October 24, 2022
“The Child should live in an environment of beauty”. These words have been my mantra every day that I walk into my All Year Montessori casa. Whether it is a toddler class, primary, elementary environment, Middle School, or even a High School we must create a space for students that reflects peace and tranquility. This space MUST invite the child, the little learner to come in and embrace the work that surrounds him. This environment has so much to do with the approach of those working there, both adult and child. If your life is cluttered and messy, so will the environment you create with the children. When considering this space, you must be thoughtful, creative, and selfless.
Be extremely thoughtful about every item you bring into your environment. Somehow, connect each of these items to the material and to your lessons. Whether it’s a brass elephant that’s linked to the African animal classified cards or wooden pitchers for the pouring exercise that can be later polished, always be thinking about how to connect the dots and the child’s interest. Also, repair and maintain each and every object. I fully understand the commitment of time that I am suggesting you make when adopting this idea. My children are in class 245 days of the year, up to 10 hours a day, and within that time using the materials to their fullest extent. Therefore, the materials can and do take a beating. This is all the more reason to uphold the beauty that is crucial in a living community. Share this important responsibility. When something is damaged, let the children know that it isn’t easily replaced and have them tuck it away in a designated basket or tray for damaged materials until it can be repaired or renewed. Also, be fully prepared for this basket to become a truck when first introducing it to your environment. Nevertheless, the awareness and care that you will begin to witness from every child are worth the front-end loading necessary in order to get this started. Eventually, give lessons on repairing material in the class. Who better to care for “their” environment than the children themselves?
Be creative with your space. Don’t be afraid to move a shelf or allow the children to move work tables in order to work collaboratively, even at three years old. This class, this room is the children’s space . . . let them feel that way. Being selfless is probably most important when setting up this beautiful place, something I didn’t consider in my first few years of teaching, likely because I was selfishly just trying to get through the day. The most selfless act when preparing the room is to include the children in every decision you make, the shelf you move, or the picture you hang. We all gained a true appreciation of beauty and of the prepared environment in our training. Don’t we all feel that our training, and our trainers for that matter, were the very best? Sure we do. Mine actually was the best. Hildgard Solzbacher, AMI trainer extraordinaire. I remember her as the embodiment of elegance and excellence. Hildegard said, “We want to make sure children go into the world with a peaceful heart, but also with a sense of responsibility — not only for themselves but for others. When a little one walks into a Montessori environment who has never been here, he looks around — and it really is like a cultural walk — learning everything that you need for your life.” For three summers those words sunk deep inside my soul. And when I completed the training I had visions of the perfect place I was to create. I was a new teacher pioneering a new All Year Montessori program with thirty-two children awaiting me. That didn’t scare me. I had grand ideas. I was ready for them! I was silly. Twenty years ago, I didn’t realize that this environment was not attainable overnight. It was not a matter of arranging a few shelves or hanging a print or two. This was to be a labor of love. Much like a Henri Matisse “Cut-Out”, this space is a piece of art that requires time and layers of texture, color, and complexity. The work of creating such a masterpiece runs deep with organization and beauty at the forefront.
The Montessori-prepared environment exhibits reverence for the child and the beauty and order crucial for him to work at his natural, individual, and optimal level. If I motivate you, you as creators of spaces for children who will save the world, if I motivate you to do anything hopefully it will be to go back to your environments with fresh eyes. Not just a new way of thinking about the physical environment, but also for the way you help children to see the beauty within themselves and in each other. Don’t we need this now more than ever? “You must be the change you want to see in the world”, said Gandhi. Bringing beauty to each child I have the privilege of sharing a space with is one small way of contributing to this unbelievably important responsibility of ours.
