,” it is also the “culminating academic experience for students.” This is truly where all the pieces come together, where the child’s learning is solidified, his knowledge consolidated, as new possibilities for growth and learning begin to emerge.

The third year in a Montessori classroom is also referred to as the leadership year. It can be helpful to think of first year children as the “explorers,” second year students as the “experimenters” and third year students as the “experts.” Having learned to take care of herself in the classroom and to work independently during the first two years, the child in her third year is developmentally ready to put her background to use as a classroom leader–an academic and social role model—while she continues building her own skills. This increases her self-confidence which, together with her good work habits, puts her in a position of readiness for her upcoming experience in the Elementary classroom.

Of course, all children go through the same developmental phases whether or not they are enrolled in a Montessori program. So what are the advantages, having completed two years of Montessori Primary, in completing the third year rather than moving on to another classroom setting? The answer lies in the “sensitive periods” characteristic of each developmental plane—the natural dispositions that children have toward certain activities during specific times in their development. Dr. Montessori designed her elegant materials to directly correspond to the sensitive periods. During the Primary years, for example, the child is sensitive to order, concentration, coordination, and independence; everything in the Primary environment addresses these sensitivities. As the older child is sensitive to reason and abstract thinking, the materials in the Elementary classroom become less and less concrete. Further, the Great Lessons are meant to appeal to the older child’s burgeoning imagination.

What sets Montessori education apart from many other approaches is that the child is able to independently seek out and find the particular stimuli to satisfy his needs, as dictated by the sensitive periods, and to develop mastery of related skills. In this way too, with guidance, he takes ownership of and responsibility for his learning—an opportunity not found in traditional school settings.The third year—the year of consolidation, leadership, and readiness for the next phase—is of paramount importance to the child’s optimal realization of possibilities and development and, as such, should be regarded as a crucial step in the Montessori educational process.

By Cindy Conesa