The montessori way

In the second instalment of our preschool series, EVELINE GAN finds out what makes the Montessori method unique among preschools.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

In the second instalment of our preschool series, EVELINE GAN finds out what makes the Montessori method  unique among preschools.

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When Dr Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to become a physician, opened her first school in a low-income district in Rome in 1907, her child- centred educational method was considered radical.

But despite going against the grain of conventional education, the Montessori way has churned out numerous movers and shakers in the last century, among them Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and founder Jeff Bezos.

What’s all the fuss about the Montessori method, and how can parents choose the right school? Here, we get the lowdown on this unique learning approach.

How did the Montessori method come about?

The child-centric educational approach is based on Montessori’s observation that all children are instinctively curious and constantly use their hands and bodies to connect with the world around them, says  Charmaine Soh Chian Mui, founder and director of Greentree Montessori. 

That spurred her to design a child-friendly environment in which kids could freely choose from various developmentally- appropriate activities. This encourages active learning at their own pace. 

“What’s inspiring to note is that Dr Montessori developed her range of learning materials only after observing countless children and recognising their learning needs,” says Charmaine. 

“In her expectations, a Montessori teacher should always observe her students’ needs before designing the classroom environment and introducing or designing materials for the class. A Montessori classroom is therefore made to suit the needs of the child, and not the teacher.” 

How is it different from traditional preschool programmes?

Spoon pasta from bowl to bowl, or sort and stack blocks? Work on a task alone or with a friend? At a Montessori preschool, your kid gets to decide what he wants to learn, as well as when and how to learn it, Charmaine shares. 

“An authentic Montessori experience is one where children are able to fully exercise their freedom of choice in school, have full access to various tools and Montessori learning materials,” she adds.  

For example, at Greentree Montessori, children may start their learning at any time without waiting for assembly or other children. If they need help on using the tools, they may ask the teacher to demonstrate for them, she explains. 

Children at the centre are also provided with blocks of three-hour “uninterrupted” learning time, which allows them to self-direct their work, and placed in a mixed-aged class, she adds.  

“In this case, ‘uninterrupted’ means that adults are not allowed to shorten the session or conduct any other group activity,” Charmaine says.  

Your child will also be grouped together with kids of different ages, forming communities in which older and more advanced children will mentor their peers, says Ivy Kwan, supervisor at Tulip Montessori School. Children are typically placed in three- year age groups such as infant to three years old, and three to six years old. 

Another hallmark of a Montessori programme is its personalised way of learning. This means that learning instruction is carried out mainly on a one-on-one basis, or in selected small groups, at each child’s pace. 

How can my kid learn anything if she does her own thing? 

To the uninitiated, it might seem like a waste of precious learning time. But this freedom in the classroom is what Dr Montessori described as “the key to the process of development”, Ivy says. 

It is this self-directed learning approach that Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who attended Montessori school as kids, have both credited their current success to. 

“It allows children to naturally become involved in their personal learning goals, and motivates them intrinsically to confidently explore, experiment, make decisions, solve problems and develop their own routines and processes,” Charmaine explains. 

In fact, she adds, it is through freedom of choice that the child will develop not just independence, but also mental resilience, a sense of order, self-awareness and self-discipline. 

That said, it is a misconception that kids end up running amok and doing whatever they want in school. 

“While the school encourages children to freely choose the activities they want to work on, the teacher sets limits within boundaries. For example, when working on a craft activity, children can work on a wide range of materials but keeping to the theme in mind while working on their end product,” explains Stacy Yeo, senior principal at Brighton Montessori River Valley. 

Moreover, each Montessori activity or learning tool, such a knobbed puzzle map, box of coloured beads or solid geometric forms, is designed with a specific learning goal in mind. 

For example, Practical Life – one of the most important aspects in a Montessori curriculum – provides opportunities for kids to work on tasks such as washing bowls and towels or serving meals, Charmaine shares.  

“That doesn’t mean simply scooping and pouring incessantly for fine and gross motor development, but rather, whether children are able to work on real-world tasks of caring for themselves, others and the environment,” she explains. 

Is a Montessori preschool right for my introverted kid?

Every child is suitable for Montessori education, say our experts. This is largely due to its individualised learning approach. Rather than rote learning, kids with different strengths, interests and personalities learn at their own pace. 

“So while a teacher may have six children under her care, for example, all of them will be moving at a different pace and she will set learning goals according to their needs,” Stacy says. 

In fact, even adults can benefit from the Montessori learning style, Charmaine adds. 

“Opportunities for freedom and active learning are not fads that will go out of fashion,” says Charmaine, citing Google’s world-famous offices and workspaces that are designed and managed using the Montessorian concept. 

Will my kid have trouble transitioning to structured lessons in Primary 1? 

A Montessori curriculum typically covers five core areas, including Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics and Culture, which expose children to the world around them. 

