The Prepared Environment
Why is it Needed?
Children are born with certain abilities, but they don’t develop them in a void! They need a carefully prepared environment, which meets their needs at each level of development, in order to fully realize their potential.
As infants we do not learn to walk by lying in a crib, nor do we learn by an adult forcing our limbs to move beneath us. We are driven to learn to walk when our neurons start firing. We succeed when, and only when we are allowed to freely move in a place where there are objects for pulling up and standing. Nature and practice takes care of the rest!
Characteristics of the Prepared Environment
Freedom is an important component of the prepared environment. Of course this is freedom within limits. We want infants to walk, but we won’t let them experiment in dangerous places. Similarly, in a classroom setting, we want children to explore and choose, but they cannot abuse things or people as they do so, nor can they choose activities they do not understand or are not ready for. This is an important distinction since Montessori classrooms have materials which span several years.
Matching the activities to the children’s development is another primary characteristic of the prepared environment, starting with physical development. If you were to visit Montessori environments starting at infant and ending in high school, you would notice the furniture seeming to grow! It seems a simple and obvious thing to do today, but Montessori was the first educator to insist that objects and furniture be child-sized. The rationale for this was not just because she realized children didn’t function well using adult-sized things. She also realized the environment affected their emotional development.
Consider how you would feel if everything around you was two times too large. You had to climb up to sit down, or peer out windows on tiptoe or eat using giant utensils. You would not only feel awkward or like you didn’t belong, you probably would become frustrated because you had to rely on others to function – you couldn’t be independent. Small wonder children, wanting to do things by themselves, sometimes resort to tantrums!
Environments also must match children’s cognitive development. Materials and activities in each Montessori class are chosen to meet growing abilities and needs. And because children are allowed to learn at their own pace, the materials which are available go beyond their age or grade level. Montessori’s first elementary environments were separated from the pre-school classes by waist-high partitions, and she routinely allowed the children to take “academic walks” to see what interested them.
Montessori also felt it was important to provide the children with real, functional materials. Because learning occurs through their senses, they are given real dishes to wash with real soap, they prepare real food, arrange real flowers in glass vases and work in the garden with real tools. Consequently, the contributions they make to their environment and community are real, as is their self esteem. The prepared environment also addresses children’s spiritual development. Their sensitivity to nature and beauty is reflected in the Montessori environment through the use of natural materials. In addition, the environments are logically arranged and orderly.
The Role of the Adult
The final component of the prepared environment is the adult. Montessori felt that the adult’s role should be one of observant guide, someone who created the setting for children, connected them to activities, but then pulled back so as to not get in the way. She did not feel adults should so much “teach” children as they should “direct” them to materials, presenting a lesson, but then allowing them the freedom to practice, take risks, make errors and try again on their own. This is why she preferred the term director or directress to the term teacher. Adults are also responsible for providing children with large blocks of time during which they can work, uninterrupted. Even in 1907 Montessori mentioned how the adult world, with its machines, fast pace and interruptions was unsuitable for the child!
By building schools or Children’s Houses, the adult also creates a tiny community in which the children can develop their social life. Visitors to Montessori preschools, seeing how independent the children are, sometimes think this means they aren’t developing their social side. Montessori comments:
“What is social life if not the solving of social problems, behaving properly and pursuing aims acceptable to all? To [others] social life consists in sitting side by side and hearing someone else talk: but that is just the opposite. The only social life that children get in the ordinary schools is during playtime or on excursions. Ours life always in an active community.”