What is Experiential Learning in Montessori?

This article is part of a video series with Sharon Rajan, a teacher at Montessori School, Bali. Sharon has over 3o years of experience teaching children 3-6 years in Montessori schools in the US and Canada.

Dr. Linnea: So one thing I wanted to ask you about Montessori is around experiential learning. We know, like we hear so much now about how important that is and how it actually…from the neuroscience perspective, it actually changes the way we learn. And we feel that, you know, schools don't do that enough. So I'm wondering what makes Montessori so different?

Sharon: Well, right off the bat, I'm gonna say movement. The children are not just sitting in one spot all day, they are moving all the time. Every activity they do involves some kind of movement, and when we do activities with the children, for example, if I'm doing the pink tower, which is just around the end of that shelf there, I would have the child…it's a work that we do on the floor so the child has to have a mat, so that designates their workspace, so that everybody knows that's their workspace, and I would have them put their mat far away from the pink tower. And there are 10 cubes of the pink [SP]. Also, you know, the cubes are this small to begin with and then this big by the 10th one. They're getting a very sensorial impression of how size is changing as they bring each cube and the weight changes also. They're having to negotiate around tables and chairs and other people working and managing to get to their mat.

There are games that we'll play, what we call memory games, where we have, let's say, something called the color tablets where they're matching two of the same colors. One set will be on a mat here and one set will be on a mat here, and we will say, “You know, can you go and find the pink one? Or let's say we're doing the graded colors where we're getting seven different shades of blue and we're laying them out and we're starting with the darkest and we're getting to the lightest as we go. And we're saying, “Now, when you walk from that mat to this mat, I want you to go around that shelf and around that table and I want you to stop at so and so's table and I want you to say something to them.” Or even give them something to say, “And then come back to your mat and make sure that you brought me the next grade of shade. So there's a lot of movement there but we're also building memory because we're not just saying, “Go from point A to point B.” When they can do that, well, then we add these little bits to it so we're adding the movement, we're adding memory to it, because now that they stopped and talked to someone, can they still remember which one they were supposed to get?

So that's part of our…and that's brain work, right? But the movement is the key. And the lifting of those cubes, especially for a three-year-old, that biggest one, it's heavy. And we're saying, “You know, try not to drop it because if you look down right below that, that's your toes. It's gonna hurt if you drop it.” Right? So the whole body is involved in carrying this one cube across the room. That's huge for a three-year-old, right? So that's a lot of our materials are that way where we're asking certain things where we're saying sometimes, “Can you put it down really gently?” Now, yes, our objective is not to have too much noise in the classroom but our main objective is, “Can you get that muscle control so well that you can put that down without making a sound?” That's what I'm after, right? I'm not saying that to the children, in my mind, I know and I'm seeing a child bang and knock things down and like, “Okay. We just need to refine some of that.” Right?

So we're constantly thinking about what's happening with this little body? Why is he not able to control what he's doing and what are we gonna do to help? Right? That's a huge focus for us. And we're trying to sort of align this person, we're giving them all sorts of sensorial impressions, they're touching things, they're tasting things, they're listening to things, they're playing sounds, you know, that's just the sensorial material. We're refining the way that they're taking things in. So we started by teaching red, yellow, and…red, yellow and blue and then we've gone from…so those are the primary colors. Then we do the secondary colors, which are all the shades that can be made with red, yellow and blue. Then we do the tertiary where they're grading each color, right? This is a refinement.

So where we first at the beginning when they first came, we're saying, “Can you find me something blue?” They can find anything blue. Where we get to the point where we say, “Okay. But this particular shade of blue, can you find me something that shade of blue?” And now they're not just looking around the classroom but they're starting to see the differences, you know, that shade of blue and that shade of blue, okay, that's different, right? So they're ordering how the environment looks, and our goal for that is when they go out there, like if we look out that window, there are so many shades of green in those trees, isn't that fascinating? So now when I go and sit down and draw, make a picture, and I wanna paint all these trees, I know just by experiencing what I've done in the classroom, that there are different shades of green out there and I will translate that into my artwork, right? So that those are the sorts of activities or the sorts of experiences that they have in the classroom.

And of course, then you have all the very concrete academic stuff that we do so that when we teach them the sounds of the alphabet, we use a piece of wood that has a letter in it on sandpaper so it's a very tactile feeling. And Dr. Montessori, you know, developed that and had children trace so they're making the memory with their fingers, the muscles, the touch of it, and they're actually saying the sound. They're also looking at what it looks like. So there's a lot of different cognisant skills going on there that are happening all at the same time. And, in fact, a hundred years later, they're saying that there's actually a direct pathway between, you know, and the linking the sound to it. So she was brilliant in that way. The things that she came up with are now proving or the optimal way for a child, especially a three to six child or a zero to six child, this is the optimal way for them to develop because we're touching on so much. Our goals are brain development, right? Where we're developing a whole child. We're developing the body, we're developing their focus, we're developing how they see things, we're developing how they hear things, all of it. We're developing all of that little being in this room. It's Incredible.

Dr. Linnea: And just because I find it so fascinating when you spoke about it, and I've seen it with my daughter, how excited she is with words and letters, because I find it…it's so different in Montessori how children approach handwriting and the different steps that you were telling me.

