The Function of the Prepared Environment

“…realizing the peculiarly absorbent nature of the child’s mind, she has prepared for him a special environment; and, then, placing the child within it, has given him the freedom to live in it, absorbing what he finds there.”

E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (p.265). 

In a week of school observations, over and over I was awestruck by what I saw. In class after class, the carefully prepared environment was working its usual magic. Children are engaged, most working independently, preparing for their day and their work in a familiar routine that guides their actions.

For those of you who know the Montessori classroom, these photos may bring a smile of recognition seeing children deep into their learning. But for those who may not, my comments will direct your attention to some key elements that may help as you prepare your own spaces.

These classrooms are in widely different school programs: small vs. large institutions; publicly vs. privately funded; one serving special needs children in a diverse inner city setting vs. two small, homogeneous rural communities where diversity is minimal; classes of all ages. Your eyes will see that in spite of these differences, the connection to purpose is present. The prepared environments are doing their jobs.

The order built into the primary classroom guides the actions of the students. In these classes, where the children absorb everything around them and assimilate those experiences into learning and understanding, the freedom to explore and follow their natural tendencies is the incentive that drives their play. 

This primary classroom is waiting for students. As you look at the various classrooms, see if you can spot the materials that are consistent across them.

Even the classrooms to be used by the older 7th and 8th grade students have an organized structure and sense of order that directs the students as they enter the classroom in the morning.

Shelves contain task cards or activities that guide the play so that thinking is piqued and ideas are generated.

Students work at tables or on the floor. This gives them freedom of movement.

Teachers and students do large work together on the floor. This gives both students and teachers the chance to manage big work that takes up lots of space.

The primary or 3-6 classroom offers areas in which the focus is one of the following: math, language, sensorial, practical life, and culture.

Students work in pairs or just sit side-by-side while doing their work.

Teachers work alongside their students, while making note of actions around the room (or outside when the snow is flying!) Materials on the shelves are open and available, inviting the students to give them a try.

There are spaces in the room that say, “Come, relax and read a book here."

This homeschool classroom has a lot of the characteristics of the school classroom, with lots of room to spread out and use the floor!

Even the older students have comfy spaces for reading. I missed the shot of the student who spent 5 minutes with the fish before he started his day.

Every one of these classrooms are spaces that draw the students into activity…activity that sparks the children’s imaginations in a way that  educate. The method of education we call Montessori is based on this belief. It changes the relationship between adult and child, teacher and student. In this transformation of roles, the exciting and carefully prepared environment is the silent partner of the adult, whose role is to sow the seeds.

“The secret of good teaching is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core.”

Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 11