Visiting Montessori: Part 1

As part of a professional development day, our art department took part in site visits to other schools to get a wide variety of ideas on ways to change and improve our own art curriculum.  We divided and conquered- Meaning we split our visits and then came back together to share what we saw.

I was lucky to be able to visit a Montessori school, ages 4-11.  Talk about something different! I was especially interested, because we study Reggio Schools in the class “Rethinking Kindergarten” so I wanted to get an idea of the differences in approach between the two, and watch little ones use their own creativity in new ways.

Part 1: Visiting Montessori

Background and Observations

Upon our visit, we learned a little more about the background of how the Montessori schools started.  Maria Montessori started the schools in Rome, Italy.  Her previous experience with working with special needs kids, and a science background, led her to believe that students worked best with hands on activities, and that young students, if learning in natural ways, need no external motivation, for they are naturally curious and motivated given certain conditions.  There were three elements to learning: The learner, the prepared environment and the trained adult.

The Montessori Environment

  • The Montessori environment is very aesthetically pleasing.  Materials are all placed on very low shelving and are clutter free.
  • There are no teacher materials in the room at all. (ie filing systems, book storage, and not even a teacher desk.)
  • Students are in multiple age groups, for example, all 3-6 year olds share a class and room. The teacher stays with the students for all 3 years.
  • Materials are “real”- Real wood, real dishes, items from everyday life, which teaches students to respect materials.
  • Class sizes are small.  The 3-6 year olds had 10-12 in a class, one teacher and an assistant.
  • The upper ages 7-11 had only 5 students and one teacher! Imagine that!
Look at the shelf. This is an example of a math shelf. Students will have learned some of the activities on the shelf, and can only use those. The work gets increasingly harder as you move along the shelf. Students can move on to a new lesson once they have mastered the previous lesson.

The Instruction

We were able to observe the morning’s 3 hour block. Students in Montessori are given a 3 hour block of uninterrupted work time (anyone drooling?). This helps them to not have interrupted work flow and builds stamina and discipline.  (Because we know stamina and ADHD are a problem with our students thanks to many things, including quick moving video games, right!)

Students work through activities during this 3 hour block. They choose the activities they want to do, but can only work on something they’ve already had a “lesson” on.  They work in a specific order on the shelf.

There are no specific time allotments. No “math time” or “reading time” – All activities spiral and connect to one another to cover all the disciplines.

Teacher’s Role

  • Interacts with students 1:1 while they are working on their chosen activities. The teacher formatively assesses the students and makes notations to document the student learning, asking questions for clarification.
  • The teacher will teach a new lesson to the student as they need it, 1:1
  • The teacher may need to “lure” a student to a new activity to encourage a variety of learning experiences, but for the most part, lets the student guide his or her own learning.
Parent’s Role
  • The parents seemed very involved at the Montessori school. The school had viewing windows so parents could come in and observe the students anytime!  I like this open relationship they had between parent and student and school.
Ah Ha Moments:
Here are some of my “Ah Ha” moments or things I won’t forget after visiting this school.
  • They do not introduce technology until 4th grade. Is this a mistake or a blessing?
  • Montessori starts teaching cursive at the age of 3.
  • Students were encouraged to take responsibility for their own actions. They must “restore” their own work environments by cleaning them up themselves.
  • Students worked on small rugs when pulling a floor activity from the shelf.  (see photo above).  The activity stays on the rug, and no other student is allowed to get into your space on the rug. It’s your time to explore. Students rolled up the rugs when they “restored” their activity before going on to the next one.
  • Structures are explicitly taught. It’s the most structure I’ve ever seen in a classroom as well as the most freedom I’ve ever seen in a classroom.
  • Students ate lunch all together. They used cloth napkins and real glasses. The school is a community. The teachers eat with the students.
One of the main things I noticed while visiting the school is the atmosphere. It was SO much more laid back then the chaos I feel my art room exudes. Quiet music was playing, most students were engaged (Of course there were a few stragglers who wandered and had a tough time choosing an activity). The smaller class sizes seemed so manageable. Students were not always shouting out for the teacher. Students were so independent. The teacher spent very little time prepping and cleaning, because students  took care of this in learning responsibility.
That’s a lot to take in- I hope you have gotten a feel for what a Montessori school looks like. I know for me, this was all new learning, and I am excited to share it with you.
Stay Tuned!  In Part 2 : Visiting Montessori, I will explore how we can connect the structures and leanings of Montessori to the art room and go deeper into some of the materials I observed students using, that I think you might like to try.
What questions do you have for me about the visit? 

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • there are so many things i like about this – the real wood, napkins, glasses, the small size, the space for each kid to have their own little rug. ideal. as a public school teacher and parent of public school children, the main thing that comes to mind is… how much does this COST? i so wish public schools were funded to be able to have such luxuries. i consider myself lucky as a teacher – a beautiful art room and plenty of supplies – but class sizes are growing out of control and school lunches are just horrendous. i wish all kids could experience this type of setting you are sharing with us.

    • Jessica

      I am glad you identified with parts of the Montessori school! The directors shared with me the weekly tuition is comparable to a week’s worth of childcare.

  • You’ve explained many of the concepts of a Montessori classroom very well, and clearly you were lucky enough to be visiting a Montessori school that adheres to most of the traditional Montessori theories.

    I would like to mention though that a traditional Montessori classroom would actually have 25-30 children with only 1 trained Montessori Teacher/Guide. There would typically be a fairly equal split between 3, 4, and 5 year olds. Each child spends 3 years in the same class, so you only ever begin each school year with 8-10 new children (everyone else is returning for their second or third year in the classroom). This is 1 of the reasons that such a large number (25-30) of young children are able to function so well together without total chaos. The younger children are guided by the older experienced children, and have the ability to observe all of the lessons that take place in the classroom – without being told they’re too young to watch or learn.

    It’s the government that has stepped in to make the student/teacher ratios lower for young children in Montessori schools (the much older schools are grandfathered into the old system and are able to bypass the new ratios). Here in Canada, Children and Youth Services requires the ratio for children ages 3-6 to be 1 adult per 8 children. It means that there must be 3 trained adults in a classroom of 24 children. Believe it or not, it’s far too much adult interference and hinders the children’s ability to function independently.

    It is very unfortunate that most Montessori schools are private and therefore expensive. But, there are many Montessori concepts and theories that can be applied in any learning environment (including the home) that will benefit the children greatly. It’s wonderful to see teachers exploring other educational methods and trying to implement them in their classrooms!!

    Best of luck, and I look forward to reading the second part of your post.

    Jennifer De Sousa
    Montessori Print Shop

    • jess

      Thank you for taking the time to make a detailed comment, I appreciate your knowledge and expertise. I am learning more and more as I go along, and no doubt there are hiccups, as with any system. There is one public Montessori school in our city, too. I am anxious to find out the differences. I visited your site- What a great resource. I will revisit again soon

  • Kellie Determan

    Thanks Jess for the wonderful insight. I have wanted a better understanding of the Montessori structure and now I have one. The structure you have outlined makes me think about how this could be part of an art classroom in a public school. Though some of what is part of the Montessori might not be possible, I do see the parallels to the TAB curriculum found at This is a growing community of professionals with much to offer art teachers from all over. They may be worth some exploring. I would like to know what your thoughts are if you do some investigating after your Montessori experience.

    Personally, I am not yet a tenured teacher in my district and feel as though I must continue to provide a classroom structure that is aligned with my co-workers. I appreciate the structure in place and yet I could envision how differently art could be taught and the benefits derived from it.

    Thanks again for the insightful post!

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