The primary aged child (3-6 years old) is in the first plane of development. During this time, the child has what Maria Montessori referred to as, the absorbent mind. The child absorbs information from the environment with little to no effort. A child of this age is also experiencing something called "sensitive periods". These are periods in a child's life where they will become particularly interested in and receptive to a certain aspect of their development. The sensitive periods experienced during primary are the sensitive period for order, language, refinement of the senses, and movement. The Montessori primary classroom uses this knowledge to design and prepare a learning environment that empowers the child to learn through their interactions with the environment. Although every primary classroom is unique, you will always find four areas: practical life, sensorial, language, and math. Learn more about each area below.
The primary aged child is in a sensitive period for refinement of the senses. Therefore, the primary classroom has an entire set of materials designed to aid the child in exploring and refining each sense. With the sensorial materials, the child is often asked to match or grade items based on their sensorial characteristics. This teaches the child the skills of matching and grading, allows them to develop more detailed categorization, and helps to encourage their sense of order. Materials are self-correcting which gives the child the ability to keep trying on their own, without needing input from adults.
Pictured on the shelf to the left are:
The Brown Stair (visual - dimensional discrimination)
Color Boxes 1, 2, and 3 (visual - matching colors)
Sound Cylinders (sound - matching and grading volume)
Geometry Cabinet (visual - discriminating and matching 2D geometric shapes)
Botany Cabinet (visual - discriminating and matching leaf shapes)
The primary-aged child is in a sensitive period for language. A child of this age works like a sponge to soak up all of the language that the environment can give them. Language in the primary classroom can be broken into three categories: spoken language, written language, and reading.
Spoken language is the heart of all language. In order for a child to have thoughts to write down or ideas to read, they must first learn to understand and speak their language. Spoken language is the most important form of language that is learned in the primary classroom, without it writing and reading would not be possible. During their time in primary, children learn the proper names for geometric shapes, animals, continents, botany shapes, and more. They learn to communicate with others effectively and appropriately through what we call “grace and courtesy lessons”. Conversation and elaboration are encouraged and practiced daily. Spoken language is being taught from the moment the child enters the environment until their last day in primary (and beyond).
Note: For those who are unable to hear or speak, sign language is used as their form of spoken language.
In a Montessori primary environment, children are taught to write before they are taught to read. This is based on what we know about the primary aged child. They are ego-centric, meaning their own interests and ideas are most important to them. The ability to analyze (versus synthesis) develops at an earlier age, making writing a simpler process for a young child.
How is this made possible?
Letters are named by their phonetic sounds. Knowing the name of a letter does not aid the child in being able to read or write. Therefore, we introduce the letter symbols by the sound that they make. This creates a smooth transition into writing and then reading.
The sound game. This is a fun and simple game that is played all throughout a child’s time in the primary classroom. The child is asked to listen for a particular sound in a word, calling their attention to the fact that a word is made up of sounds and honing the skill of being able to hear and identify each one.
Movable Alphabet. This material is designed to allow a child the opportunity to put together words and sentences, even before their hand is ready to form the letters. The child is able to use cut out letters to build the words that they would like to write.
Preparation of the hand. Almost every material in the primary classroom is designed to help prepare the child’s hand for writing. The materials work to build the child’s pincer grasp, to build fine motor control, and increase hand and arm strength. Materials like the metal insets directly prepare the child for writing by giving them the opportunity to practice moving and controlling a pencil.
Once the child’s hand is ready, they practice their writing on a chalkboard (allows for larger movements and it’s easy to erase) and as their skills improve, they will then move on to writing with a pencil and paper.
Pictured are pouches of vocabulary picture cards, a basket of objects for the sound game, sandpaper letters, and phonetic reading materials.
Pictured: A Movable Alphabet complete with a lined work rug to place the letters on when writing.
Practical life is often viewed as the heart of a primary environment. Practical life is defined as “simple activities that people do to take care of themselves”. Through their work with the practical life materials, the children build independence, concentration, control of movement, and adaptation. Learn more about practical life here.
Some practical life materials are staples in every primary environment including table washing, hand washing, and dressing frames. However, guides are also free to design materials that are both culturally relevant and useful for the particular group of children working within the space. For example, a classroom environment with an attached garden space, might have materials to involve the children in the care of the garden such as watering plants, weeding, or filling a bird feeder. Communities with wet climates may have a boot scrubbing work to clean up muddy boots. These materials are designed to build skills as well as to be practical and useful means of caring for the individual and the environment.
Each practical life area is broken up into five areas:
Preliminary Exercises - Designed to isolate and build skills necessary to complete more complex practical life works. Examples include pouring water and folding fabrics.
Care of Self - Materials that allow the child to build independence. Examples include the button frame, hand washing, and food preparation.
Care of Environment - Materials that link the child to the environment. Examples include watering plants, table washing, and polishing.
Grace and Courtesy - Opportunities to practice social behaviors. These are often small group role-playing lessons. Examples include how to greet someone, how to make a request, or how to serve yourself snack.
Movement - There are two main movement works in the primary classroom. Walking on the Line offers the children the opportunity to practice balance and coordination as they carefully walk along an ellipse on the ground. The Silence Game is played with the whole group and challenges the child to be silent and still.
All About Primary
When writing comes before reading, the child almost seems to magically “explode” into reading. The child is able to discover reading as they begin to read back the words that they have written. Once this discovery is observed, a primary guide will begin to introduce the child to a series of reading materials, beginning first with phonetic reading. Eventually, phonograms (letter combinations that make a new sound) and puzzle words (sight words) are introduced. With any reading material, the focus is on something called “total reading”. Total reading is fluent reading with deep comprehension. Materials are designed to create context or meaning behind the reading that the child is doing. For example, a child might read labels to match to objects or read a slip of paper with an action they are being asked to carry out. In this way, the child is learning that the words they read always have meaning.
Often in the final year of primary, the children will begin to use their reading skills to learn reading classification, grammar, syntax, and word study.
Math materials are typically introduced in the primary classroom around the age of four. Research has indicated that the brain development necessary to fully grasp the concept of quantity is not usually developed until around this age. The math materials are designed to be concrete representations of mathematical concepts. Concrete materials allow the child to create a strong foundation for any of their future, more abstract work with numbers.
Within the math curriculum, there are six areas of focus:
This group of materials focuses on creating a firm understanding of the quantities and number symbols for zero through ten.
This group of materials introduces the concepts of tens, hundreds, and thousands and their relationships to one another. It also introduces the four operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division!
Pictured are materials from the 0-10 and Decimal System groups.
Teens and Tens
This group of materials introduces the language for the teens and tens.
These materials create a fun, no-stress way for the children to learn their math facts for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Path to Abstraction
Towards the end of the final year of primary, children begin to move into a more abstract understanding of mathematics. This set of materials begins that journey into the next level of understanding of numbers.
In their final year of primary, children might be introduced to the concept and language of fractions.