What is Montessori?

Dr. Maria Montessori (1870–1952)

Born in 1870, Maria Montessori was a headstrong and smart child. She was a math prodigy and at age 12 insisted on attending a boy’s technical school to study math and science. Dr. Maria Montessori was the first woman to enroll in the University of Rome’s Medical School and became the first woman doctor in Italy.

In 1898, she began formulating her ideas while working with diagnosed mentally disabled children at the State Orthophrenic School. Her work was widely publicized when all the children passed their Italian public school examinations.

Dr. Montessori earned a second degree in anthropology in 1904 and opened her first school for children in the San Lorenzo district of Rome in 1907. There she continued her work designing materials to meet the develop­mental needs of children. Dr. Montessori observed that all children learn best through their senses, by doing, and at their own pace. She continued to observe children around the world and found that the principles of development she had recognized are common to children of all races and cultures. Soon her “Children’s Houses (Casa Dei Bambini)” became model classrooms, full of joyful and engaged learners.

The Montessori approach to education continues to be respected and practiced internationally.

Dr. Montessori was a visionary and a humanitarian. Her work was an inspiration to Jean Piaget and Erik Erickson, and she was a friend and collaborator with Thomas Edison and Gandhi. She has been honored by the Italian government and has her face on the 1000 lire note—which all NNM graduates receive to remind them of Montessori's contribution to their lives.

Montessori schools and training courses for teachers exist on every continent. Trained Montessorians are distinguished by their commitment to the philosophical principles of Montessori education, which maximizes the child's individual potential in a socially cooperative atmosphere.

Montessori at Near North

Our school was founded on this educational philosophy developed 100 years ago by Dr. Maria Montessori. Through a scientific approach, she developed a method based on human development from birth to maturity – a unique combination of philosophy, psychology, educational theory, materials and methods. Today, Dr. Montessori’s approach is more relevant than ever. A Montessori education develops the whole child to become an engaged learner and thinker for life. Taking our lead from Dr. Montessori, we believe independent thinking, self-sufficiency and creative problem solving will prepare our students for the complicated, demanding world ahead.

Our academically challenging curriculum, our learning materials, our classrooms and our community are all designed to meet the needs of the whole child, presenting purposeful work for the head and the hand, as well as a preparation for life as a citizen in a dynamic, complex world.

Near North Montessori believes in and bases its practices on the following ideas:

  • Education nurtures the intellectual, physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual needs of children – so that every member of the human race can make a positive contribution to the world and work toward human solidarity, social progress, and peace.
  • Education is not limited solely to the academic curriculum; it includes the development of essential attributes such as curiosity, empathy, creativity, self-discipline, independence, responsibility, leadership, and civility.
  • All children deserve the best possible conditions at every stage of their development.
  • All children should be free to develop creative and flexible minds, easily adapted to the complexities of human society.
  • All children can demonstrate discipline as well as joyful, tireless, and focused work.

These ideas are at the core of all we do as we educate children to reach their inherent potential.

Montessori in the News


Montessori Terminology

Montessori is not a foreign language, but Near North Montessori (NNM) uses a few specific terms in our curriculum and community. Here’s a primer on Montessori-specific terminology.

Absorbent mind: A mind able to absorb knowledge quickly and effortlessly. Montessori said the child from birth to six years has an “absorbent mind.”

Academic Director: The department head overseeing the teachers and programs for each of NNM levels (primary, elementary, junior high).

AMI: Association Montessori International. An international accrediting agency for Montessori teachers and schools, through which NNM is accredited. AMI, headquartered in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, is the oldest, worldwide organization to champion the Montessori method. Many of NNM’s teachers complete the AMI certification program for training to be a lead Montessori teacher.

AMS: American Montessori Society. A national accrediting agency for Montessori teachers and schools, through which NNM is accredited. AMS provides resources for schools, teachers, and parents on Montessori philosophy, lessons, and news. Some of our primary teachers are AMS-certified. All of NNM lead teachers are either AMS or AMI certified.

