The Prepared Environment
Opportunities for Learning
Montessori discovered that it was through independent activity that a child would come to fully realize their potential and abilities. The prepared environment is a collection of activities that focus on the many aspects of human development and are designed for their appeal to children in their most formative years. We call this collection of sequentially organized activities the Prepared Environment. As the child grows in age and ability, there will always be materials at his level of development that attract and interest him. Through his work, he may find a special area of interest that lasts throughout his school years and leads to a lifetime profession.
Practical Life activities help the child to develop control and coordination of hands and body, independence in care of self, help to care for the environment, and learn to treat others with grace and courtesy. She enjoys choosing her own activities, and comes to view herself as competent as she successfully overcomes new challenges. His ability to focus his attention on small details and to work with precision. These abilities prepare children for activities in all other areas ahead.
Sensorial activities enable the child to consciously use her senses to glean information from the world around her. Eyes can tell us about size, shapes, color. Ears discriminate between dynamics of sounds, musical tones, and letter sounds. Noses differentiate between odors and smells. Mouths learn to taste and know whether something is sweet, sour, bitter or salty. Fingers touch something and can tell if it is rough or smooth, a certain kind of texture, or a certain object or shape. Senses are windows to the world around us.
Mathematics materials help the children to develop the ability to solve problems, learn basic operational skills and quantitative concepts necessary for mathematical functioning. Children begin by learning the basics of counting and to recognize numerals, followed by an introduction to the decimal system, and how large numbers are formed. This is followed by materials which alllow them to manipulate numbers in the four basic operations: adding, multiplying, subtracting and dividing. They never develop a fear of numbers, and enjoy the challenge of solving interesting problems and numerical puzzles. Through work with these activities, they acquire the foundation for higher level thinking skills.
Language, the ability that allows humans to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others. The ability to read and learn about what previous cultures and discoveries provide the basis for future discoveries. Words are made up of sounds, and sounds are represented by symbols called letters. This code system is different for various cultures, but the sequence of learning these codes and the structure of language is the same for all languages. This incredible ability has been proven many times with recent linguistic research projects. Maria Montessori observed these developments beginning in infancy which progressed through the early years. She formulated a corresponding sequence of activities that allows children to easily acquire the basics of writing and reading. Learning the correspondence between letters and sounds lead to building words with movable letters. One day children will realize they can read what they have written. Different words have different meanings and are used in different ways. With the language activities, comprehension is increased and the children learn to express themselves, whether with the written or spoken word. This enables them to function successfully in the social world.
Nature Study – Botany and Zoology: Respect for life in all its forms is lived out daily. All things are either living or nonliving; all living things are plant or animal. These are beginning concepts that introduce the children to the natural world which surrounds them. They learn about the parts of plants and animals, what their needs are and how they help us. Live specimens, such as caterpillars, are brought in so they can watch the life cycle process, and when the final stage is reached, the beautiful butterfly is released back into nature, with a song. Seeds are sown and plants set out, and cared for until their produce, be it something to eat or flowers to beautify the room, are available for our use.
Geography: Children are introduced to basic concepts about the physical geography of our earth: its land forms, geographical divisions of continents, countries, and in our country, the 50 states. All peoples on earth have the same basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, transportation. They all play, work, and help each other. But each culture has a different way of meeting these needs. Activities in social geography help the young child to know about the different peoples who inhabit our earth and to appreciate, accept and respect their ways of living.
The Arts: The prepared environment at Casa offers to the young children a wide variety of creative artistic activity through working different artistic media and visual art projects, an introduction to art appreciation and works of the great masters. Dramatic interpretation of poetry or stories enhances their exposure to literature. Singing, the bell materials, playing rhythm instruments, moving to music, and listening to the works of major composers offer a comprehensive introduction to the world of music. Third year children attend the Austin Symphony Orchestra Kinderconcert each October as one of their annual field trips.
Field Trips and On-Campus Visitors: A visit from our neighborhood fire station and its firefighters is a favorite experience for the children; an area zookeeper and our next-door neighborhood vet bring a variety of animals for us to learn about, trips to a nearby nature site, or to the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, a favorite storyteller, a talented drummer introduces drums and rhythms of the world. These are a few of the many opportunities for Casa children to experience the wider world in our city and beyond.
