Bauso: Widely used terms in Montessori education | Lifestyles


“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” — Maria Montessori

Normalization, absorbent mind, sensitive periods — if you sometimes wonder whether your child’s Montessori teacher is talking about science or children, the answer is yes! There are many words we use in Montessori that are unfamiliar to people outside the Montessori community. This often leads to confusion and misunderstandings, even when discussing ideas with other educators. It’s a whole new language that can take time to digest.

Dr. Maria Montessori introduced many new terms and concepts to describe how children grow and learn. If you’re new to Montessori, it can be a little overwhelming at first, so it’s good to get an idea of what these terms mean. Here are definitions of some widely used Montessori words and phrases:

Absorbent mind: From birth through approximately age 6, the young child experiences a period of intense mental activity that allows them to “absorb” learning from their environment without conscious effort, naturally and spontaneously.

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Concrete to abstract: A logical, developmentally appropriate progression that allows the child to come to an abstract understanding of a concept by first encountering it in a concrete form, such as learning the mathematical concept of the decimal system by working with golden beads grouped into units of 10s, 100s and 1,000s.

Control of error: Montessori materials are designed so that the child receives instant feedback as they work, allowing them to recognize, correct and learn from their mistakes without adult assistance. Putting control of the activity in the child’s hands strengthens their self-esteem and self-motivation, as well as their learning.

Cosmic education: Maria Montessori urged us to give elementary-level children a “vision of the universe” to help them discover how all parts of the cosmos are interconnected and interdependent. In Montessori schools, these children, ages 6-12, begin by learning about the universe, its galaxies, our galaxy, our solar system and planet Earth — everything that came before their birth to make their life possible. As they develop respect for past events, they become aware of their own roles and responsibilities in the global society of today and tomorrow.

Didactic materials: Didactic meaning “designed or intended to teach,” these are the specially designed instructional materials — many invented by Maria Montessori — used in Montessori classrooms. They are our textbooks.

Freedom with responsibility: This idea gives children the freedom to explore various ideas and activities in the classroom, but holds them accountable for taking care of their environment and being courteous to their peers.

Grace and courtesy: Children are formally instructed in social skills they will use throughout their lives — for example, saying “please” and “thank you,” interrupting conversations politely, requesting rather than demanding assistance, and greeting guests warmly.

Normalization: A natural or “normal” developmental process marked by a love of work or activity, concentration, self-discipline and joy in accomplishment. Dr. Montessori observed that the normalization process is characteristic of human beings at any age.

Planes of development: Four distinct periods of growth, development and learning that build on each other as children and youth progress through them: ages birth-6 (the period of the “absorbent mind”), 6-12 (the period of reasoning and abstraction), 12-18 (when youth construct the “social self,” developing moral values and becoming emotionally independent) and 18-24 (when young adults construct an understanding of the self and seek to know their place in the world).

Practical life: The Montessori term that encompasses domestic work to maintain the classroom environment, self-care and personal hygiene, and grace and courtesy. Practical life skills are of great interest to young children and form the basis of later abstract learning.

Prepared environment: The teacher prepares the environment of the Montessori classroom with carefully selected, aesthetically arranged materials that are presented sequentially to meet the developmental needs of the children using the space. Well-prepared Montessori environments contain appropriately sized furniture, a full complement of Montessori materials and enough space to allow children to work in peace, alone or in small or large groups.

Sensitive period: A critical time during human development when the child is biologically ready and receptive to acquiring a specific skill or ability — such as the use of language or a sense of order — and is therefore particularly sensitive to stimuli that promote the development of that skill. A Montessori teacher prepares the environment to meet the developmental needs of each sensitive period.

Sensorial exercises: These activities develop and refine the five senses — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling — and build a foundation for speech, writing and math using sensorial materials. The exercises also bring order to the barrage of sensorial impressions the child experiences from birth onward.

Three-hour work cycle: Maria Montessori consistently observed that children had the capacity and desire to work for extended periods of time (three hours was ideal). During this time, they had the ability to focus and work freely, if they were not interrupted by the adults.

Diane Bauso

Diane Bauso

Three-period lesson: Montessori three-period lessons are used through the Montessori environment to help introduce a new concept and lead the children along a path to understanding and mastery. In the first, the introduction or naming period, the teacher demonstrates what “this is.” In the second, the association or recognition period, the teacher asks the child to “show” what was just identified. Finally, in the recall period, the teacher asks the child to name the object or area. Moving from new information to passive recall to active identification reinforces the child’s learning and demonstrates mastery.

Work: Purposeful activity. Maria Montessori observed that children learn through purposeful activities of their own choosing; Montessori schools call all the children’s’ activities “work.”

A Montessori school can feel like a world of its own. Our classrooms look different, our methods are different, and even some of our language can be a bit different. What Montessori term surprised you?

Diane M. Bauso is head of school for Creative Minds Montessori School, 169 Genesee St., Auburn. She can be reached at (315) 406-9495 or


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