Sharon: Yeah, yeah. So in North America, they do…everything starts with print. And when I did my Montessori training, it's all cursive, and so I just thought, “Okay. Well, you know, it's because it started in Italy, way back in the early 1900s. It was normal, right?” But then I started to research it a little bit. And, in fact, I had my daughter at the time, and she was 18 months, and she would wanna sit next to me, she'd sit in her high chair and I'd be doing something on computer or whatever, and she'd have a pencil and she…and I started to watch her and I realized, this was what she was doing all the time. Obviously, she's young, she wasn't creating anything, but the movement never stopped, it just came on going. And I started looking at her and I thought, “Oh, you see. The cursive is a flow. It's a flow to the way that we write.” When you have to keep stopping and starting, it's actually hard on your arm, right? Eventually, your arm gets used to it, but why not continue the flow? And it feels really good. I went back to doing my own writing in cursive because I had developed this sort of half, you know, growing up in Africa, British way of writing, going to North America, and not really being able to do the cursive script to this kind of a mishmash of stuff.

And I started to think about what I was doing and I started to actually enjoy the process of writing. And I started to enjoy, you know, when you're…I started to realize that if I had my wrist lightly on the paper, that I could actually just keep moving my arm because what I found, I was doing this and then I would kind of stop and I wouldn't pick up my pen but I will stop and move my arm. And then I realized I could just keep it lightly and I could continue but that takes muscle control. So I said, “This is what we're developing, right? So again, even in handwriting, we're developing so much of a child and look at what we're creating, how beautiful, how beautiful their script is when they write at the age of four or five, right? Or even the three-year-olds are doing it on the chalkboard. It's beautiful. And they feel so good.

Dr. Linnea: And the steps are, first, they use…?

Sharon: That they trace with the sandpaper letter and then they can trace in sand. Sometimes we'll have a tray with sand in it, and they can just use their fingers to trace the letters in that and then they can go to the chalkboard. And for my style, particularly, I keep them on the chalkboard for a long time because if you do something on a chalkboard and make a mistake, you just erase it and it's gone, right? There's nothing worse than it being on a piece of paper and you're erasing and you're erasing and you eventually put a hole in the paper or it's all black because the eraser wasn't clean, whatever. You know, it's a frustrating thing. So for me, I like them to spend a lot of time on the chalkboard, but I also have them draw shapes on the chalkboard and we do numbers on the chalkboard.

So a lot of their development for me is on the chalkboard because I want them to be satisfied with what they produce, right? And one of the things that not all Montessori teachers do this, but I do it, I don't allow them to have an eraser in the classroom. So that when they're writing, if they make a mistake, we just put a little X through it and then we continue. They don't like the way it looks but if they can erase it, and it's gone, but they're not going to be careful every time they try. And they're not gonna use that muscle control that we've been developing all this time, right? So no eraser, we've done it on the chalkboard, we know you can do it properly. Yes, it's a bit different because now it's smaller on paper, but it's okay, you can do it. And they will be careful and they will do it and they are so proud of what they've done.

So then the next step is paper. And eventually, they can make books. So if they're studying, say, the parts of the tree so they've done the pictures, they've looks all the picture cards and they know the branch, the roots, the leaves, the trunk, they know all that then they go to the chalkboard and they're able to draw all that and go through the cards and we say, “Okay. Here's the picture that showed us the roots of the tree. The tree that you've drawn, does have roots?” “Yes, it does.” “Okay. Here's the truck, does yours have a trunk?” “Yes, it does.” So we go through the cards to make sure all the parts of whatever they're doing is there, then we might go to the chalkboard and say, “Well, let's see how we write the word tree.” And we'll practice doing that and we'll practice writing all the parts. And then, “Let's make a booklet out of it. And that's something you can take home and you can show the parents, ‘Look, I know what that is, that's a branch and I wrote that down.'” Right?

And then the other part, too, that is also great for the children and great for their fine motor skills is to do it with sewing. I had a little girl a few years ago that was studying ladybugs and she said to me one day…I said, “You know, would you like to make a book about your ladybug?” And she said, “No, I wanna do sewing.” And I said, “Okay.” So I kind of went home and thought, what am I doing here? So we, you know, found all the felt that we could and she created a leaf, so she cut out the leaf, she sewed with a different color green, so here's the color now, she showed a darker shade of green and she sewed the veins all with straight stitch, and then she cut the little pieces for the ladybug and sewed it on and she said, “Well, now how are we gonna do the dots, the spots on the ladybugs?” And I said, “Well, I'll teach you how to do a French knot.” So we did a French knot and there was her…I mean, it was beautiful. Her ladybug was beautiful. I've got pictures of it that I keep. Every once in a while, I look at it and I think, “Yeah. This is just another way to express what she's learning.”

How Does Experiential Learning Happen in Montessori
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Written by Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea is the founder of MamaDoctors. She is also the founder of Heal Your Nervous System, where she and her team work with highly-driven women who want to continue to strive for more, without compromising their wellbeing or relationships. HYNS helps them tap into their full potential by getting to the root of what’s standing in their way and making fast, powerful changes for more clarity, resiliency, and empowerment.