You might have come across a Montessori nursery in your area or have heard something about the method, but do you understand it?
Where did the method come from?
Maria Montessori was born in 1870 and was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome medical school. Dr Montessori applied her scientific background to the education of small children, watching how children learn and develop. Over time she tried many different activities, distilling her ideas down to those which really interested children, providing them with the opportunities they needed to learn and discarding anything the children didn't enjoy or which didn't get the results she was looking for. Such a child-focused method of learning proved to be highly effective and Dr Montessori travelled the world to establish schools where children would be happily motivated and exited to learn.
I've heard that the children just do what they want all day, it sounds nice but won't my son be behind when he starts school?
In a Montessori nursery children do have more freedom than they might have in other settings, but that doesn't mean they aren't learning.
A teacher will keep an eye on each child, being aware of which activities the child is doing, guiding them towards a balanced curriculum and introducing new activities to stretch the child as they develop. Because this is done on an individual basis it is much easier to meet the needs of each child, the teacher isn't running group activities all day so has more time to challenge an able pupil or help one who is struggling.
A Montessori education is very much about discovery, the child finds things out for herself by engaging in activities, or "learning by doing". This means she gains not only knowledge of facts but an understanding of what they really mean. It's great fun so the child is also encouraged to be enthusiastic about learning and to develop an enquiring mind, the knowledge of how to learn. Far from being "behind" when starting school, many children from Montessori nurseries are more advanced than their peers.
I went to visit a Montessori nursery and it was very quiet, I'm worried that the children are too tightly controlled.
In a standard nursery you would expect to see the adults running activities for groups of children. Some children might be playing, probably with toys you are familiar with, all shouting and laughing or arguing over who has the red brick. There will be a lot of noise as everyone tries to make themselves heard. All of this will be different in a Montessori nursery.
There you might see an adult running a group activity but most of the children, most of the time, will be happily occupied alone or with a friend. The children are playing (it is called "working" to show respect for the child's learning) with toys that you don't recognise, those activities that were so carefully developed by Dr Montessori. Each child is absolutely absorbed in what they are doing, concentrating so hard on making a new discovery or practicing a skill that they seem quiet. Some of the adults will be showing children new activities, but as they are working one to one they do not have to raise their voices to be heard.
It seems quiet because everyone is busy, children have the freedom to get their own snack when they are ready and relish being given responsibility for mopping spilt paint or putting things away when they are done. The children will go outside to run about and shout, they have not been forced to be artificially still, they are just too busy and having too much fun to want to be disruptive!