Is it *really* Montessori?

Jesse McCarthy |

Have you heard any of these three supposed truths about Montessori school?

-In Montessori, children are allowed to play all day.

-Montessori children are free to do whatever they want.

-There are no teachers in Montessori; the children teach themselves.

Now there is definitely some truth to each of these statements, but ultimately they are very misleading — and Dr. Maria Montessori herself would be the first to set straight anyone who presented them as true.

For instance, let's take the opening one...

Claim #1: In Montessori, children are allowed to play all day.

Here is Dr. Montessori's biographer and friend E.M. Standing on this point:

An environment in which children are simply physically free to ‘run about and play’ is not enough. ‘That’, says Montessori, ‘is the kind of freedom we give to cats and lizards.’

Clearly, Dr. Montessori was pretty explicit about not having children play all day.

Of course this doesn't mean play is then tossed aside in Montessori schools, for in good programs it is a meaningful part of a child's day. But just like in our own lives as adults, play — such as sports, hobbies, and relaxing with friends — is a type of fun we have in addition to work.

In real Montessori schools, as in any productive individual's life, work comes first. And surprising as it can be, in effective Montessori classrooms children love to work — so much that it's possible the idea of "playing all day" originated from such children feeling like they were doing just that in class: playing all day.

For instance, here's Nobel prize winner and former Montessori child Gabriel García Márquez reminiscing on his time in Montessori: "It was wonderful to be alive then — studying was like playing." Or take how the inventor Thomas Edison describes Montessori: "It makes learning a pleasure."

But children's work being a pleasure or its feeling like play to them is not an end-all goal of Montessori school. There are many, many other benefits of Montessori, one of which is when the children do get outside each day to truly play, they let loose like only contented children can!

That's me and a Montessori elementary child doing some real-deal playing outside.

That's me and a Montessori elementary child doing some real-deal playing outside.

The fact is great Montessori schools value both the mind and the body, and they fulfill children's need for a purposeful balance of work and play.

Claim #2: Montessori children are free to do whatever they want.


If you hear this from a "Montessori" teacher or principal, run. For something is very wrong.

Actual Montessori schools are not free-for-alls where children just finger-paint and roam rural forests. Rather they're organized communities that offer a great deal of structure and order for a child, within which he or she can experience true freedom.

Speaking over a century ago in California, Dr. Montessori commented on this:

[T]he work of the school is to organize the work of the child.... it is the organization of the work which gives direct influence ... on the establishment of mental order.

Dr. Montessori taught that structure and order in the classroom are essential to a child's healthy development. "But," she was quick to add, "beyond the teacher knowing the organization of the work, above all the teacher must respect the liberty of the child."

So organization plays a foundational role in Montessori, but only alongside genuine respect for a child's developing autonomy. And the latter can be found throughout the work of Dr. Montessori, such as in the classic children's line which she loved to quote: "Help me to do it by myself."


Given how much emphasis is placed on independence in Montessori — on offering children a choice and a voice in matters that affect them* — it's understandable that some parents think Montessori children are just "free" to roam about with no direction. In reality though, Montessori schooling provides a unique integration of freedom and limits that looks very different than the chaos of little boys and girls doing whatever they want. (For example, see these calm and beautiful Montessori classrooms around the world.)

Claim #3: There are no teachers in Montessori; the children teach themselves.

Again, there is a grain of truth here.

In real Montessori schools children are often teaching themselves, with the adult in the classroom serving as a kind of guide-on-the-side. This is because instead of receiving dry, traditional lectures on academic content that's destined for bubble tests and trash bins, Montessori children are offered engaging individual and small-group lessons on work that they can grasp and perfect independently. (This is the secret to why, for example, so many Montessori children are doing multiplication and division by age 5.)

But the idea that children are able to do such work with no adult guidance — to learn math, language, geography, science and more without actual teacher direction — is as mythical as this maiden in the painting below taming a unicorn.

It's too bad the "no teachers" confusion exists, but it's nothing new. Dr. Montessori was often confronted with it in her own day, such as when she visited a school in France that was supposedly carrying out her principles:

We came to one room — it was the science room — not a soul was there except the master, nor for that matter had been for several days. When I enquired into his method of teaching, the master airily replied that he did not teach; the children discovered! It appears he had placed a mysterious white mixture on the laboratory bench; and the children were supposed to ascertain the various substances it contained — ‘by discovery!’ Considering [continued Montessori with a wry smile] how few real discoveries are made by trained scientists in a lifetime, it was, to say the least, strange to expect inexperienced children, without knowledge, without method, without stimulus and therefore without interest, to make perpetual discoveries from day to day! No wonder the room was empty!
— Maria Montessori, from 'Maria Montessori: Her Life And Work'

In short, for children to successfully learn they need guidance. And this is why in every real Montessori classroom you will find a knowledgeable (and loving) teacher.



In the end, all of the three claims above are not true of authentic Montessori programs. But to be sure that any particular school is *really* Montessori, say those in your neighborhood, there is only one way to truly find out:

Sit in a classroom and observe for yourself.

In the meantime, if you're curious about what to look for when you arrive, here's a peek into an exceptional Montessori school — which offers children a safe, caring, and beautiful learning environment with that delicate balance between clear structure and genuine choice.

Jesse McCarthy is the Founder and Head Guide of Montessori Education, an organization dedicated to helping parents and teachers raise independent, flourishing children — while enjoying themselves along the way.

*Oil painting at opening by JD Miller