Q. How are Montessori programs different from other preschools?
A. The main difference is that in a Montessori classroom, your child is part of a group of 3- to 6-year-olds, and stays with the same teachers for two or three years. The aim is to form family-like communities in which children choose activities at their own pace, and older kids gain confidence by helping teach younger ones, says Mimi Basso, director of school consultation and accreditation at the American Montessori Society (AMS). Classes tend to be on the large side, often with two teachers and 20 children. Like many other preschools, Montessori classes have circle time, but kids spend more time working independently or in small groups.
A Montessori classroom also looks a little different: It's divided into distinct sections that reflect the Montessori curriculum. One area emphasizes practical skills, like pouring water or threading laces. The sensory learning area features objects like graduated blocks, bells, and spheres; as kids play with them, they pick up concepts like big and small, loud and soft, and so on. Other sections of the room may be devoted to art, language, math, and music, all with hands-on materials for kids to explore. Montessori preschoolers often learn to read, write, and do simple math, but since children only choose activities they're interested in, a child who's not ready for reading or math isn't forced to try it.
However, keep in mind that Montessori schools -- and there are more than 3,000 in the U.S. -- are as different from one another as they are similar, so it's important for you to visit and get a feel for the individual school, just as you would with any other preschool. When you visit, ask about accreditation; three national groups offer it. A school affiliated with AMS, for instance, will have teachers who've completed a 300-hour course of training and a yearlong internship.
Sarah Crow, a mother of three, lives in Concord, New Hampshire.
Copyright © Meredith Corporation. Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2004.