A traditional school’s classroom environment is designed with the assumption that students will be learning directly from the teacher, usually a series of lessons delivered to all of the children simultaneously. This presentation style means that the room is filled with chairs and tables or desks, usually oriented towards a central teaching location. However, in a Montessori environment the students are intended not to learn from the teacher per se, but to learn from the environment and from their experiences within that environment. This means that a Montessori classroom is carefully structured to facilitate these meaningful, educational experiences, and is thus referred to in Montessori as “The Prepared Environment.”
"And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child." Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 7, Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company
What is the Prepared Environment?
Maria Montessori believed that a child needs a specific, developmentally appropriate environment to facilitate growth and personal fulfillment. Whereas in a traditional system children are made to conform to the classroom, Montessori attempts to conform the classroom to the educational needs of the children both in physical and “human” aspects.
The Physical Environment
The physical environment is what the child experiences through his senses, including the following:
Culturally Relevant Style
The Human Environment
The human environment is made up of all the human beings with whom the child comes into contact throughout the day, including all of the attendant behavior, emotions, actions and interactions that the child experiences. We intentionally model the following behaviors in the Human Environment:
Movement – graceful, purposeful, coordinated, harmonious movements
Good relationships – respectful and kind towards one another so that the child knows this is how we interact with one another
Expressive Emotions – we model healthy emotions with one another, calm and expressive; it is important for children to see us articulate how we feel
Language – clear, precise, rich and descriptive language –speech should include diverse kinds of dialogue, not just adults giving the child instructions
A child’s first human environment is his home. The child’s home environment is his first model for human relationships. He is experiencing a constant process of adaptation to his family—celebrations, mealtimes, preferred family activities, etc. He accepts all familial interactions as normal, so it is important that we create an appropriate human environment both in the classroom and at home.
Advantages of the Prepared Environment
Freedom and Limits – The environment allows for freedom of movement, but builds in natural consequences for less desirable behaviors
Independence – Given the natural freedom and limits built into the environment, children are allowed to develop independence
Intellect – With freedom and independence comes the opportunity to pursue intellectual interests more flexibly, and learn self-direction with respect to the learning process
Will – Children with access to this flexible mode of experience and thought tend to develop their natural will and motivation to learn
Adaptation – In a free environment with other children of varying ages, children learn to coexist in harmony with each other and learn to adapt to their specific time, place and culture
Self-Construction – The children leverage these benefits cumulatively towards creating their own unique identities and modes of interaction in the world
"The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult. That is, it is a place where he can do things for himself – live his own life – without the immediate help of adults." E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, p. 267, Mentor-Omega edition, 1957
The physical and human environments work together to create an appropriate space for the child. The adult’s job is to prepare the environment, an ongoing effort since the child (and his ideal environment) is always evolving. We must link the child to the environment—remove obstacles to the child’s development, observe and enable individual growth.