Maria Montessori believed that the environment could be designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child. In her book, The Secret Of Childhood, (aff link) this is what she called the “prepared environment”. In the prepared environment, there is a variety of activities as well as a great deal of movement.
The prepared environment is designed to give every child the freedom to develop their full potential through exposure to developmentally appropriate sensorial materials. These materials range from simple to complex and from concrete to abstract, allowing each child to progress at their own pace according to their age and ability. By providing this rich learning environment, we hope to encourage every child to reach their highest potential.
Usually, the Montessori teacher serves as the preparer and communicator of the environment to the child and is responsible for maintaining the atmosphere and order of the prepared environment.
What’s the problem with the prepared environment at home?
Montessori classrooms provide an opportunity for each individual child to learn based on their own developmental needs and interests. It’s normal for children to not be interested in every lesson that’s available to them. In fact, it’s encouraged for children to choose the lessons they’re most interested in. This allows them to learn at their own pace and in their own way.
The problem therefore at home is having the right equipment that fit your child’s stage of development and needs. A classroom has the advantage of being able to have all (or at least a good percentage) of all the equipment out and available at any given time.
Given that most people don’t have the space or financiers to set up a room at home in the same way, some compromises need to be made.
It should be noted that you don’t NEED to set up your home as a replica of a Montessori classroom, your child won’t use all of the equipment in a classroom anyway.
What is the Home Prepared Environment?
The prepared environment is a key component of the Montessori philosophy. According to Dr. Montessori, the learning environment should support independent learning and exploration. This means that everything in the environment, from the furniture to the materials, should be designed to encourage children to explore and learn on their own.
Key points of the prepared environment at home
Structure and Order
The idea behind the principle of order is to help children understand the structure and order of the universe. By internalizing the order of their surroundings, children can begin to make sense of the world around them. This principle can help children feel more secure and confident as they explore their environment and learn about the world around them.
For a parent, this is important because it helps children to learn to put things away and take care of the environment they live in. These are lessons they can start with from as young as 18 months and when the environment meets their needs it is easier to teach them the work cycle.
One of the main goals of a Montessori-prepared environment is to encourage exploration and independent learning. This is achieved by giving children the freedom to move around, interact with others, and choose their own activities.
For a parent, this means allowing the child to choose what they want to do as they feel called to it. In less parent-led activities, instead, the parent observes and spends more time paying attention to what the child is currently interested in so that suitable activities can be added to the mix.
Nature and Reality
Taking children out into nature and using natural materials in the prepared environment are two ways that Dr. Montessori believed that children could be inspired by nature. Real wood, metal, bamboo, cotton, and glass are some of the materials that are used in the Montessori method, as opposed to synthetics or plastics. The materials should also be real and child-size, so the child is able to work with them independently without frustration.
At home, it is important to have steps so children can reach things in the home that can’t be adjusted, such as a sink or toilet. And to have child-sized tools such as a brush and pan or suitably sized tableware. This is easy to find these days in stores such as Ikea, Flying Tiger, Daiso and Etsy.
Montessori theorized that a cluttered environment stopped a child from feeling peaceful. Out of all the key concepts, this is the one that trips parents up.
When you see a Montessori classroom it is well-ordered and beautiful. And if set up well, easy to maintain, unlike a home which has, life happening in it too. The prepared environment isn’t just for the homeschool room, it’s for the whole home. It really is worth making the effort to declutter properly and set up the home in a more child-friendly (not the same as child-proof) home.
Montessori classrooms rarely have brightly coloured posters adorning every wall and an array of bleeping electronic toys in the corner. Start there, remove anything that isn’t beautiful and any toys that are not meeting your child’s needs.
In a classroom, it should be set up so that children can socialize in a natural way and foster the development of compassion and empathy for others. This is a bit more difficult to do at home but by introducing the concept of work mats and boundaries when you are working will help foster the social norms of society.
Once all the other key components of the prepared environment have been met then the child can be met intellectually, with the development of the personality and intellect of the child.
The Pitfalls of the prepared environment at home
Say you have prepared your home, declutters and set up the shelves and it is all beautiful and ready for your little darling but then… The magic doesn’t happen and chaos ensues. What are you doing wrong?
The majority of times this is because the child hasn’t yet been normalized. No, it doesn’t mean that your child isn’t normal, it is a term Dr Montessori coined for when a child acclimatized to the environment and it is a very important part of the process. If you are new to the concept, read the post on normalization here.
Another issue I commonly come across is that parents forget that children grow! I recommend at least once a year, taking some time to see what your child has outgrown and what might need adjusting.
One more thing that might come up, especially if your children are a bit older and you are just starting to apply Montessori. If they are resisting the new set-up, you might need to take more of a gently-does-it approach, rather than a gung-ho, everything-is-changing approach.
As you plan ahead and you start to think of new toys and equipment, it is good to know that not all Montessori-promoted toys are equal, have a read here before you buy anything.