Children’s House: The English name for Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini [Italian]. A place for children from 3-6 years to live and grow. Everything necessary for optimal human development is included in a safe and secure environment.

Classification: Sorting. Allocating or distributing according to common characteristics. The young child engages in classification activities because the process is essential for the construction of the intellect. The Montessori classroom offers many opportunities for classification.

Community Song: A musical mission statement for NNM, often sung in 0-6 classrooms before snack and meal times.. Lyrics: “Look around and you will see community, a family, we are brothers, sisters all.”

Concentration: The act of concentrating. The young child focuses his or her attention on aspects of the environment essential for development. From a Montessori perspective, concentration is the consistent activity with great focus on a single work–an exercise on some external object, where the movements of the hands are guided by the mind. Deep engagement.

Concrete to abstract: A progression both logical and developmentally appropriate. The child is introduced first to a concrete material that embodies an abstract idea such as size or color. Given hands-on experience, the child’s mind grasps the idea inherent in the material and forms an abstraction. Only as the child develops, is she gradually able to comprehend the same idea in symbolic form.

Control of error: A way of providing instant feedback. Every Montessori activity provides the child with some way of assessing his own progress. This puts the control in the hands of the learner and protects the young child’s self-esteem and self-motivation. Control of error is an essential aspect of auto-education.

Coordination of movement: One of the major accomplishments of early childhood. Through the child’s own activity, she refines her muscular coordination and consequently acquires increasingly higher levels of independent functioning. Because of this developmental need, children are drawn to activities that involve movement and especially to those that demand a certain level of exactitude and precision.

Cosmic education: Maria Montessori urged us to give elementary-level children a “vision of the universe” to help them discover how all parts of the cosmos are interconnected and interdependent. In Montessori schools, these children, ages 6–12, begin by learning about the universe, its galaxies, our galaxy, our solar system, and planet Earth—everything that came before their birth to make their life possible. As they develop respect for past events, they become aware of their own roles and responsibilities in the global society of today and tomorrow.

Creativity/imagination: Imagination involves the forming of a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses. Creativity is a product of the imagination and results from the mental recombining of imagined ideas in new and inventive ways. Both are dependent on mental images formed on through sensorial experiences.

Cycle of work/ Work period: Young children, when engaged in an activity which interests them, will repeat it many times and for no apparent reason, stopping suddenly only when the inner need which compelled the child to activity has been satisfied. To allow for the possibility of long concentrated work cycles, Montessori advocates a 3-hour uninterrupted work period.

Development of the will: The ability to will, or choose to do something with conscious intent, develops gradually during the first phase of life and is strengthened through practice. The Montessori environment offers many opportunities for the child to choose. Willpower, or self-control, results from the many little choices of daily life in a Montessori school.

Developmental Gym: A key physical education opportunity to NNM’s learning environment. Students are able to visit developmental gym to practice large-motor development and self-regulation as a part of their daily work periods.

Deviations: Behavior commonly seen in children that is the result of some obstacle to normal development. Such behavior may be commonly understood as negative (an aggressive child, a destructive child, etc.) or positive (a passive, quiet child). Both positive and negative deviations minimize once the child begins to concentrate on a piece of work freely chosen.

Flex Fridays: Experiential learning opportunities for NNM’s Junior High students. On Fridays throughout the year, 12-14 students are encouraged to identify a city cultural attraction and organize a trip to that destination, gaining first hand experience with navigating the city through public transit.

Going Outs: Class excursions or field trips for children ages 6-12. These occur throughout the school year by class or level.

Grace and courtesy: An aspect of practical life. Little lessons which demonstrate positive social behavior help the child adapt to life in a group and arm her with knowledge of socially acceptable behavior; practical information, useful both in and out of school.

Guide: Historically, the designation for the lead teacher in a Montessori classroom; some schools still refer to the lead teacher as “guide.” In Montessori education, the role of the instructor is to direct or guide individual children to purposeful activity based upon the instructor’s observation of each child’s readiness. The child develops her own knowledge through hands-on learning with didactic materials she chooses.