Traditions: Casa has many traditions, some of which date back to our very first year. These give a sense of continuity and timelessness to our children and to alumni who return to visit. On a child’s birthday, we tell the story of each year in the life of a child, along with a special song and ceremony. Peace Day celebrates our common humanity with countries around the world, and the role we can play in making peace with the human family. We mark special days of the various cultures in our Casa family with parents sharing their customs and unique foods for us all to enjoy. Throughout the year and almost every month, there seems to be a holiday to celebrate, and that we do. During Grandparents’ Week children’s grandparents are invited to spend a morning with their grandchild. Many bring their talent or special book or song to share. The End-of-Year Picnic and Farewell Ceremony brings the year to an end when we bid our oldest children a fond “goodbye” as they venture out to their next experience in education. Outdoor games, farewell songs, handing out certificates, and family picnic lunches on the Legion lawn end the year.
Classroom Libraries:Each class has an individual library stocked with books we have found important for each class to have. Many of these are classic fiction, series about nature study or different cultures. Each class also has a complete set of World Book Encyclopedia along with a children’s dictionary and atlas. In each classroom, there is a “Quiet Corner” where a selection of books is always available for the children to enjoy.
The Main Library:Located in the office, there is a large collection of carefully chosen children’s books, along with reference books for the staff. There are collections of CDs, tapes, videos, art reproductions, photo packets and boxes with artifacts from many cultures, and objects to supplement special topics. Teachers check out books to rotate in each classroom’s “Quiet Corner.”
Art in the Montessori Environment
"If we try to think back to the dim and distant past... what is it that helps us reconstruct those times, and to picture the lives of those who lived in them? It is their art... It is thanks to the hand, the companion of the mind, that civilization has arisen."
—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Art is one of the many ways children express themselves. Art is a way for children to communicate their feelings. It is through art that children develop their fine motor skills. In the Montessori environment, we provide open-ended art activities that help children explore and use their creativity.
When it comes to art, it is the process not the product that is important to the child. As adults, our goal is to produce a product. The child interacts with the world differently. The child works to develop self. The focus is on the process not the product. Once a child creates something, he does not feel the need to keep the product. It is the process that gives him satisfaction and inner joy.
Getting this point across to parents may be a challenge. "Make something for me today," is a phrase we often hear parents say at the beginning of the school year. An explanation and then a friendly reminder will help them change their mind set: "It's the process, not the product."
Like many teachers, I have received artistic "gifts" from children. Have you ever suspected such gifts were given because the children didn't "need" the finished product... and because they wanted to move on to the next painting without the interruption of walking to the drying rack?
Preparing the Environment: Remember the Art Area
Art, along with all areas of the classroom, gives children a solid foundation for future growth. Through art, they are exploring, creating, expressing, and developing self. Provide a rich art area in the classroom. Give children a chance to choose their medium: paints, pastels, clay, pencils, crayons.
Do they have supplies for gluing? Cutting with scissors? Tearing paper? Sculpting in three dimensions? Are there a variety of choices for drawing self-portraits or landscapes? Opportunities for abstract art? Is the collage tray stocked and waiting? The possibilities are endless and up to the child.
I'm No Picasso!
You might be thinking, "I'm not an artist.", "I don't have endless amounts of classroom prep time." or "My budget is limited." Have no fear. You can include art in your classroom with minimal effort. Start slowly.
Here's an easy idea. Make room on a shelf for a box full of recycled items:
- paper towel rolls
- empty cartons (milk, eggs, oatmeal)
- clean plastic containers (yogurt, margarine)
- boxes (tissue, baking soda, cereal).
You get the idea... Ask parents for donations, stash them in your supply room, and you'll be set to replenish as needed. Place a supply of glue on the shelf and your prep is finished.
