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What is Montessori? 10 key principles all parents should know

A school meant to appeal to children’s nature, rather than fight it.

What is Montessori? 10 key principles all parents should know

With over 4,000 Montessori schools in the US now, “Montessori” is becoming a household word. But while it’s pretty well known as an alternative form of education, there is often still an air of mystery around it. It can be hard to describe, even for those whose children attend a Montessori school.


So what is Montessori?

The Montessori method of education was developed by Maria Montessori, the first female Italian doctor, in the early 20th century. She used her training as a scientist and doctor to carefully observe children and designed a school meant to appeal to their nature, rather than fight it.

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For example, if children like to move, why not design a school that lets them move, rather than constantly fighting to keep them in their seats? This is the type of question she asked.

She took away all of the preconceived notions of what a school should look like and designed the classroom and materials based on what she observed about children in their natural state. The schools created based on her observations became known as Montessori schools.

Here are 10 foundational principles of Montessori education to give you a better idea of what Montessori is, and whether it may be right for your children.

1. Experiential learning

Children in Montessori schools learn by working with specially designed materials. Rather than memorizing math facts, they begin by counting and adding concrete materials. They use little objects and a set of wooden letters known as the movable alphabet to learn to read and write. Maria Montessori observed that children need to move and learn through experiences, rather than through sitting and listening to a teacher.

2. Mixed-age classrooms

Montessori classrooms include mixed ages and mixed skill-levels, generally divided into three year groups (e.g., 3-6 year olds, 6-9 year olds). Peer learning is encouraged as the little ones learn from observing their older friends and the older children solidify their knowledge and gain valuable leadership skills through giving lessons to the younger children.

While Montessori schools are most common for younger children, Montessori middle schools and high schools exist as well.

3. Uninterrupted work period

All authentic Montessori schools have long, uninterrupted work periods (generally 2-3 hours depending on age). Rather than having 30 minutes for math and then 30 minutes for language, children have a long morning and afternoon work period in one classroom that includes all of the subjects. This long time period allows children to engage with the materials deeply and reach intense concentration.

4. Academics

In addition to math, language, and science, Montessori schools include two other academic areas: practical life and sensorial.

Practical life consists of exercises to help children learn skills used in everyday life. For young children, this includes carefully pouring water, tying their shoes, and scrubbing a table. For older children, this includes things like budgeting and starting a small business.

Sensorial is the education of the senses, and is most prevalent in classrooms for young children. Montessori believed that children learn through their senses and there are materials specifically designed to help them refine their sense of smell, hearing, etc.

5. Role of the teacher

A Montessori teacher is sometimes referred to as a guide, rather than a teacher, and this reflects her non-traditional role.

A Montessori teacher’s job is to observe the children and introduce them to the academic materials at just the right time. She is often hard to find in the classroom, as she is generally working one-on-one with a child, rather than standing at the front of the room talking to the whole group. Maria Montessori saw the role of the teacher as providing children with tools for learning, rather than pouring knowledge and facts into them.

6. Freedom within limits

The work in a Montessori school is child-directed. A teacher gives a child a lesson on a material he hasn’t used before, but the child can then independently choose to work on it when he pleases.

Children in a Montessori classroom choose where to sit and what to work on, with guidance from a teacher. A child will not be allowed to dance around the room and distract his friends or only draw all day, but he can choose whether to work on math or language, or whether to sit at a table or on the floor.

7. Educating the whole child

Montessori focuses on educating the whole child, including physical, spiritual, social, mental and emotional education. This means that you might find a Montessori 3-year-old carefully walking on a line while carrying a glass of water, learning to control his body and his movements. You might find a child meditating or doing yoga while you see another practicing subtraction nearby. Each of these components is considered equally important.

8. Individualized curriculum

If a Montessori class has 25 different students, each of those 25 will be at a different academic level that is observed and tracked by the teacher. Rather than giving group lessons, Montessori teachers give one-on-one lessons to each student depending on his specific level and needs.

This is possible because the children largely work independently, spending much of the day practicing and perfecting work they have already been given a lesson on.

9. Prepared environment

Montessori classrooms are referred to as a “prepared environment.” This means that they are designed with everything the children need to explore and learn independently. They are filled with low shelves and beautiful materials to entice children to want to learn and work.

Montessori teachers observe the children and decide what work to place on the shelves to meet the children’s interests and needs at the time.

Montessori classrooms are also far more minimalist than traditional classrooms, particularly for young children. They are full of muted colors and natural light to foster concentration. Everything in the classroom has a specific spot on a shelf where it belongs and the work is carefully organized to help children develop a sense of order.

10. Peace education

Maria Montessori lived during a time of world wars and global upheaval. Perhaps for this reason, she placed great emphasis on peace education.

She believed that the future of the world depended on us teaching our children the importance of peace and this belief is still reflected in Montessori schools today. There is a great emphasis on community, both the classroom community and the wider global community we’re a part of. Children learn about the world and also learn tools for calming themselves and conducting peaceful conflict resolution.

