The littlest students can provide the biggest opportunities for learning. After all, the first three years of a child’s life are a time of tremendous brain growth. Studies show that a significant part of brain development occurs during this time. Infants, babies and toddlers spend those crucial first years learning about the new world around them through sensory play, exploration and literature.
“The studies which have been made of early infancy leave no room for doubt,” Dr. Maria Montessori said during a 1949 lecture. “The first two years are important forever, because in that period, one passes from being nothing into being something.”
Montessori’s world-renowned 0-3 program strives to help infants and toddlers thrive. It provides a safe, nurturing and strategically-designed atmosphere that helps optimize learning. At Montessori schools, educators work under the philosophy that all children must be respected and encouraged to reach their potential. Specially-crafted learning environments allow teachers to gently guide children, while giving them freedom to explore the world.
“Maria Montessori said the most sensitive age is between birth and age 5,” says longtime Montessori educator Giuliana De Frenza. “Brain cells develop 90 percent during that period of time. It’s really amazing to see how these children can learn so much when they’re very young. When you think about it, children learn to walk and talk in a very easy way. Us adults, when we are trying to master a new language, we struggle. For children, it’s easy.”
In infancy, Montessori educators are trained to adjust to babies changing needs through activities that help develop social, cognitive and motor skills. As Montessori students grow, so do their needs. More sophisticated exercises are offered to toddlers aged 12-24 months.
Montessori offers a specially prepared environment that helps toddlers develop. Cognitive, motor and sensory activities that are designed to appeal their interests are introduced. Activities might include stringing, identifying colors, tracing and matching. Toddlers are also introduced with language skills, and introduced to activities that help develop both social and life skills. At this age, they might learn to roll a mat, wash their hands or serve food.
Students aged 2 through 3 continue through the Montessori program by continuing to master the skills they were introduced to as infants. They’ll carry on with an emphasis on developing cognitive skills, such as manipulating, sorting and carrying, and fine motor skills.
Here, Orange County educators speak to the benefits of an early Montessori education.
Anne Munz joyfully breezes through the halls of Rancho Santa Margarita (RSM) Montessori, a school she’s owned and operated for the past 25 years. Although it’s a busy day, she stops to greet many of her students – there are more than 60 — by name. When she spots a little girl crying on the playground, she cheers her up with a hug and some encouraging words. In an instant, the little girl is happy once more, running off with a beaming smile.
Next, Munz pops into a preschool class to offer her well wishes to a birthday boy.
“Happy birthday Anthony,” she says, pausing to look him directly in the eyes. She gives him a warm smile and adds: “I’m so proud of you.”
Instilling a sense of pride, independence and self-confidence are top priorities for teachers at this popular South County school. The littlest students at RSM Montessori are two, an age Munz says is a pivotal time for learning and self-discovery.
“They do beautifully well when they’re two. They’re hungry to learn at two,” says Munz. “Two is the magic age right now.”
Rancho Santa Margarita Montessori serves its three-and-under students through three classrooms, all named after celebrated artists. In the Rousseau room, rookie students begin their Montessori education in a “small and nurturing environment.”
In all three rooms, Munz says, the students are encouraged to develop a sense of independence through Montessori’s early learning materials. They take pride in learning to sort, clean and master new skills. Giving children an opportunity to do things independently is a crucial part of development, says Munz.
“The more we do for a child, the more we handicap them,” she says. “We treat the younger ones just like we would treat the older ones.”
The benefits of RSM Montessori’s teachings are evident. Inside each classroom, students sit quietly engaged in a variety of activities. Some study the solar system or complete geographical puzzles, while others color or construct. Each student is free to choose his or her own activity, and works under the gentle guidance of specially-trained instructors. Classrooms are organized, peaceful and productive.
Munz says she’s seen tremendous transformations in toddlers who’ve enrolled in the school. Some began as two-year-olds who couldn’t yet speak. Within months, she says, they were speaking in full sentences.
When determining which classroom a toddler is best suited for, Munz says it’s important to look beyond their age. Her school also considers a child’s ability and comfort level when placing him or her in a class.
“We always follow the child,” she says, adding that new students are often invited to choose their own age-appropriate classroom. “You want to give them that empowerment.”
A teacher speaks with passion, tenacity and speed when describing the innumerable benefits of Montessori teachings. She stops. “Am I going too fast?” she says. “I’m sorry, I just feel so passionate about it. I could talk to you forever.”
This mile-a-minute Montessori endorser is Giuliana De Frenza, owner and principal of Montessori Harbor-Mesa school. Since earning her Montessori training diploma in Italy 60 years ago, De Frenza has witnessed the ways in which a Montessori education can work wonders on a child.
At her Costa Mesa school, the path to learning begins at two, when children are introduced to the typical Montessori method through practical life exercises and sensory activities. In its toddler classroom – which serves 12 students aged two and three – a strong emphasis is placed on learning through the senses.
After all, says De Frenza, senses are the best teachers for young children eager to explore the world.
“The hand is the instrument of the mind,” says De Frenza, quoting Dr. Maria Montessori. “Whatever children do with their hands will remain with them for a long time – for their entire lives. Children learn in a sensorial way; in a way that can help them memorize whatever they do. It goes through the senses and it stays with them. Instead of just seeing or hearing, they have to physically get involved in activities that promote the desire and excitement children develop when they’re very young.”
The school offers a number of apparatuses that encourage learning through touch. Its sandpaper letter and number sets offer children a tactile way to learn about numbers and the alphabet. Other activities are designed to refine the senses and help children master fine motor skills. Many of the activities offer children an indirect introduction to mathematics.
“It’s natural that children come into this world with the ability to learn quickly,” says De Frenza. “It’s in their senses. When we teach children, we teach all the child’s senses.”
Of course, not everything comes naturally for toddlers. Teachers at Montessori Harbor- Mesa also work to help children develop a sense of order, discipline and courtesy. “If we do something in a hurry and the activities are scattered all over the place, the children will get easily frustrated and distracted,” says De Frenza. “If an activity is done with calm, order and precision, that invites children to be calm, order and precise in the future.”
Students are taught to use their manners, tidy their messes and behave as little adults. They must choose one activity at a time to work on, and return it to its proper place when done. Keeping things orderly helps children concentrate, says De Frenza.
“Concentration in a child’s lifespan is a wonderful experience,” she says. “Being able to concentrate is very important. It’s a wonderful feeling for a child.” Above all else, De Frenza says, Montessori schools give toddlers an opportunity to learn. “Children are capable of learning much, much more than we give them credit for at an early age,” she says. “We take them seriously. Children have the ability to learn a lot – but they have to be placed in the proper environment.”
By Michelle Thompson