What is Montessori? It’s not all peace tables and rain sticks.

What is Montessori? It’s not all peace tables and rain sticks.
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The stuff you’ve heard about Montessori schools is (probably) only partially true.

If you’ve heard any of the common misconceptions – like how Montessori kids just do whatever they want all day long, or how they have no structure, all they do is play without any real work or rigor – then it’s fair to see how you may think that Montessori schools are only for crazy, hippie parents. Or anti-vaxxers. (Or Kanye West.)

But my Montessori third grader would never recognize these descriptions in her daily reality.

My daughter would tell you instead about how her school day is filled with challenging work, and choices that are difficult. She would also tell you that her day is filled with fun.


In a Montessori classroom, those three things – challenging work, choices, and fun – are the basic tools for building a lifelong learner, a better citizen, and a capable adult.

The basic premise behind the Montessori education philosophy is that humans are naturally curious, and as a result, we should educate children according to what works best in their natural phases of development.

In fact, many of the key pieces of a successful Montessori education seem less like left-field notions or untested claims, but rather, like fairly obvious statements about learning — many of which are soaring in popularity under other names.

So if this begins to sound a bit similar to the personalized learning being adopted by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, that’s because Montessori shares some similar methods, as well as a similar goal in developing the “whole child” and empowering them “to take ownership of their learning.”

The main difference, though, is that the underlying philosophy of Montessori is part of the design of the education itself – the classroom, the curriculum, the daily schedule, all of it – rather than just at the point of content delivery.


Here are a few key differences between a Montessori elementary classroom and a typical elementary classroom from our childhoods.

Students move about the room as they need to.

They must.

Students as young as four years old are taught to set their own learning goals for the day, and they’re typically working independently or in small groups. So as students finish a lesson, task, or project, they move on to the next thing; they clean up the previous work and prepare for the next.

As a result, they learn a whole lot about respecting the materials and the noise level of the classroom, as well as the physical space of other students.

So there’s certainly discipline and structure; it’s just a different kind of discipline and structure than what many people are used to seeing in schools.

Classrooms include students from more than one grade level.

In elementary school, this usually means that Pre-K and kindergarten are together, then grades 1–3, followed by grades 4–6.

It works fabulously because “their date of manufacture,” as Sir Ken Robinson so aptly puts it (06:54–07:10), is not the most important thing children have in common.

Every classroom has a peace table. And, yes, sometimes a rain stick.

It’s true that when many Montessori teachers need to signal to their students to quiet down or pay attention, that signal is the sound of a rain stick, which is admittedly about two steps away on the hippie scale from cleansing the air of the classroom with burnt sage; I’ll give you that. But in their defense, the rain stick thing totally works, and it’s a whole lot better than a screaming teacher.

And during these early, tattle-rific years (particularly kindergarten and first grade), both my daughter and I have been most thankful for the peace table, a place where students can initiate conversations with other students to confront and work out their conflicts and misunderstandings. The peace table, I have found, has also reinforced kindness, confidence, speaking up when something isn’t right, the courage to stick up for yourself, and the humility that comes with truly listening to perspectives other than your own.

Well, that, and also it’s kind of adorable to watch small children duke it out over a game of tag gone wrong, complete with a few passive-aggressive pleasantries. (Perfect practice for adulthood.)

Practical life skills are considered just as valuable as core subjects and electives.

Laundry, dishes, pouring water from a pitcher without spilling, sewing, resolving conflictall explicitly part of the Montessori curriculum for young children.

Each practical life skill builds other things as well, such as independence, fine motor skills, creativity, and how to take care of yourself and your things.

But these skills also create community since all the students are practicing ways to take care of each other and the spaces they share.

So children learn that practical life skills are not just for personal benefitthough they certainly get personal benefit from thembut they also learn that part of “practical life” is about helping each other and making things better in your corner of the world.


Everything is a lesson.

Snack time. Birthday celebrations. Gardening. Everything unfolds from the core beliefs that we learn best by doing, we’re better together, and curiosity is the best teacher.

Montessori students are encouraged to take on roles and challenges that they may not “be ready for.” But if you were completely prepared for a new thing, how new could it be? Growth requires room to grow.

And during the time when children are naturally curious little sponges of information asking endless questions and finding the simplest facts about life both shocking and cool…

“GUESS WHAT?! Did you know that our sun is actually a STAR?”

…that’s when our education system needs to envelop our children with the lessons of life without stealing the wonder from it.

Every day, my child serves her peers and is served by them. She’s part of a community.

Through classroom birthday celebrations, she’s learned that a birthday marks more than time, more than presents and cake, but that a birthday is another successful journey around the sun.

She knows where food comes from because she grows it at school, but her class garden has also taught her about nutrition, patience, the life cycle and basic anatomy of plants, and how to write and reflect about her observations.

Seeing a spark, her teachers encouraged her to seek out lessons that capitalized on the way watching a seed sprout piques excitement in a child, like magic.

My daughter came home every week for a month of kindergarten with the same drawing of a plant, labeled with its parts, colored in. I started to get annoyed. Impatient.

But then the drawing slowly changed to a leaf. Weeks later, a flower. The following year, she repeatedly colored and labeled the anatomy of a frog—one of which still hangs proudly in her bedroom.

Now in third grade, she still loves anatomy and even asked my eye doctor some pretty sophisticated questions this summer about how the parts of the eye work; who knew? I surely wouldn’t have known, and she probably wouldn’t have known either had she been told to stop doing that same plant lesson over and over.

When everything is a lesson, it’s far easier to cultivate in each individual student a sense of responsibility to seek out new challenges, to ask better questions, and to findnot to just passively listen tothe lesson to be learned… in everything.

And yes, they still do well on the state’s standardized tests.

Interested in your child attending one of CMS’ public Montessori schools? You have four elementary options — Park Road, Highland Mill, Chantilly, and Trillium Springs. And the magnet lottery usually opens for its first round of applications in December, though CMS has not yet publicized this year’s dates online. (More on this soon!)

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