Harvest and Spring Breakfast/Gathering: Twice-annual morning gatherings for families of the 3-6 level. Families gather for a potluck breakfast followed by an open house in their child’s classroom. Parents are encouraged to follow their child and observe their work and role in the classroom community.

Human tendencies: A central tenet of Montessori philosophy is that human beings exhibit a predisposition towards exploration, orientation, order, abstraction, work, self-perfection, communication, and a spiritual life. These tendencies are universal, spanning age, culture, and racial barriers; they have existed since the dawn of the species and are probably evolutionary in origin. Montessori encourages and serves these tendencies.

Independence: Not depending on another. Normal development milestones such as weaning, talking, etc. can be seen as a series of events which enable the child to achieve increased individuation, autonomy, and self-regulation. Throughout the four planes of development, the child and young adult continuously seek to become more independent. Montessori’s aim is to cultivate these tendencies, serving to help a child to help herself.

ISACS: Independent Schools of the Central States is an accrediting organization of which NNM is a member. The accreditation process is completed every 7 years. NNM’s standing with ISACS is a point of pride and distinguishes the school from others in the area. ISACS’s headquarters are based in Chicago and many of our teachers take advantage of their excellent professional development opportunities.

Isolation of difficulty: Before presenting a lesson, the Montessori teacher analyzes the activity she wants to show the child. Procedures or movements that might prove troublesome are isolated and taught to the child separately. For example, holding and snipping with scissors, simple movement, is shown before cutting curved or zigzag lines; folding cloths are shown before cloth washing, an activity requiring folding. A task should neither be so hard that it is overwhelming, nor so easy that it is boring.

Indirect preparation: The way nature has of preparing the intelligence. In every action, there is a conscious interest. Through this interest, the mind is being prepared for something in the future. For example, a young child will enjoy the putting together of various triangular shapes, totally unaware that because of this work his mind will later be more accepting of geometry. Montessori’s lessons are structured to build upon one another. A child’s progression through multiple levels at Near North allows for the fruition of indirect preparation.

The Journey: A parent-education showcase of the four-curricular areas—language, math, science, sensorial—following the curriculum from the primary through junior high level. A must-experience learning opportunity for NNM parents.

Language appreciation: From the very first days in the Montessori classroom, children are given the opportunity to listen to true stories about known subjects, told with great expression. Songs, poems, and rhymes are a part of the daily life of the class. The teacher models the art of conversation and respectfully listens to her young students.

Learning explosions: Human development is often not slow and steady; acquisitions seem to arrive suddenly, almost overnight, and with explosive impact. Such learning explosions are the sudden outward manifestation of a long process of internal growth. For example, the explosion of spoken language around two years of age is the result of many months of inner preparation and mental development.

Lesson/Presentation: A guide or teacher in a Montessori environment does not teach in the traditional sense. Rather she shows the child how to use the various materials and then leaves them free to explore and experiment. This act of showing is called, a lesson or presentation. To be effective, it must be done slowly and exactly, step by step, and with a minimum of words.

Levels: Near North’s designations for classrooms corresponding with child’s age and the planes of development. Near North structures its students into the Primary level (0-6 years of age made up of parent/infant, Young Children's Community, and 3-6 classes), Elementary (6-9 years and 9-12 years), and Junior High or adolescent level (12-14 years).

Mathematical mind: All babies are born with mathematical minds, that is, they have a propensity to learn things that enhance their ability to be exact and orderly, to observe, compare, and classify. Humans naturally tend to calculate, measure, reason, abstract, imagine, and create. But this vital part of intelligence must be given help and direction for it to develop and function. If mathematics is not part of the young child’s experience, his subconscious mind will have a more difficult time accepting it at a later date.