However, many Montessori preschools here also integrate traditional academic elements into their curriculum, typically from the kindergarten years onwards, so that the child is adequately prepared for primary school. 

For instance, at Brighton Montessori, children start bringing reinforcement worksheets and readers home from Nursery 2. This helps parents get a better insight into concepts their child has mastered in school, Stacy shares. Kindergarten 2 kids also undergo a P1 preparatory programme. 

How can I tell which Montessori school is the real deal? 

The Montessori name was never trademarked, so this means a school may use its name without offering an authentic Montessori programme. 

When looking for a school for your child, the experts advise parents to do their research into the learning method and take time to tour the school’s facility. This helps them to get a better idea of how the teachers run the programme, Ivy says. 

The first thing you should look out for, Stacy advises, is whether the environment is aesthetically-pleasing. Montessori classrooms are typically geared to a child’s size – think low, open shelves instead of locked, hard-to- reach cabinets. 

“The materials should be arranged in a way whereby they are easily accessible to the children. You should also check with the principal how the teachers encourage independence and allow for freedom of choice within boundaries,” she adds. 

From the tour, you can check out the type of materials provided in school, and whether there is a good range of activities to keep your child engaged, regardless of his personality, Stacy says. 

Most importantly, observe if your child likes the place and is comfortable entering the classroom and/or working on the activities calmly, Charmaine adds. 

Other things to tick off include: 

• Does the school have qualified Montessori teachers? • Does the school provide fixed daily two to three-hour uninterrupted work cycles/ learning time? 

• Are classes grouped in mixed ages? For instance, children are typically placed in three- year age groups (such as zero to three years or three to six years old) due to similarities in their developmental needs. 

Are Montessori teachers specially trained? 

Just like how art teachers are required to know their subject matter before they can teach it well, Montessori teachers require additional training. 

In Singapore, preschool teachers must first obtain a local Diploma in Early Childhood Care and Education to become a certified preschool teacher here, says Charmaine, who is an American Montessori Society-certified trainer. 

Those who choose to become a Montessori teacher are required to take an additional course to learn the method and become a certified Montessori teacher, she adds. 

There are centres in Singapore that offer such training for teachers, which covers topics ranging from the principles of Montessori philosophy to the use of Montessori classroom materials and design. 

How can I practise Montessori learning at home with my kid if we don’t have the materials? 

Most of the Practical Life exercises – one of the most important aspects of a Montessori education – that are carried out in school can be done at home, Stacy shares.  And you don’t need to splurge on pricey equipment to do that. 

“In fact, most of these materials can be readily found in your own home. For example, a pair of sugar tongs is all you need to let your kid work on transferring exercises,” she says. 

Bringing Montessori principles into the home can “bridge” what your kids learns in school,  according to the American Montessori Society. 

One way is to create an ordered environment, on a kid-friendly scale, like providing low shelves or drawers, a step stool in the bathroom and kitchen, sorting and arranging toys and games into trays or baskets. Having a place for everything encourages both independence and self-discipline. 

Check out these Montessori preschools in Singapore 

Brighton Montessori 

In line with the child-centric Montessori educational method, individualised learning plays a big part at Brighton Montessori. 

Here, teachers evaluate each child’s progress daily, which allows them to set the next set of learning goals according to his learning pace, interests and strengths at different stages of development. 

And don’t be surprised if your toddler pours herself a cup of water or puts on her own shoes. The school focuses on practical life skills and independence for children aged 18 months to three years. 

For older ones from four to six years, there is a greater focus on academics in terms of phonics and Mathematics. From Nursery 2, children bring home reinforcement worksheets and readers. 

In Kindergarten 2, they undergo a Primary 1 prep programme. The school also organises fi eld trips, special events and festive celebrations, water play sessions and holiday programmes for an all-rounded learning experience.


Greentree Montessori 

Established in 1990, Greentree Montessori is a pioneer in Montessori education in Singapore that supports a mindful approach to education, parenting and human development. 

Classes are kept small (1:8 for 18 months to three years and 1:10 across all other age groups) and learning instruction is provided on a one-to-one basis. 

The school is supported by faculty trained under Association Montessori Internationale and American Montessori Society. It also adopts the Resources for Infant Educarer approach for toddlers aged 18 months to three years, which focuses on respectful interaction with infants and toddlers. 

It offers holiday programmes featuring weekly fi eld trips, as well as activities like science projects and young artist classes that are suitable for children aged three to nine years. 


Tulip Montessori 

Using Montessori learning materials imported from Holland, the school provides a prepared environment that allows children to explore, learn, ask questions and fi gure out answers without the need to be “spoon-fed” by an adult.  

It runs a Montessori playgroup for children aged 16 months to 2.5 years, a Montessori workgroup aged 2.5 to 3.5, as well as a variety of enrichment programmes, including phonics, maths, Chinese language, Hindi, creative art and speech and drama in English, Chinese and Hindi.