Montessori: An Intentional Environment for Intentional Learning

March 09, 2017
NAMC montessori student and teacher working in prepared environment
The teacher must not content herself with merely providing her school with an attractive environment; she must continuously think about this environment, because a large part of the result depends on it.
—Maria Montessori
Some Words of Advice to Teachers, p. 4.

The Montessori environment is specifically and intentionally prepared for the child. Everything that is placed in the classroom has a purpose. When adding a material or an item to the classroom, it is important to ask, "How does this contribute to the child’s learning?" If it does not have a specific purpose, then it probably does not belong.

Recently, there have been a lot of images posted online of classrooms decorated to look like vintage carnivals or circus environments. Bulletin boards and windows are decked out in bright banners and made to look like the “big top” tents. Red and white striped popcorn buckets are used for everything from pencil holders to bookends on library shelves.

These classrooms are bright and colorful, but they are also cluttered and distracting. The energy of bright, primary colors bounces off the walls. Every inch of space seems to be decorated with cute ‘stuff’ that screams “this is a fun place to be!” The dΓ©cor beckons the children to play rather than to work or learn.

The stimulating surroundings make it difficult for the children to focus on their work instead of on their environment.

Often, our first response to seeing a decorated classroom is “Oh, how cute!” And the creativity and work that goes into creating these spaces is impressive. But, it is important to consider the environment’s purpose and the children’s needs: “What is the purpose of the dΓ©cor? How does it fit with your expectations of learning and behavior?” Look at the classroom from a Montessori perspective and reflect on the intent of each item in the environment.

An Intentional Environment for Intentional Learning — Understanding the Montessori Prepared Environment

NAMC montessori student looking at pinecone in prepared environment
 … the first thing his education demands is the provision of an environment in which he can develop the powers given him by nature. This does not mean just to amuse him and let him do what he likes. But it does mean that we have to adjust our minds to doing a work of collaboration with nature, to being obedient to one of her laws, the law which decrees that development comes from environmental experience.
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind, p. 89.

Studies have shown that a large amount of color can be overstimulating, causing the mind to work continuously to remove the distraction and organize the visual information. Too much color, too many patterns, and excess motion can create a stressful learning environment. (Verhese, 2001) Studies suggest that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or sensory processing disorders react negatively to primary colors. Students of all ages and abilities respond favorably to less stimulating environments that have subdued, warm neutral color schemes with low wall-to-floor contrast. (Gaines & Curry, 2011)

The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind, p. 84.

The carefully prepared and intentional Montessori environment goes beyond color and clutter.

The materials themselves purposefully lead the child from concrete understanding to abstract thinking. Made from natural substances, the materials also help the children make connections with the natural world. Materials should be in perfect working order and intact. If they have missing or broken pieces, the materials should be removed from the shelves until they are repaired or replaced. And they should always be returned to their proper place so that the child may find them without struggle.

But in our specially prepared environments we see them all at once fix themselves upon some task, and then their excited fantasies and their restless movements disappear altogether; a calm, serene child, attached to reality, begins to work out his elevation through work. Normalisation has been achieved.
—Maria Montessori
The Secret of Childhood, p.162.

Preparing the Montessori environment goes beyond placing materials on the shelves. Every object in the Montessori environment is chosen intentionally, with its direct and indirect purpose in mind.

The intentionally prepared environment satisfies the needs of the child while removing distractions that may act as an obstacle to his learning.

Works Cited
Epstein, Ann S. The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the Best Strategies for Young Children, rev. ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2014.
Gaines, Kristi. S. and Zane D. Curry. “The inclusive classroom: The effects of color on learning and behavior.” Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences Education, Spring/Summer 2011, vol. 29, no. 1, p. 46.
Verghese, Preeti. “Visual search and attention: a signal detection theory approach.” Neuron., 2001, vol. 31, p. 523–35.

— NAMC Staff
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