montessori and the genesis of environmental design


Montessori, Environmental Education, and the Educative Context

Maria Montessori should be considered among the first "environmental educators", but not in the conventional sense.  Her concern related far more to the development of children's individual autonomy than the natural environment; however, her method was very much focused on the environment--the environment with which children are immersed day after day, the environment with which children interact, and hopefully, learn and develop.

In Montessori's view, children construct their understanding through interaction with their environment.  She believed that young children have an innate drive towards development, and that freedom within a carefully prepared environment would allow them to maximize their developmental potential while cultivating their intrinsic drives (Kramer, 1976; Standing, 1957).  Montessori observed that free choice played an important role in children’s intrinsic motivation, and that different choices resulted in different degrees of learning and engagement.  This observation led to a reformulation of the role of the teacher as an observer and director of children's innate drive toward cognitive, moral, and physical development (Montessori, 1967a).  The ultimate aim of this approach was the cultivation of children's independence and intrinsic capacities (Kramer, 1976).

Manifestations in School Practice

The prepared environment.

One of the hallmarks of the "Montessori method" is a carefully prepared learning environment.  A well-prepared environment can allow children to have free choice of activities, while helping to ensure that those choices will result in meaningful learning (Montessori, 1967a).  To Montessori, this environment is the "sum total of the objects which the child can freely choose and use as he pleases” (Montessori, 1967a, p. 63).  Montessori did not, however, overstate the importance of the environment, positioning it in a dialogical relationship to the child's own internal nature.  Thus, the environment is seen as having a powerful influence over the child's development, one that can either foster, channel, or limit that development through the provision of different experiences (Montessori, 1967a).  

Montessori saw the integral role of the body, motor skills, and sensory organs in cognitive development (Montessori, 1967a).  In order to appropriately channel children's focus, she designed a range of physical, practical, and sensorial learning materials, each isolating certain skills, and with feedback mechanisms built into them (Montessori, 1967a).  Montessori also ensured other aspects of the environment, like furniture, were proportioned in order for children to move about intelligently and develop a degree of mastery over their environment, and thus empowering them.  

The social environment, likewise, was intentionally established.  Children, while free to make choices, were taught routines and procedures for undertaking those choices, caring for materials, and respecting the learning of peers.  The notion of care was also extended to care for living things, such as classroom pets, and plants.  "When [a child] knows that animals have need of him, that little plants will dry up if he does not water them, he binds together with a new thread of love connecting today's passing moments with those of tomorrow" (Montessori, 1967a, p. 71).  In this sense, Montessori made an important connection between the learning environment, moral development, and basic understandings about nature.

Teacher, pedagogy, curriculum, and freedom.

The Montessori method frames an approach to pedagogy that positions the teacher in the background, carefully observing, supporting, and guiding children rather than instructing them.  Teachers initiate children into different activities, first demonstrating, then coaching children until they can work independently (Kramer, 1976; Montessori, 1967a).  Curriculum is conceived in an integrated manner, focusing on domains of development rather than on content to be taught.  The de-emphasis on instruction, and the nature of this “curriculum”, are related to the structured learning environment—which usually contains designated areas for different developmental domains such as sensory-motor (sensorial) activities, language activities, practical life activities, and so on (Kramer, 1976; Standing, 1957).  Rather than structuring the child's day according to a subject-based schedule, relatively large and uninterrupted blocks of time are provided for children to work on the activities that interest them. 

Montessori links this approach not only to children's development of practical and cognitive skills, but also to their moral development.  "Children learning to do things for themselves, become truly independent and free, and in so doing become morally superior to those who are treated as helpless and incapable, they become interested in their own conquests, and less interested in many small external temptations” (Montessori, 1967a, p. 59).  Whereas much of the work on the hidden curriculum views schooling as a kind of external conditioning (Jackson, 1968), Montessori takes a more intrinsic and constructive view, looking at what can be cultivated inside children through the careful structuring of their environment.  


One of the most striking features of Montessori's approach was her de-emphasis of explicit instruction, and the increased emphasis on the preparation of the environment so that free choice would result in optimal development.  This creates a situation in which the intended learning is primarily tacit in nature.  The learning is built into the materials and the rest of the environment, and is discovered by the children through increasingly sophisticated experimentation and use.  In this sense, the curriculum in the Montessori classroom is largely "hidden", and the environment is preprogrammed in order to provide children with the necessary learning experiences.  While the notion of a hidden curriculum did not gain popularity until the 1960s, and has been almost universally portrayed in a negative light, Montessori was decades ahead of the curve, and far more constructive.  Her focus on the prepared environment foreshadowed the view that the educational context is itself educative, and this perspective extended the concept of teaching to include environmental design.  It is only within the last few years that brain science has recognized the extent to which our cognitive scaffolding is built from the environment around us (see Clark, 2008).  If we believe the assertion that educational is inherently political (Freire, 1993; Shor, 1992), or that all education is environmental education (Orr, 2004), Montessori's approach challenges us to think of the many ways in which existing school environments are also programmed.  While Montessori brought a sophisticated degree of intentionality to her learning environments, few schools can claim such care. 


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Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Standing, E. M. (1957). Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Plume.