The Montessori Prepared Environment as Community
Written by: Connie Black, AMI Trainer
A sense of community has been a distinguishing hallmark of Montessori classrooms since the first Children’s House opened in San Lorenzo, Italy in 1907. That is nearly a century of practice that is now, being reaffirmed by recent research and study. Just what is a classroom as a community?
A community is where one feels that he or she belongs. It’s home. It’s where we live: where we work, play, eat, laugh, cry, share stories, rest, celebrate, encourage and go the day’s journey with those that are in the community with us.
Many of us experience this sense of community in our families, our workplaces, in our places of worship, in and through the places and activities where we pursue our hobbies, our dreams. It is a safe place. Not only do we feel physically safe in our communities, we are emotionally safe. We are respected and valued by other members of the community.
We honor each other, to raise each other up. We are free to make mistakes without having to worry about being laughed at or ridiculed. We are filled with the confidence to express our hopes, dreams and even our discontent without the fear of being belittled, secure in the knowledge that we will be listened to and responded to.
We find comfort in never being expected to do more than that of which we are fully capable. And we often experience intense joy in finding that we are capable of more than we ever dreamed.
These are precisely the characteristics of a Montessori Children’s House. It is a community of children and a few caring adults who live together, even if but for a few hours a day.
It is a beautiful place, carefully prepared especially for the children who reside in it. Its very physical appearance says, “This place is for children. Children are important here. Children are valued here.”
It is prepared with purposeful activities, which engage the children and give them avenues to develop to their fullest potential. In it they find all the tools they need to continue their “self-construction” which began at birth.
Just as in a family, there is a mixed age range. Younger children watch with awe and eager anticipation older children who are engage in activities that they know they, too, will soon be prepared to do. Younger children are engaged in activities for the sake of the activity, because it meets an inner need. Older children engage in some of the same activities, but for different reasons.
A younger child will polish perfectly clean shoes because she finds great joy in the task itself, fulfillment in the laying out of the necessary items, of replenishing them when done. The older child will polish her shoes because she got them dirty in the garden.
Practice with the various activities increases the child’s competence, which leads to confidence. She becomes not only competent in taking care of herself and her house and expressing herself, she becomes confident enough to be able to try new things, to express new ideas, to have the feeling that, “I can do this.”
The child stays in this community for three to four years, developing strong relationships and trust levels not only with the other children but the adults as well. They come to really know each other. This is particularly important when the adult guide relies on her knowledge of the child in order to guide her through all the various activities in the Children’s House.
The fruits of a lot of careful nurturing come to bear during that final year in the Casa. That’s when the child has the opportunity to use all the skills she has perfected (few of them academic ones) to become an important driving force in the community.
Just as she looked up to and followed the example of older children during her first years in the Casa, she now has younger ones coming to her for help in tying their aprons and shoes, or for advice on how to best get some little job done.
This ability to creatively solve problems, to lead a group, to care about and nurture others… these are lessons that last a lifetime. These are the life lessons gathered while being in a Montessori Casa Community during the years from three to six.
Connie Black is currently the Director of Outreach Programs at the Montessori Center of Minnesota. She is an AMI trainer, consultant and guest lecture. Stefanie and Claire have both had the privilege of working with Connie; in the classroom setting and at the training institute.
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