Demystifying Montessori

Montessori schools are one of the most popular forms of alternative education found globally. In this article, I will strive to detail Maria Montessori’s philosophy and methodology.

However, this article also tells the story of how I demystified Montessori for myself in order to understand it better. To put it bluntly, this article also represents my journey from ignorance to appreciation.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story,
Photo courtesy: Nienhuis Montessori/ Teia Education & Play

Maria Montessori’s work did not feature in my formative years at all. I’ll be honest. For the first two decades of my life I genuinely thought that the word ‘Montessori’ was another word for nursery. Every time I saw it, I saw it attached to some colourful, delectable confection of a daycare or nursery – like ‘Rainbow Montessori’ or ‘Sunshine Montessori’. In my social milieu, the word ‘Montessori’ was used interchangeably with kindergarten, preschool or nursery and at the time, I never paused to discriminate between the differences.

In my third decade, I became a teacher and a parent. My teacher training program didn’t really address Montessori education and by the time I had a child (and learned that Montessori was not another name for nursery), I felt that everything that was branded ‘Montessori’ was utterly beyond my reach and forbiddingly expensive. I consigned Montessori to the back of my mind without investigating it further.

So, when did I start taking Montessori seriously and appreciating it for all that the pedagogy and – the pioneer – has achieved? Fairly recently as it happens.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story,
Photo courtesy: Nienhuis Montessori/ Teia Education & Play

In the recent past, I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a Montessori environment and I’ve just been taken aback by how well child-led learning works when it is done properly. I see that children as young as three are sitting down with learning apparatus and then – unprompted – finishing their tasks and returning them to their shelves. I’ve seen children go ‘off-task’, do their own thing and make their own decisions before returning to the activity I’ve set up. This independence and focus on child-led learning took some getting used to. Mainstream education doesn’t really allow for such independence of spirit. But believe me when I say that I am now a convert.

Who was Maria Montessori?

Maria Montessori was one of the first Italian female doctors. Training to be a doctor, as a woman, was controversial in the 19th century. The authorities asked her to work in a mental asylum for children as it was felt that women – if they were to work at all – should work with children.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story, Source: ami-montessori.org

One day, she saw the children play with bread at lunch, manipulating it into play dough. This inspired her to design specialised equipment and exercises for children to carry out without the assistance of adults.

To us, reading this in 2021, the above seems like a foregone conclusion. Maria Montessori’s belief that children are ready to learn, and can do this themselves practically in a stimulating and sensorial learning environment, has had a major influence in early years education and teacher training across the globe.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story, Source: Book Depository

However, in her time, Montessori was a revolutionary. Her methodology conflicted with mainstream learning which was the norm at the turn of the 20th century. She believed that infants and children learn naturally through interaction with their environment and that, as they develop and that there are points in time when children are particularly open to learning specific skills. As a result, she had to flee Italy because her philosophy did not find favour with Mussolini. She settled in the Netherlands where Montessori’s practice has been adopted into the country’s state school system.

What are Montessori schools?

Montessori schools allow children to develop at their own pace, with opportunities for learning through activity. Montessori opened her first school, in Rome, in 1907. Did you know that she introduced the scaled-down furniture, which we now recognise as a common feature in most primary schools?

Students in Montessori schools are encouraged to select work that captures their interest and attention. The repetition of activities is considered an integral part of the learning process. If a child expresses boredom because of the repetition, the child is considered to be ready for new material that will take them to the next level of learning. There is no prescribed timetable; children can work through all activities at their own pace.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story, Source: Canva

This self-direction, encouraged by real tasks or apparatus, is not defined as play by Montessori but rather as work geared towards acquiring practical skills.

What we understand to be Montessori ‘toys’ are not actually toys at all. They are sensory learning ‘apparatus’. To use our modern parlance, they are ‘materials’. Each apparatus or material has a specific close-ended goal in mind. To clarify further, they isolate a single focus of inquiry and focus on it alone. In schools and families where Montessori’s methods are followed, children do not play, they work.

Are toys which say that they are Montessori actually Montessori?

If you are anything like me, you have probably bought a whole host of toys for your children which claim to be ‘Montessori’. However, did you know that it is very likely that they are not? They might be lovely in many ways, they may have been Montessori-inspired but they are not necessarily Montessori just because it says so on the packaging.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story,
Photo courtesy: Nienhuis Montessori/ Teia Education & Play

In order to understand a little more about Montessori learning apparatus I spoke to Sylvia Zihna, proprietor of Teia Education and Play, a Swiss-run family company which is also the flagship distributor for Heitink International, a Dutch company specialising in high quality educational materials, in Switzerland. Heitink International brands include such recognisable names such as Nienhuis, Gonzagarredi (both of which are AMI Montessori certified), Educo, Jegro, Toys for Life and Arts & Crafts.

Sylvia taught me about the iconic Pink Tower.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story, Source: Canva

Firstly, why is it pink? It is pink because Maria Montessori determined that young children were all drawn to the colour pink. The purpose of the tower is not to teach children about colour or texture but to teach them about size and that alone. We have all seen different kinds of ‘stackers’ that are available for young children to play with. They come in all shapes, sizes, textures and colours. They are not harmful per se but they are certainly not Montessori. Montessori apparatus have one focused objective in mind. They do not conflate multiple purposes.

A further example…You know those lovely busy boards that we see all over our Instagram feeds?

Well, they are not Montessori either. In order to teach children practical skills, Montessori practitioners isolate skills and allow children to practice repeatedly. Therefore, they offer dressing frames and screwdrivers etc. Children can learn how to use tools through repetition. Montessori prefers a specific skill-focused learning apparatus rather than those which combine multiple skills together.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story,
Photo courtesy: Unsplash

To learn more about the Montessori materials and help you choose what to buy and make available to your child in your prepared environment at home, read this article on the Teia Education and Play website.

To help us all understand Montessori a little better and to make it more accessible, Teia Education & Play have offered a discount code to all readers of ‘My Swiss Story’, from all over the world!

The code is: Montessori10.

It applies a 10% discount on Nienhuis Montessori materials. The code excludes furniture and books and it does not apply to items on sale. It can be used once per user. It is valid from today until 28.2.2021. The discount is available worldwide. In addition, those in Switzerland, will also receive free shipping on orders totaling CHF 100 and above, after discount.

Demystifying Montessori, My Swiss Story,
Photo courtesy: Nienhuis Montessori/ Teia Education & Play

I hope this article has helped you to understand Maria Montessori, her pedagogy and her practice a little better.

Special acknowledgement: thank you Sylvia for all your help, hard work and input. Dear reader, all errors are my own.


Are you enjoying our content? We would love to hear your opinions in the comments sections. Stay tuned for more resources, our team is talking about – Swiss travel, expat living, mental health, nutrition, wellness, recipes, home & lifestyle and activities for children. Stay well and stay with us!

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