Memory games: Sensorial games for the 3–6 child that help develop memory. A typical game: a child picks up a geometric shape from a drawer; lightly traces the shape with her fingers and then sets it back on the table. She then must carry the image of that shape in her mind as she walks across a room full of distractions and finds its match amongst a set of cards at the opposite end of the room. Games like this build visual memory, a key component of reading. Similar games can be played in other sensory modes: auditory, tactile, etc.

Mixed ages: One of the hallmarks of the Montessori method is that children of mixed ages work together in the same class. Age-groupings are based on developmental planes. Children from 3 to 6 years of age are together in the Children’s House; 6 to 9 year–olds share the lower elementary, and the upper elementary is made up of 9 to 12 year–olds. Because the work is individual, children progress at their own pace; there is cooperation rather than competition between the ages.

Montessori: The term may refer to Dr. Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori Method of education, or the method itself. Near North distinguishes itself as an accredited Montessori school by hiring trained Montessori teachers and undergoing school and curriculum reviews from nationally recognized accrediting agencies.

NAIS: National Association of Independent Schools. An organization through which NNM is accredited. An organization associated with ISACS and other regional educational associations.

NAMTA: North American Montessori Teachers Association. A Montessori training organization affiliated with AMI that provides training for teachers at the adolescent level.

Nappers: First and second year students in the 3-6 levels who stay for a full day and take mid-day naps.

Normalization: If young children are repeatedly able to experience periods of spontaneous concentration on a piece of work freely chosen, they will begin to display the characteristics of normal development; a love of work, an attachment to reality, and a love of silence and working alone. Normalized children are happier children: enthusiastic, generous, and helpful to others. They make constructive work choices and their work reflects their level of development.

Observations: Parents are encouraged to visit their child’s classroom and observe the environment and work being done during a weekday morning. Following an observation, the parent may briefly meet with their child’s teacher. Parents can schedule observations through our website, at the beginning of the school year.

Peace Keeper: A role each child is encouraged to play, characterized by the encouragement of each student to care for one another. Emphasizing ways to be an ally to the fellow members of our community.

Planes of development: Four distinct periods of growth, development, and learning that build on each other as children and youth progress through them: ages 0–6 (the period of the “absorbent mind”); 6–12 (the period of reasoning and abstraction); 12–18 (when youth construct the “social self,” developing moral values and becoming emotionally independent); and 18–24 years (when young adults construct an understanding of the self and seek to know their place in the world).

Portrait of a Graduate: A set of characteristics and expectations of our NNM graduates such as life-long learners, leaders, and socially responsible members of communities. Also, an annual parent education opportunity to hear from recent NNM graduates about their experience in high school, college, and beyond. A must-attend learning opportunity for rising junior high families.

Practical life: The Montessori term that encompasses work to maintain the home and classroom environment; self-care and personal hygiene; and grace and courtesy. One of the four areas of the Montessori prepared environment. The exercises of practical life resemble the simple work of life in the home: sweeping, dusting, washing dishes, etc. and are enjoyed by children as they recognize their value as purposeful, contributing members of the classroom community. Practical Life works develop foundational skills for later learning, such as sequencing, planning, visual tracking, concentration, self-regulation and muscle control.

Prepared environment: The Montessori classroom is an environment prepared by the adult for children. It contains all the essentials for optimal development but nothing superfluous. Attributes of a prepared environment include order and reality, beauty and simplicity. Everything is child-sized to enhance the children’s independent functioning. A trained adult and a large enough group of children of mixed ages make up a vital part of the prepared environment.

Repetition: The young child’s work is very different from the adult’s. When an adult works, he sets out to accomplish some goal and stops working when the object has been achieved. A child, however, does not work to accomplish an external goal but rather an internal one. Consequently, he will repeat an activity until the inner goal is accomplished. The unconscious urge to repeat helps the child to coordinate a movement, acquire some ability, and builds focus and concentration.

Sandwich Shoppe: Near North’s student-run farm-to-table business. Sandwich Shoppe is owned and operated by the Junior High students. While in operation, students and faculty can purchase lunch through Sandwich Shoppe. Profits are donated to local organizations selected by children or reinvested into the business.