At any level, the children’s space should be attractive, inviting, and thoughtfully arranged. This space personifies each element of Dr. Montessori’s revolutionary approach. Natural lighting, soft tones, and orderly spaces set the scene for an activity that is concentrated and serene. The material, whether it be stringing beads, the pink tower, or square root pegboard is displayed on accessible shelves, encouraging independence as students go about their work. Everything is where it is supposed to be, conveying a sense of harmony and order that both comforts and motivates. Finding joy in learning comes naturally in an environment such as this. Who wouldn’t feel good here? Who wouldn’t feel at home in a place such as this? You might see this as a daunting task. If you don’t fancy yourself a creative person, that’s all right. When I’m not feeling particularly creative I like to refer to the children’s book ISH by Peter H. Reynolds. I tend to read it when I am feeling stuck and need to be set free. It’s also a book that I read to my children often when they aren’t feeling particularly creative or inspired. It’s a story about a boy named Ramon. His carefree sketches quickly turn into joyless struggles after a negative comment from his older brother. Luckily for Ramon, his little sister sees the world differently. She opens his eyes to something a lot more valuable than getting things just “right.” He ultimately learns that thinking “ish-ly” is far more wonderful than getting it right. In the end, Ramon walks away feeling light and energized. You should walk into your environments every day feeling light and energized . . . and most of all . . . “ISH”.
Many of us function best and are most productive in a space that is prepared. Just as we do, children require a space prepared especially for them. I am a baker. Not professional, I have a day job. However, I bake for several reasons. Baking helps me to find inner peace; it makes others happy. I love to create things, and for goodness sake, I love to eat sweets! Before I get started, I organize, I arrange, and I set- up. This brings comfort to the activity. Imagine baking a cake and having to collect each ingredient, but they are just out of your reach. How very frustrating this would be, and likely this would make you throw in the towel. I certainly would. The design and flow of our classrooms create a learning environment that accommodates independence, choice, and most of all comfort. When setting up my own classroom years ago I often referred to Montessori’s Six Principles of the Prepared Environment; Freedom, Structure and Order, Beauty, Nature and Reality, Social Environment, and Intellectual Environment. Beauty dwells in each of these principles.
In our prepared environment, we must provide freedom of movement, exploration, and social interaction. At the same time, we must protect the child’s wish to be left alone. I believe we often forget about this important implementation when setting up our environments. I found it was especially necessary for my own All Year class. In any class, whether it’s half-day or full-day, you should be offering the children spaces that encourage self-reflection and time to find that inner beauty as well. My All Year class offers families a place to leave their children for up to ten hours a day. Private areas are essential in order to maintain peace but more importantly, they provide comfort. We know that comfort often helps us to be happier, and when we are happy we tend to be more productive. Don’t minimize the importance of your environmental set-ups. By creating a thoughtful and comfortable work environment, you are offering the children limitless possibilities.
Structure and order
Our prepared environments should provide structure and order and also be beautiful, inviting, simple, and well-maintained. This is easier said than done. When do we have time for all of this? How many more hours in the day would we need to fulfill these crucial elements? Isn’t there already so much on our professional to-do lists? Let me help you with this predicament. Reinvent your environment so that the children are actually responsible for the class. I know we want this for our children. Actually, implement it! Empower them to be RESPONSIBLE for the class, the materials, their small community, and each other. There is likely still so much that we are doing for the children that they are perfectly capable of doing independently. Fresh from the training, it was my daily goal to have the class “ready” for each child’s arrival. This made perfect sense to me. This is indeed what Dr. Montessori wanted . . . or was it? As time progressed in my new All-Year program I realized that the children couldn’t actually take ownership of their new class because much of the preparation was done before they even arrived. Needless to say, my assistant and I were also exhausted because we were taking on even more time to an already long day. Eventually, with lessons, guidance, and patience and with structure and order there came a true sense of responsibility. Now, the children independently ready the class every morning with very little adult facilitation or interaction. Certainly, this is a point of arrival but a goal that every class should be striving towards.