The recycled materials were a big hit in my classroom. Each day, I'd add different items. The children were thrilled, especially one friend, Brandon. As we approached the end of our pre-work-time circle, Brandon's excitement over the addition of an extra large egg carton or a cereal box was written all over his face. I knew he wanted to be dismissed from circle first, in order to get to work on his latest sculpture. He'd look through the box, as if it were a treasure chest! He'd find just the right pieces for his creations. His enthusiasm was contagious and his creations were inspiring!
Make Art Connections Throughout the Classroom
Incorporate art and literature. When I read Harry the Dirty Dog, I set up an art activity and children created their own Harry (black dog with white spots). A colleague created an activity around Harold and the Purple Crayon: paper, a purple crayon, along with the classic book by Crockett Johnson. Eric Carle is another wonderful source for inspiration. These art activities are placed on the shelf, and the children are free to choose (or not to choose) and to work at their own pace.
In addition to having an "art" area in the classroom, we prepare children for both writing and expressive drawing by providing materials they can freely choose throughout the entire classroom. Children are encouraged to explore outline and color with the Metal Insets. Children spontaneously decorate the borders of their papers (in Math, Language, Sensorial). When children write in their journals, they often illustrate the story. When they do research, children draw a picture of their subject.
We can incorporate art into our continent studies. Who are the artists? How are utensils made and decorated (straw baskets, clay pots)? What museums are located there? Children love to draw and then paint the continent puzzle maps.
Art Appreciation and Art Ideas:
- Artist of the Month. Choose artists that relate to your continent studies. Studying North America? Why not incorporate a famous artist? Perhaps Mary Cassatt's Children Playing on the Beach. Studying Europe? Think Van Gogh's The Starry Night or Sunflowers.
- Think creatively. For example, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Jolene Tollett presented this idea for introducing Michelangelo at the March 2011 AMS conference in Chicago. After talking about the artist, she lets the children experience what Michelangelo did — painting while on his back! Tape a large sheet of paper to the bottom of a desk or table. The child will go to the supply shelf, bring his supplies (paints, brushes, and water) to the table, place them under the table, lie down, and begin painting. What a great experience! Of course, the children are not suspended above the room, but they get the idea.
- Connect with local artists. If parents in your school community are artists, perhaps arrange for them to visit the classroom. A field trip to an artist's studio would be a valuable experience for the children. How do artists set up their studios? How do artists care for their art materials?
- Explore a local art museum. Is there an art museum in your area? Before you visit the museum, look at the catalog or a book and show the students the works of art they will see when they visit the museum. Talk about museum etiquette before you visit.
- Give children words. Art appreciation is full of new vocabulary: Impressionism, Cubism, Pointillism; Realism; foreground, background; palette; fresco; bronze; mobile; statue
- Talk about inspiration. Discuss who or what inspired the artist (a child? a dog? the ocean?).
- Discover mood. What mood/emotions does the painting evoke? (sad? happy? calm? silly? tired? angry?).
- Play with color. What color palette did the artist use?
- Notice the details in a painting (brushstrokes; clothing the subjects are wearing); look at the painting from far away, and then close up. GoogleArtProject.com allows children to see hundreds of artworks from a dozen international fine art museums at incredible zoom levels.
- Do self-portraits. Talk about what portraits and self-portraits are. Set up a work with a mirror, paper, and colored pencils.
- Clay: Make pinch pots. Talk about firing and glazing. Do you have a kiln at your school? Discuss different types of pottery and their uses (decorative, utilitarian).
Final Words of Wisdom from Dr. Montessori
"The human hand, so delicate and so complicated, not only allows the mind to reveal itself but it enables the whole being to enter into special relationships with its environment... man 'takes possession of his environment with his hands.' His hands, under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world."
—Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child
—by Pamela Personette, M.Ed., Montessori Educational Consultant, for Montessori Services. Fully committed to Montessori education, Pamela earned an AMS Montessori Primary Credential and a Master's of Education in Early Childhood, Montessori Education, from Notre Dame de Namur University. Pam's passion for Montessori has taken her from head teacher for more than a decade to a unique consulting business that uses Montessori principles to teach the art of superior customer service to adults in the retail trade. Pamela continues to serve children by teaching at Montessori schools.
—Originally Published 2011