Alternative approaches to provision in the EYFS: Montessori practice

Sophie Craven investigates the pedagogical aspects of the Montessori approach, and what early years practitioners can learn from them

Author details

Sophie Craven is co-author of the best-selling Gifted & Talented Coordinator’s Handbook. You can contact Sophie via email.

What is the Montessori approach?

The Montessori approach was developed in 1906 by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori and has since been implemented worldwide. Graduating as Italy's first female medical practitioner, Montessori embarked on a career in the field of mental health. Working with children labelled then as ‘educationally subnormal’, she designed specialist equipment to enable children to learn through movement – the results she achieved were described as remarkable. Montessori then developed her approach over time, carefully observing children and tailoring her equipment and resources to meet their specific and individual development needs.

The Montessori approach is based on a philosophy, a set of values and a way of thinking. Maria Montessori was a pioneer of child-centred education and, as such, her approach is underpinned by the values of trust and respect. The key pedagogical principles of the Montessori approach are based on a belief that:

  • Young children are driven to become independent learners through practical, hands-on and ‘everyday’ learning activities.
  • The first six years of a child's life are the most critical in terms of processing information and physical development. During this time, attitudes and learning patterns are formed.
  • Children should be encouraged to become compassionate and active life-long learners who understand and are respectful of all living things – of other people and of the natural environment.

From pedagogy to practice

True Montessori practice is typified in the following ways:

  • small and mixed-age classes
  • a focus on one-to-one learning activities to enable the assessment and recording of individual progress
  • uninterrupted free-flow work cycles with continuous access to snacks and drinks throughout the day
  • freedom to choose from a range of activities including indoor, outdoor, individual and group learning activities and play, as well as practical life skill activities and sensorial activities
  • a carefully planned, ordered and structured classroom environment providing age- and size-appropriate equipment with free access to Montessori materials
  • teachers as enablers and developers of independent learners who provide a caring and nurturing environment based on mutual respect between adults and children
  • a particular emphasis on the importance of the teaching and learning of mathematics, languages, cultural studies, art and creativity
  • less focus on developing the imagination and more on ‘real-world’ activities such as washing or cooking as opposed to role playing.

Montessori materials

In the Montessori approach materials is the term used to describe the teaching aids and activities within the classroom. Some of these are specific Montessori apparatus whilst others may be teacher made. In designing her own apparatus, Montessori first observed children, and in doing so she realised that children work better with equipment designed specifically for their height and size – for example chairs, cutlery, cooking utensils and sweeping brushes.

The Montessori approach in practice: case study

Mill Cottage Montessori School, Brighouse, West Yorkshire

Mill Cottage Montessori School is an independent school and day nursery for children aged 0-6 years. The school opened in 2005 and caters for around 70 children, both full- and part-time, split between the baby room (0-18 months),toddler room (19 months-30/36 months) and the ‘children’s house’ (30/36 months-6 years). 

Practitioners are qualified to a minimum of level 3 and there is one early years teacher and one early years professional on the staff team. In 2012/13, Mill Cottage was rated ‘outstanding’ in all areas of its provision by Ofsted and recognised as 'outstanding' by the Montessori Education Accreditation Board (MEAB) when accredited in 2013.

‘The quality of children's educational experiences is at the core of our ethos; we are tenacious in our desire to continually develop all children with the knowledge and skills that equip them for life.’ Ailsa Neville, director and principal.

Montessori apparatus

Mill Cottage Montessori School provides a wide range of educational experiences through an extensive curriculum using Montessori apparatus and based on the Montessori pedagogical principles. Here the learning environment is seen as key for the children’s development and a homely atmosphere is created to enable children to feel safe and secure. Classrooms are simple and comfortable and the Montessori apparatus is clearly displayed on shelves around the room. The apparatus provides a ‘sensorial’ approach to learning through handling and movement. For example, there are sandpaper covered letters to help children to learn the letters of the alphabet and Golden beads for counting. There are also lots of tactile jigsaws and construction puzzles including the Binomial cube and Trinomial cube. These cubes are used to introduce abstract mathematical concepts from an early age through tactile and sensorial means. 

The needs of the individual learner

A great degree of emphasis is placed on one-to-one provision and the learning needs of the individual, rather than on the group so that any new ideas, concepts or apparatus are always introduced to the individual first in order to monitor understanding and progress. Once the teacher is satisfied that the child has grasped the activity, then this can be replicated in a group setting. In this way all children and their unique differences are valued, understood and respected.

Children are observed on a daily basis with observations and progress recorded in the Child's Learning Journey portfolio. The portfolios are used as the basis for individual assessment, learning and progress, based on samples of work, anecdotes, reflections, and photographs of children's participation in activities, both inside and out. Because the early years is seen primarily as preparation for life, and not simply about 'school readiness', many observations focus on the development of real life skills such independence, decision making and confidence. Portfolios, and the observations within them, enable practitioners to understand each child – in particular their unique interests and learning styles. This knowledge forms the basis of planning for each individual child within the setting.

Free-flow play and freedom to choose

‘Our natural free flow play philosophy encourages children to become risk takers, builds their self-esteem, self-confidence and supports them in becoming motivated and interested to learn, whilst ensuring they are empowered to make excellent progress in their learning and development.’ Ailsa Neville

Daily sessions are dominated by free-flow play – these are long uninterrupted sessions of activity, with a three-hour work cycle in the morning and the same in the afternoon. During these periods, children have access to a variety of activities including painting and outdoor play, and snacks and drinks are available at all times. Group teacher-led activities, which children can opt in and out of, take place at the same time and include baking and circle time. This approach is child-led and flexible so that children can make their own choices each day. Children are encouraged to be independent and caring young people who think for themselves respect themselves, others and the environment.

The importance of practical activities

During day-to-day activities, emphasis is placed on doing and helping as children are encouraged to participate in practical life activities including sweeping, washing up, pouring their own drinks and using cooking utensils. Children learn to dress themselves using dressing frames where they can practise with zips, hooks and eyes and buckles.

The school has a number of animals including chickens and rabbits and children are encouraged to care for them, clean them, feed them and groom them. Children also participate in growing vegetables and cooking and baking activities. These activities, often disregarded by adults as menial chores, are promoted in school as key skills for developing learner confidence, independence, responsibility and respect.

Learning valuable lessons from the Montessori approach

Through the introduction of the EYFS there have no doubt been great advances in the quality of early years provision over the last decade, with more emphasis placed on the development of the ‘whole child’. In many ways, the Montessori approach to education shares the same principles as those espoused in the EYFS framework – that every child is unique, that they learn through positive relationships, in enabling environments and in different ways and at different rates.

However, there is still much that we can all learn in terms of ‘quality practice’ from the Montessori approach, as highlighted here.  The three areas in particular that all practitioners and settings in the mainstream can learn from are: 

  • focusing more on individual learning and development, progress and assessment so that all children can achieve their potential in ways appropriate to and of interest to them
  • affording children more freedom of choice and autonomy in their learning to become ‘truly’ independent and confident lifelong learners
  • offering more real-life practical and everyday activities that develop children’s core skills, values and a sense of worth and purpose.

References and resources

With thanks to Ailsa Neville, director and principal of Mill Cottage Montessori School

Last Updated: 
05 Jun 2014