The children are also perfectly capable of being responsible for each other. An example of this was how I was handling naptime. I would gather the little ones, settle them into their cots, and tuck them in each and every day. The routine was very dependent on me. I finally stepped back and also remembered a quote I had once read from The Montessori Method, “The teacher’s task is first to nourish and assist, to watch, encourage, guide, induce, rather than to interfere, prescribe, or restrict.” There was no question that I was interfering during naptime. I was stripping the children of an opportunity and of freedom. Again, after many hours, days, and weeks of lessons given by myself, the oldest children of my class have taken on full ownership of putting down the youngest children for a nap. They tuck the child in, read a book or sing a song. They may even rub a child’s back before leaving them to drift off to sleep. It has become a time of the day that used to feel stressful and hurried, but now it is a peaceful transition at a time the youngest of our class needs it the most.
It has been a challenge for me to become inspired by nature living in Chicago. This is where creativity helps. Make use of what you have when you have it. Do all you can with the time you have outdoors even if it is a short window of opportunity. We know that nature inspires children and natural materials are essential elements in our environments. So, make each activity come alive by incorporating textures and colors that surround us in our world. It is our responsibility to bring this outside world to the children within our small communities. In a time of developed technology, we should connect our children and ourselves with nature more closely than ever before. Carve out a significant amount of time for them to be outdoors. Gardening, painting, woodworking, bird-feeding, sweeping, and shoveling, are just a few activities in which the children are connecting with their outdoor environment.
This is key in the tools and the objects we use in our prepared environments. They should be real so that the child is actually able to complete a task with success. There is so much now available in order to make this possible and to enable the child to be successful while working. The reality in our materials also reminds me of what often occurs when a child in my casa greets a new visitor. Adorned with designated aprons, two children approach the adult first greeting and welcoming them into AYM, their home away from home. Soon after, they appear again, this time with a menu. Tea, coffee, cocoa, cappuccino, and handmade biscotti are just a few of the choices offered to this often taken-aback visitor. The adult fully expects play food or drink to arrive after the children scurry away to prepare in the kitchen. Instead, they are delighted to be the recipient of not only a warm welcome inspired by endless grace and courtesy work but also refreshments made with love and pride.
The prepared environment is also a Social Environment. “What is social life if not the solving of social problems, behaving properly, and pursuing aims acceptable to all? [It is not] sitting side by side and hearing someone else talk…” Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind. This is what makes our spaces so unique and special, children interrelating through work and play with their peers. With this interaction, empathy, compassion, kindness, and beautiful positive character traits are learned for life. There is beauty within each child that is nurtured and brought about through our Grace and Courtesy lessons. We were taught of these lessons their importance and the impact they could make on our environments, but these lessons are particularly easy to push to the side. We don’t see them. They are not visible on our shelves. Oftentimes we don’t see the positive impact within the lesson itself. Grace and Courtesy lessons petrified me in my first few years of teaching. Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, and Language, these lessons in our albums are so meticulously mapped out for us to follow step by step. Conversely, there is so much that can go horribly wrong in a grace and courtesy lesson. When Hildegard spoke of Grace and Courtesy she made it sound so easy, so magical, and so beautiful. It is all of that. Nonetheless, she neglected to tell me that there will be times when the children will find me uninteresting, my words will come out wrong, and occasionally they might even walk away in the midst of a lesson. I urge you to persevere! I did. Make grace and courtesy a priority at all ages. Don’t stop. Let it germinate in your environment. The list of possibilities is endless and at the same time critical in maintaining beauty within your environments: observing a friend, taking a turn, greeting a visitor, making an apology, and offering comfort . . . let these lessons reign! If you make Grace and Courtesy a priority, you will begin to see beauty in a different way – beauty in every interaction.
Finally, the prepared environment is an Intellectual Environment, which is the result of the five preceding ideals (freedom, structure and order, beauty, nature and reality, and social environment). Through these standards, carefully upheld in our environments, the whole personality of the child is developed. After reexamining these principles, hopefully, you will be able to look at your environment with fresh eyes that are able to see beauty in everything, even on those particularly rough days in your classroom.
Hopefully, it leaves you feeling light and energized, able to savor all the beautiful feelings, beautiful surroundings, beautiful interactions, and beautiful people, and if nothing else hopefully feeling just a little bit “ISH”.
Have a beautiful start to your school year.