If you’d like to see what this looks like in action, check out these videos for a peek inside a Montessori classroom. Many Montessori schools also welcome visitors if you’re interested in observing a classroom in person.

I felt lost as a new mother, but babywearing helped me find myself again

I wish someone had told me before how special wearing your baby can be, even when you have no idea how to do it.

My first baby and I were alone in our Brooklyn apartment during a particularly cold spring with yet another day of no plans. My husband was back at work after a mere three weeks of parental leave (what a joke!) and all my friends were busy with their childless lives—which kept them too busy to stop by or check in (making me, at times, feel jealous).

It was another day in which I would wait for baby to fall asleep for nap number one so I could shower and get ready to attempt to get out of the house together to do something, anything really, so I wouldn't feel the walls of the apartment close in on me by the time the second nap rolled around. I would pack all the diapers and toys and pacifiers and pump and bottles into a ginormous stroller that was already too heavy to push without a baby in it .

Then I would spend so much time figuring out where we could go with said stroller, because I wanted to avoid places with steps or narrow doors (I couldn't lift the stroller by myself and I was too embarrassed to ask strangers for help—also hi, New Yorkers, please help new moms when you see them huffing and puffing up the subway stairs, okay?). Then I would obsess about the weather, was it too cold to bring the baby out? And by the time I thought I had our adventure planned, the baby would wake up, I would still be in my PJs and it was time to pump yet again.

Slowly, but surely, and mostly thanks to sleep deprivation and isolation, I began to detest this whole new mom life. I've always been a social butterfly. I moved to New York because I craved that non-stop energy the city has and in the years before having my baby I amassed new friends I made through my daily adventures. I would never stop. I would walk everywhere just to take in the scenery and was always on the move.

Now I had this ball and chain attached to me, I thought, that didn't even allow me to make it out of the door to walk the dog. This sucks, I would think regularly, followed by maybe I'm not meant to be a mom after all.


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Motherly editors’ 7 favorite hacks for organizing their diaper bags

Make frantically fishing around for a diaper a thing of the past!

As any parent knows, the term "diaper bag" only scratches the surface. In reality, this catchall holds so much more: a change of clothes, bottles, snacks, wipes and probably about a dozen more essential items.

Which makes finding the exact item you need, when you need it (read: A diaper when you're in public with a blowout on your hands) kind of tricky.

That's why organization is the name of the game when it comes to outings with your littles. We pooled the Motherly team of editors to learn some favorite hacks for organizing diaper bags. Here are our top tips.

1. Divide and conquer with small bags

Here's a tip we heard more than a few times: Use smaller storage bags to organize your stuff. Not only is this helpful for keeping related items together, but it can also help keep things from floating around in the expanse of the larger diaper bag. These bags don't have to be anything particularly fancy: an unused toiletry bag, pencil case or even plastic baggies will work.

2. Have an emergency changing kit

When you're dealing with a diaper blowout situation, it's not the time to go searching for a pack of wipes. Instead, assemble an emergency changing kit ahead of time by bundling a change of baby clothes, a fresh diaper, plenty of wipes and hand sanitizer in a bag you can quickly grab. We're partial to pop-top wipes that don't dry out or get dirty inside the diaper bag.

3. Simplify bottle prep

Organization isn't just being able to find what you need, but also having what you need. For formula-feeding on the go, keep an extra bottle with the formula you need measured out along with water to mix it up. You never know when your outing will take longer than expected—especially with a baby in the mix!

4. Get resealable snacks

When getting out with toddlers and older kids, snacks are the key to success. Still, it isn't fun to constantly dig crumbs out of the bottom of your diaper bag. Our editors love pouches with resealable caps and snacks that come in their own sealable containers. Travel-sized snacks like freeze-dried fruit crisps or meal-ready pouches can get an unfair reputation for being more expensive, but that isn't the case with the budget-friendly Comforts line.

5. Keep a carabiner on your keychain

You'll think a lot about what your child needs for an outing, but you can't forget this must-have: your keys. Add a carabiner to your keychain so you can hook them onto a loop inside your diaper bag. Trust us when we say it's a much better option than dumping out the bag's contents on your front step to find your house key!

6. Bundle your essentials

If your diaper bag doubles as your purse (and we bet it does) you're going to want easy access to your essentials, too. Dedicate a smaller storage bag of your diaper bag to items like your phone, wallet and lip balm. Then, when you're ready to transfer your items to a real purse, you don't have to look for them individually.

7. Keep wipes in an outer compartment

Baby wipes aren't just for diaper changes: They're also great for cleaning up messy faces, wiping off smudges, touching up your makeup and more. Since you'll be reaching for them time and time again, keep a container of sensitive baby wipes in an easily accessible outer compartment of your bag.

Another great tip? Shop the Comforts line on www.comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices. Or, follow @comfortsforbaby for more information!

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics says that newborns, especially, do not need a bath every day. While parents should make sure the diaper region of a baby is clean, until a baby learns how to crawl around and truly get messy, a daily bath is unnecessary.

So, why do we feel like kids should bathe every day?

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