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I am searching for Montessori preschool programs for my son. For someone whose favorite household activity is preparing sausage soup in his play kitchen, the focus on using real world tools seems a natural fit. We’ll see how the chips fall, but I’m hoping we can find him a spot.

The progressive education approach has a long history. The American Montessori Society reports that, in 1907, the psychiatrist Maria Montessori opened the Casa dei Bambini, a child care center in a low-income district of Rome. Her philosophy drew the attention of educators worldwide, and in the following decades Montessori schools opened throughout Europe, and in North and South America. Today, there are now more than 22,000 Montessori schools in at least 110 countries worldwide.

Montessori’s approach encompasses many aspects, from multi-age groupings that foster peer learning, to uninterrupted blocks of work time, to guided choice of work activity. One of the key tenets, though, is a hands-on, task-oriented approach to learning, exemplified in tools such as the “dressing frame,” a rectangular wooden torso on which toddlers learn to button, zip, and tie. The frame removes distractions and makes the task obvious. It says, “Here are two flaps of a shirt. Let’s button them together.” The child can attempt to figure it out on his or her own.

Montessori classrooms foster children’s independence through spacious, open designs with designated areas for different kinds of activities. There are quiet corners for reading, soft rugs and couches, and work tables where a preschooler might learn to count by stringing beads or make words with alphabet letters. Above all, the spaces are organized, inviting, and calming.

As important as a relaxed classroom setting was to Montessori’s approach, so too was nature and the outdoors. “Let the children be free,” she writes. “Encourage them; let them remove their shoes when they fund a puddle of water; and when the grass of meadows is wet with dew, let them run it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes the in the morning.”

But the application of the Montessori philosophy in the design of natural areas and school playgrounds is still a young field with limited examples. Happily, one of them is right in my neighborhood – a natural playground designed by Site Design Group at Near North Montessori near Wicker Park in Chicago. The playground consists of simple natural materials. There is a wooden, pagoda-like treehouse with a bird watching window, a large sand area, a sculptural butterfly structure, foliage-draped trestles, a cave, and climbable boulders. A farm pump connected to a hose invites children to practice pumping water, measure volumes, and work imaginatively in small groups. The pump is situated beside the sand pit, so the water can be used for mixing and building activities.

Then there’s the Ottawa Montessori School’s outdoor playground, designed by Earthscape and Landcurrent and Kaster & Company. Completed in 2013, it is constructed almost entirely of wood. Supported by large round timber poles, two-story tee-pees invite children to climb to an enclosed upper deck, either by ladders or wooden climbing walls. From a lookout station high on a hill, children can communicate with friends using talking tubes or simply enjoy distant bird’s eye views of the landscape. Add to that water spigots, climbable door frame-like structures, and a stage for student performances and you have a design that resonates with the Montessori philosophy of learning via tangible experiences in the world.

The Learning Landscape blog points out that much of Montessori education is not space-based, but work-based. The author raises important questions for designers: “How can Montessori work be adapted to outdoor spaces and materials? What types of spaces are needed? What materials are offered, where are they stored, and how?” She suggests several possible applications, such as a counting activity using chalk and pine cones, a work shed where children can hang tote bags containing their materials, and the use of small wheelbarrows and brooms for gardening activities.

Letting children do things themselves is a core tenet of the approach. As Montessori writes in the Absorbent Mind, “the child can only develop fully by means of experience on his environment. We call such experience “work,” and “the hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”

Goric has a number of resources that empower children to learn through prepared tasks and the manipulation of tools. The Farm Pump, for example, is a durable cast iron piece with a pump handle and spout. Easily installed, it connects directly to the water pressure line. The pump’s valve opens only when the handle is being pushed downwards, simulating the pump action of traditional well pumps. This type of tactile exercise is likely just the sort of thing Montessori had in mind when she spoke of the self-fulfillment and personal achievement that come through physical work. The Water Play System 3 and Sand Silo are other great examples.

Similarly, much off Goric’s sound and sensory equipment finds a welcome place in a Montessori playground. The Babel Drum, Sound Column, and Dance Chimes are simple tools which demand undivided concentration. What Montessori recognized in children, above all, was an eagerness to learn and a heightened capacity to absorb the world around them through the use of the senses. Playing music, especially, is a way to achieve this kind of Zen-like absorption.

“He absorbs the life going on about him and becomes one with it, just as these insects become one with the vegetation on which they live. The child’s impressions are so profound that a biological or psycho-chemical change takes place, by which his mind ends by resembling the environment itself. Children become like the things they love,” she writes in The Absorbent Mind. As someone who never feels more at ease than when playing music, I can appreciate her words.

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