What is Montessori?

Girl playing with dolls in front of dollhouse

Maybe you’ve driven by a preschool with “Montessori” proudly displayed on the sign. Or maybe aesthetic pictures of low, open shelves with simple wooden toys have started to fill your Instagram feed. Or maybe your mom friends are throwing around terms like “sandpaper letters” and “maximum effort.” However you first come across the Montessori method, it can feel equal parts overwhelming and confusing and enticing and attractive. We’re here to help make sense of the basics of Montessori, so you can get your bearings and decide which parts of the Montessori method might be right for your family.

Who was Maria Montessori?

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educator who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. After graduating medical school, she became intensely interested in education and pedagogy. She opened her first school for underprivileged children in the impoverished areas of Rome in 1907. The results were astounding – the children learned, progressed, and thrived. It wasn’t long before her method of education drew attention, and Montessori schools began opening across Western Europe and the U.S. within just a few years.

The absorbent mind

Montessori believed that children under 6 have an “absorbent mind,” learning and soaking in information effortlessly. During this stage, children develop language, are driven to explore, and learn from the environment around them. Her method takes advantage of this stage by presenting those “absorbent minds” with opportunities to direct their own learning.

The prepared environment

An absorbent mind + a prepared environment = child-led learning as kids explore the work available to them in their environment. Montessori classrooms are filled with “Montessori materials,” different manipulatives that lead children to solve puzzles, increase problem-solving skills, develop fine-motor skills, and learn academic subjects like math, reading, geography, and more. Some popular Montessori-inspired materials for babies and young toddlers include:

  • object permanent boxes where children drop a coin into a slot and eventually learn to retrieve it by opening a drawer
  • ball droppers where children drop small wooden balls into a toy and watch it slide down levels of ramps, teaching them cause and effect
  • the wooden egg-in-a-cup or peg-in-a-cup puzzle for babies
  • simple puzzles with one to three shapes
  • sorting and stacking toys

For older, school age and preschool age children materials might include:

  • sandpaper letters for teaching the alphabet through sensory experience
  • a “moveable alphabet” of wooden letters for early practice in spelling and forming words
  • puzzles of the continents or countries
  • manipulatives for teaching counting and other math concepts
  • tracing boards or sand trays to trace letters

You’ll also find plenty of “practical life” materials in a Montessori classroom such as child-size cleaning supplies, child-size water pitcher and cups, or low sinks to enable independent hand-washing.

Maria Montessori believed that children have an innate appreciation for beauty that should be cultivated and that learning happens best in organized, clutter-free environments. Therefore, Montessori classrooms are usually organized and aesthetic. The toys and materials themselves are usually wooden, beautiful, high-quality and are presented to the children on low, open shelving. The strikingly simple-yet-beautiful aesthetic of Montessori classrooms and homes make for eye-catching social media posts and is likely at least part of the reason Montessori has had a resurgence in popularity recently.

The prepared adult

Montessori teachers, known as “guides,” are trained in specific methods that allow children to lead their own learning. They are taught to observe the children closely to understand their interests and abilities. They present lessons to the children individually or in small groups when the child shows an interest in a particular subject or material. Above all, they begin from a place of deep respect for the child and their innate ability to learn.

Freedom of choice

As we’ve already mentioned, children direct their own learning in a Montessori classroom and can choose which materials they want to work with. By letting children explore their own interests, the Montessori method aims to inspire a true love of learning instead of rote memorization for a test. But don’t think that “freedom of choice” means “license to go crazy” – Montessori classrooms and homes still have limits and expectations, and in general, they cultivate a calm environment that lets children focus and explore.


One of Maria Montessori’s most quoted lines is “Never help a child with a task at which he believes he can succeed.” Montessori was all about teaching young children to be as independent as possible, and from a surprisingly young age, children in a Montessori environment learn to get dressed, practice personal hygiene, prepare food, and care for the home and the classroom. One way Montessori environments foster this independence is by offering child-sized furniture and tools. In a typical Montessori classroom, you’ll see a wide array of pint-sized objects, including tiny tables, chairs, cleaning supplies, water pitchers, and more.

Learning from peers

Montessori classrooms have mixed ages, allowing younger kids to learn from the older kids and the older kids to learn as they teach the younger. Typically, classes are divided into 3-6 year olds, 6-9 year olds, and 9-12 year olds.

What about Montessori for parents?

Now that you’ve got an idea of what a Montessori school is like, you might be wondering, “Why are so many parents crazy about Montessori too?” Because the Montessori method is meant to help the whole child flourish (as opposed to simply teaching them academic subjects), many aspects of Montessori transfer to home life as well. In fact, Maria Montessori wrote pretty extensively about the ideal environment for a child at home, even down to the type of bed a baby sleeps in. (Spoiler: it’s a floor bed… to foster freedom of movement and independence, of course.)

So when a parent says that they are a “Montessori” family, they could mean that they are homeschooling their children and using Montessori materials and methodologies. But they could also mean that they are parenting with Montessori philosophies in mind. They might set up their home with child-sized furniture, provide Montessori-inspired toys, and encourage independence in self-care and practical life activities. For a deeper dive into how parents can implement Montessori, we recommend the “Montessori at Home” Youtube series from Montessori parent and educator Ashley Yeh.

Further Resources

Feeling inspired to dive into all things Montessori? The amount of resources available online can be overwhelming, so we’ve compiled a few below that are all great places to start. All are written or created by long-time trained Montessori guides and parents.

Youtube channels:

Hapa Family, Ashley Yeh


The Montessori Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Nurturing Your Baby with Love, Respect, and Understanding, Simone Davies and Junnifa Uzodike

The Montessori Toddler: A Parent’s Guide to Raising a Curious and Responsible Human Being, Simone Davies

How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way, Tim Seldin


The Kavanaugh Report, Nicole Kavanaugh

Guide & Grow, Sylvia Arotin


The Montessori Notebook, Simone Davies

Shelf Help, Nicole Kavanaugh and Amy Dorsch