Montessori classrooms differ from traditional classrooms in several ways, and one significant difference is the way the physical space is arranged. Vital to the Montessori Method is the “prepared environment,” a term for the specific dynamic, layout, and learning materials that comprise the classroom. The prepared environment is a powerful tool for the Montessori teacher and is cultivated with care. Likewise, students from primary to upper elementary Montessori programs engage with the prepared environment with curiosity and help to guide its evolution throughout the school day and year.
A Conduit for Learning
In her experience teaching and as she cultivated the Montessori philosophy of education, Maria Montessori observed the powerful influence the physical properties of the classroom had on her students’ capacity to learn. In her first position as a teacher, it did not take her long to see the need to alter the classroom layout she inherited: the familiar rows of desks and chairs that monopolize the space and face the front of the room where the teacher is positioned as the sole arbiter of learning. Instead, Montessori moved the desks into clusters around the room, introduced open spaces and unobstructed walkways for students to move through as they chose, and stationed learning tools and activities on easy-to-reach shelves on the periphery the room. She emphasized natural light, uncluttered surfaces, access to the outdoors, and physical movement. Montessori believed that students learn best by doing and by letting their innate interest and curiosity guide their acquisition of knowledge. In today’s Montessori classrooms, the prepared environment is constructed to facilitate this learning process and offer opportunities for students to observe the teacher in hands-on demonstrations, collaborate with their peers in small groups, or have space to work independently.
A Responsive Room
When students are encouraged to guide their own learning, the classroom becomes a dynamic space. In the prepared environment of Montessori classrooms, teachers are not tasked with lecturing, corralling, or generally battling with energetic bodies to keep still. Instead, Montessori teachers are asked to observe students as they engage the learning tools and activities and offer support and new challenges. As students progress in a lesson and want to further explore the topic, or are in need of further practice with the concept, Montessori teachers can introduce new or different learning tools to the shelves, or encourage small groups to form where students can teach and learn from each other. Montessori teachers receive constant feedback in the form of the students’ engagement with the prepared environment and can adapt the classroom to meet their curiosity.