Montessori Today, Chapter 5: The Classroom Environment

May 17, 2017
namc montessori today chapter 5 classroom environment. smiling girl in front of ocean
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.

On my first day as a Montessori teacher, I entered the classroom with a plan already made. I had the whole first day meticulously thought out, down to the minute. The students and I would gather in a circle and get to know one another. We would tour the room and the shelves, eat snack together, and establish our classroom rules. We would also learn proper procedures for using materials, going to the bathroom, and so on. I did not foresee any real work happening for the first few days. Imagine my surprise, when, after greeting the last pupil, I entered the classroom to see 32 lower elementary students at work! Even the students who were new to Montessori had paired up with someone, and they all had mats unrolled with materials on them. They had not waited for instruction from me before they started their learning. It was if they could not wait one more minute to get started.

This is the purpose of the Montessori prepared environment. In the conventional classroom, “the teacher teaches everything.” (Lillard, p. 77) In Montessori, students learn by interacting with the environment, in which the teacher is but a part. (Lillard, p. 78) The design of the Montessori environment is purposeful, and it is carefully prepared to meet the needs of the students. Based on the observations of Dr. Montessori, the environment is uniquely tailored for each plane of development.

The Montessori Elementary Environment

Before discussing what is unique about the Montessori elementary environment, let’s consider some characteristic similarities between the Montessori elementary environment and the early childhood environment. In both environments, you will see:

  • neutral, calm colors.
  • natural or white open shelving.
  • everything within reach of the child.
  • materials arranged on shelves by subject, organized from concrete to abstract (simple to complex), moving from the top left to the bottom right, following the same movement we use for reading and writing.
  • beautiful, natural materials that are child-size and that concretely demonstrate abstract concepts.
  • materials with a built-in control of error.
  • single sets of each material, giving a sense of importance to each material. Not having duplicate sets also teaches the students self-discipline and empathy.

So, what is different in the Montessori elementary environment? To satisfy the needs of older children, the elementary environment incorporates features that appeal to the imaginative, social, and increasingly abstract thought capabilities of the second plane of development.

namc montessori today chapter 5 classroom environment. group of students and teacher working

Social Environment

Think of the elementary classroom environment as a “workplace.” (Lillard, p. 79) Sometimes it is quiet; sometimes it is not. Everywhere you look people are busy. Some work at a fast and furious pace. Some work slower, more methodically. Some plan ahead and some barely have a plan. Some finish everything and look for more to do, and some do just enough to get by. Some like to hang out at the snack table, and some forget to do their dishes. Some are social and like to work with others. Some are perfectly comfortable working alone. Some are helpers; some are doers; some are watchers; some are followers; and some are leaders. And even without a clock, everyone always knows when it is time for lunch.

This is not the silent, absorbed 3–6 environment. The elementary environment is not as orderly; it is a little noisier, and it gets a little messy during the course of the day. The sensitive period for precision and order is over.

Journals have missing pages; backpacks are full of crumpled paper; cubbies are in disarray. It becomes even more important then, that the environment be put back in order at the end of the day. Maintaining the environment becomes an advanced practical life skill in the elementary classroom. At the end of the day, we straighten, we tidy, we return that which we removed. This maintenance is the students’ responsibility, with the teacher acting as guide and role model.

namc montessori today chapter 5 classroom environment. child writing numbers

Abstract Thought

If the first plane of development is one of repetition, the second plane is one of variety. By design, the Montessori elementary environment has fewer materials than the early childhood environment. This is not to say that the materials are not as important; it is just that older children use the materials differently. Elementary students progress more quickly from concrete to abstract thought without needing a lot of repetition with the same material. They move away from repeating the same activity over and over again, to testing the same principal using a variety of materials, with each material progressively providing the students with a more abstract understanding, until they do not need to use materials at all.


In the early childhood environment, everything we do is grounded in concrete reality. In the elementary environment, this reality gives way to contextual, imaginative storytelling. We ask the children to imagine the dawn of the universe and the great Timeline of Life. We can arouse their interest in complex mathematics by telling them the story of the three kings when presenting abstract cubing materials. We may ask them to imagine the circulatory system of the human body as a great river. Because of their immense power of imagination and their propensity for abstract thought, students’ are able to imagine the complexities of life. They can then work with concrete materials to scientifically prove what they have imagined.

By preparing the environment to meet and follow the needs of students, we are able to lead them to greater understanding. Working in an interesting and engaging environment motivates their learning.

Students seek a deeper understanding and appreciation when they are left to explore and learn on their own than when their learning must be fabricated from textbook or standardized curriculum. As Dr. Montessori said, “One thing has been well established in our experience, that facts are of less interest to the [elementary] child than the way those facts are discovered.” (Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 52)

Works Cited
Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Childhood. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.
Montessori, Maria. To Educate the Human Potential. England: MPG Books Limited, 1989 (first published in 1947).

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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