The Montessori Dictionary

Key Terms Defined

borrowed from Annetter Haines, Ed.D.


Absorbent mind: A mind able to absorb knowledge quickly and effortlessly. Montessori said the child from birth to six years has an "absorbent mind."


Concentration: The act of concentrating. The young child focuses his or her attention on aspects of the environment essential for development. Form a Montessori perspective, concentration is "a consistent activity concentrated on a single work - an exercise on some external object, where the movements of the hands are guided by the mind."


Concrete to abstract: A progression both logical and developmentally appropriate. The child is introduced first to a concrete material that embodies an abstract idea such as size or color. Given hands-on experience, the child's mind grasps the idea inherent in the material and forms an abstraction. Only as the child develops, is she gradually able to comprehend the same idea in symbolic form. 


Control of error: A way of providing instant feedback. Every Montessori activity provides the child with some way of assessing his own progress. This puts the control in the hands of the learner and protects the young child's self-esteem and self-motivation. Control of error is an essential aspect of auto-education.


Coordination of movement: One of the major accomplishments of early childhood. Through the child's own activity, she refines her muscular coordination and consequently acquires increasingly higher levels of independent functioning. Because of this developmental need, children are drawn to activities which involve movement and especially to pastimes which demand a certain level of exactitude and precision.


Cycle of activity: Little children, when engaged in an activity which interests them, will repeat it many times and for no apparent reason, stopping suddenly only when the inner need which compelled the child to activity has been satisfied. To allow for the possibility of long concentrated work cycles, Montessori advocates a 3-hour uninterrupted work period. 


Development of will: The ability to will, or choose to do something with conscious intent, develops gradually during the first phase of life and is strengthened through practice. The Montessori environment offers many opportunities for the child to choose. Willpower, or self-control, results from the many little choices of daily life in a Montessori school.


Discipline from within:  Self-discipline. The discipline in a well-run Montessori classroom is not a result of the teacher's control or of rewards or punishments. It's source comes from within each individual child, who can control his or her own actions and make positive choices regarding personal behavior. Self-discipline is directly related to development of the will.


Exercises of practical life: One of the four areas of the Montessori prepared environment. The exercises of practical life resemble the simple work of life in the home: sweeping, dusting, washing dishes, etc. These purposeful activities help the child adapt to his new community, learn self-control and begin to see himself as a contributing party of the school unit. His intellect grows as he works his hands; his personality becomes integrated as body and mind function as a unit. 


Fale Fatigue: A phenomenon observed in Children's Houses around the world - often at approximately 10 a.m. The children seem to lose interest in work, their behavior becomes disorderly and the noise level rises. It may appear as if the children are tired. However, if the directress understands this is simply false fatigue, they will return to work on their own and their work will be at an even higher level than before.


Grace and courtesy: An aspect of practical life. Little lessons which demonstrate positive social behavior help the young child adapt to life in a group and arm her with knowledge of socially acceptable behavior; practical information, useful both in and out of school.


Independence: Not depending on another - "with various shades of meaning." Normal development milestones such as weaning, talking, etc. can be seen as a series of events which enable the child to achieve increased individuation, autonomy, and self-regulation. Throughout the four planes of development, the child and young adult continuously seek to become more independent. It's as if the child says, help me help myself.  


Mixed ages: One of the hallmarks of the Montessori method is that children of mixed ages work together in the same class. Age-groupings are based on developmental planes. Children from 3-6 years of age are together in the Children's House; 6-9 years olds share the lower elementary, and the upper elementary is made up of 9-12 year olds. Because the work is individual, children progress at their own pace; there is cooperation rather than competition between the ages.


Normalization: If young children are repeatedly able to experience periods of spontaneous concentration on a piece of work freely chosen, they will begin to display the characteristics of normal development; a love of work, an attachment to reality, and a love of silence and working alone. Normalized children are happier children; enthusiastic, generous, and helpful to others. They make constructive work choices and their work reflects their level of development. 


Prepared environment: The Montessori classroom is an environment prepared by the adult for children. It contains all the essentials for optimal development but nothing superfluous. Attributes of a prepared environment include order and reality, beauty and simplicity. Everything is child-sized to enhance the children's independent functioning. A trained adult and a large enough group of children of mixed ages make up a vital part of the prepared environment.


Sensitive periods: Young children experience transient periods of sensibility and are intrinsically motivated or urged to activity by specific sensitivities. A child in a sensitive period is believed to exhibit spontaneous concentration when engaged in an activity that matches a particular sensitivity. For example, children in a sensitive period for order will be drawn to activities involving ordering. They will be observed choosing such activities and becoming deeply concentrated, sometimes repeating the activity over and over, without external reward or encouragement. Young children are naturally drawn towards specific aspects of the environment which meet their developmental needs. 

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