Every detail of a Montessori classroom and curriculum is very purposefully designed. Maria Montessori so brilliantly constructed her materials and lessons to support the developmental needs of the child and to appropriately prepare them for what is to come. During the toddler and primary years, much of this preparation is centered around the preparation of the hand for writing.
What do we mean by preparation of the hand? In order to write, your hand needs to physically be capable of holding and controlling a pencil. When introduced before the hand is ready, a writing utensil can be uncomfortable or frustrating to use. At Fiore, we always aim to set the child up for success. Instead of handing a child a pencil and paper at age three and asking them to start practicing, we instead spend this valuable time offering a variety of opportunities to get the child’s hand ready for a successful and pleasurable writing experience right from the start.
This process begins with practical life. On the surface, practical life works are ways to offer the child independence and include them in the activities of daily life. Although both of these things are true and very important for the child’s development and self-esteem, there is an even deeper purpose behind them. Nearly all practical life works presented in the toddler and primary classes (and beyond), are designed to encourage fine and gross motor skills in the hands and arms. Developing a strong pincer grasp is essential for writing. Activities such as buttoning, polishing, and manipulating small objects all encourage and strengthen the pincer grasp. Carrying pitchers of water, sweeping, and scrubbing are examples of gross motor movement that builds arm and hand strength. Strengthening these muscles will allow writing to feel more comfortable and pencil control to come more easily.
There is even thought behind seemingly unimportant details of practical life presentations such as showing the child to scrub a table from top to bottom, left to right in order to set the pattern for the way that we write the English language. Similarly, the sensorial materials also aim to build fine and gross motor skills. For example, the child works their arm and hand muscles as they lift the thickest prism of the brown stair or use the pincer grasp to place a piece of a puzzle map.
After the child has practiced with the practical life and sensorial materials and has shown signs of increased fine motor control and hand strength, a new material is introduced. This material, called the metal insets, is designed specifically to prepare the hand for writing. It is simple, allows for some creativity, and offers the perfect opportunity for children to practice and perfect their pencil use without pressure. The child carefully traces a shape and its frame and colors it in. There are a number of stages to this work which heighten the child’s attention to detail and continue to challenge the child’s fine motor skills. Children will continue to work with this material throughout their time in the primary environment, encouraging them to continue to improve their handwriting skills.
Other more direct preparation of the hand can be seen with a material called the sandpaper letters. This work requires the child to use two fingers to trace the shape of each letter, preparing their brains and hands to write each symbol. Once it has been observed that a child’s hand may be ready to begin writing these letter symbols, they are shown how to do so on a chalkboard.
Why do we start with a chalkboard instead of paper and pencil? Chalkboards offer the freedom to start large (or medium or small)! A child can write one letter at a time if needed, as large as the chalkboard allows! There’s no fear of “wasting” resources as the child can erase and write it again! This same ability to easily erase also comes in handy as mistakes are made. Being able to quickly erase a mistake is much easier on the child’s confidence and self-esteem than staring back at a page filled with letters that don’t quite look right. Low pressure repetition is key at this stage, and chalkboards are the perfect way to offer it! Only after a child has demonstrated confidence on the chalkboard, are they (finally) introduced to writing with paper and pencil. By this point, the child is not only excited to begin this process, but their hand is ready for the challenge!