Scope and Sequence: A document outlining the depth and breadth of NNM’s curriculum, covering the four major curricular areas and a student’s progression from primary to junior high.

Self-discipline or discipline from within: The discipline in a well-run Montessori classroom is not a result of the teacher’s control or of rewards or punishments. Its source comes from within each individual child, who can control his or her own actions and make positive choices regarding personal behavior. Self-discipline is directly related to development of the will.

Sensitive periods: Young children experience transient periods of sensibility and are intrinsically motivated or urged to activity by specific sensitivities. A child in a sensitive period is believed to exhibit spontaneous concentration when engaged in an activity that matches a particular sensitivity. For example, children in a sensitive period for order will be drawn to activities that involve ordering. They will be observed choosing such activities and becoming deeply concentrated, sometimes repeating the activity over and over, without external reward or encouragement.

Sensorial materials: The sensorial materials were created to help young children in the process of creating and organizing their intelligence. Each scientifically designed material isolates a quality found in the world such as color, size, shape, etc., and this isolation focuses the attention on this one aspect. The child, through repeated manipulation of these objects, comes to form clear ideas or abstractions. What could not be explained by words, the child learns by experience working with the sensorial materials.

Simple to complex: A principal used in the sequence of presentations in a Montessori classroom. Children are first introduced to a concept or idea in its simplest form. As they progress and become capable of making more complex connections, they are eventually able to handle information that is less isolated.

Socialization: The process by which an individual acquires the knowledge and disposition to participate as an effective member of a social group or community.

Sound games: Many children know the alphabet but have not analyzed the sounds in words nor are they aware that words are made up of separate sounds (phonemic awareness). From the age of two (or as soon as the child is speaking fluently) sound games can make them aware of the sounds in words. To aid the understanding of individual letter sounds, language lessons are presented with the sound of a letter and not the letter name.

Stay-Uppers: Third year students in the 3-6 level who do not take naps like their first and second year classmates. This is the equivalent of a kindergarten year.

Sustainability: The mindful use of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance, characterized by reducing waste and recycling. A guiding principle for NNM’s operations and learning environment. Look for separated waste receptacles throughout the school.

Three-hour work cycle: Through years of observation around the world, Montessori came to understand that children, when left in freedom, displayed a distinct work cycle that was so predictable it could even be graphed. This cycle, with two peaks and one valley, lasted approximately three hours. In Montessori schools, children have three hours of open, uninterrupted time to choose independent work, become deeply engaged, and repeat to their own satisfaction.

Three period lesson: An approach used to present a language lesson, comprised of three parts: naming, recognition, and comprehension. The first period is naming: “This is thick. This is thin.” The second period is recognition: “Give me the thick. Give me the thin.” The third period is comprehension of the word: “What is this?” In three simple steps, the entire learning process is brought into play.

Urban Farm: Students of all ages take part in outdoor experiential learning as part of NNM's urban farm, learning about botany, food production, and the plant life-cycle. Products are used in the Sandwich Shoppe. NNM families are welcomed to visit and encouraged to sign up with our Urban Farm Coordinator to check in on the animals (goats, chickens, and cats) during weekends and holidays.

Vocabulary enrichment: The young child’s vocabulary increases exponentially in the years from 3-6. To feed this natural hunger for words, vocabulary is given freely: the names of biology, geometry, geography, and so forth, can be learned as well as the names of qualities found in the sensorial materials.

Work: Purposeful activities for a child or young adult. The hands-on learning opportunities presented in a Montessori classroom. Most social scientists refer to a child’s pressure–free experimentation as “play,” although Montessori prefers to call this activity the “work” of childhood.

Writing to reading: In a Montessori environment, children usually begin writing before they can read. They are keen to create words with a box of loose letters (the moveable alphabet) or write their words with chalk or pencil. About six months later, they begin to understand what reading means, and they do so through associating it with writing.