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Hands-on Learning in Montessori Schools

How It Makes Abstract Concepts Concrete



Walk into a Montessori classroom, and you’ll immediately notice children engaged in a wide variety of activities while the teacher travels around the room to observe and work with them one-on-one. This hands-on environment rarely uses paper and pencils; instead, Montessori teachers encourage children to learn by touching, feeling and doing.

How Montessori works

In a Montessori classroom, the teacher, child and environment create a learning triangle with three equally important parts. According to Vienna Broadbelt, owner of and former teacher at the Montessori Learning Centre in Wilmington, DE, “Montessori uses a multisensory approach to learning. The more you can get the children’s senses involved, the deeper the learning.”

In the Montessori environment, students work with specially designed, concrete materials that they can manipulate to investigate — and eventually master — abstract concepts.

Using touch to learn in the Montessori classroom

The alphabet, the sound each letter makes and language itself are abstract concepts. “In language especially, you have to hit all the senses,” says Susan Weir, head of school at The Children’s House of Bucks County in Fairless Hills, PA. One way to make these abstractions concrete is to have children trace their fingers along a letter made of sandpaper while they repeat the sound the letter makes. During this activity, children can feel, hear and visualize each letter. Then students move on to work with objects that start with the sounds they’ve practiced — such as a monkey figurine for the “M” sound — and to study pictures that associate words with their accompany- ing sounds. This work prepares children not only for reading but also for writing because children become familiar with the shapes of letters as they trace them with their fingers.

The Montessori classroom makes math learning equally tactile. “You can see in front of you that 5 is more than 3,” says Katie Marin, business manager at Children’s House Montessori School in Wilmington, DE.

The classrooms at the Montessori Learning Centre contain hanging beads and bead chain cabinets. The beads are color coded, which allows students to experience the difference between 1, 10, 100, and 1,000 with their own eyes and hands.

Lisa Valentine, director of marketing and development at Bala House Montessori in Bala Cynwyd, PA, has experienced the benefits of Montessori education within her own family. One of Valentine’s children struggled in a traditional church-based school setting, and Valentine looked into Montessori education. She notes that the Montessori approach “activates different portions of the brain and is so tactile compared to more traditional approaches.” Valentine credits Montessori education as one factor that allowed her child to blossom as a reader by first grade.

Montessori education prepares children for life

A fundamental component of the Montessori school curriculum engages children in activities that develop skills they will use throughout their lives, such as using a spoon to transfer items from one container to another. In addition, the activities indirectly prepare children for more formal learning.

Within the classroom, teachers purposefully arrange materials on trays from top to bottom and left to right, says Broadbelt. This organizational scheme prepares students for how their eyes will need to track on a page when they read.

According to Jamie Lee, head of school and head teacher at Cornerstone Montessori School in Woodbury, NJ, children’s learning has no limits when students are exposed to Montessori’s hands-on approach. Children just keep going, whereas traditional classrooms can be limiting. Says Lee, “At a young age, they really need to use their senses.”


Corinne Mooney is a freelance writer. 

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