Maria Montessori observed that around age 6 children experience a great transformation. During this phase new potentialities emerge: imagination, abstraction, and reasoning. Learning is driven by a desire to understand the world and the child’s place in it. They increasingly ask “Why?” and “How?” as their interests surpass their immediate world. During these years they can do enormous amounts of academic work: this age group is characterized by ambition and industriousness.
To direct this drive and respond to the child’s need to understand their universe, Maria Montessori and her son Mario developed, over the span of 40 years, an integrated Elementary curriculum. In it, subject areas such as math, language and physical sciences are examined individually, and in relation with each other. This interdisciplinary approach responds to the child’s desire to understand the ‘big picture’, while leaving room for creative exploration of topics of interest.
Children this age are playful so stories are a great way to share information and spark curiosity. The Elementary curriculum is structured around five stories: the creation of the universe, life on Earth, the coming of human beings, communication with signs, and the story of our numerals. Each story is a jumping off point for each major academic subject, yet deliberately incomplete. They are intended to ignite the imagination and plant the seeds of interest for investigation into larger subjects.
In this sense, the role of the Guide is to nurture these seeds and continually sow new ones. Materials in the Elementary curriculum are deliberately impressionistic and open-ended allowing the child to explore. The other pillars of the learning process are daily formal lessons, which are supplemented with spontaneous lessons to respond to a need or interest that may arise.
Children also learn that they need to leave the classroom and school to find the answers they seek, so ‘going out’ is an important part of Elementary. For these self-organized field trips small groups of children research where to go, when, how to get there, what to take, and who will accompany them. The fact that they organize these outings themselves adds meaning to the experience. It also helps them feel part of a larger community, thus discovering their society and their place in it.
As in the Children’s House, students continue to pursue their interests at their own pace: without textbooks or time blocks for each subject. Freedom from these restrictions helps children engage in ‘real learning’ (i.e., learning from interest), and acquire valuable life skills: time management and responsibility for themselves and their work.
As children become more responsible they keep track of their work and objectives. With the help of their Guide they evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and learn to set goals. We believe that children should do their work during school hours, leaving after school hours for other activities and free time. However, we do ask that children read aloud with their parents at home and in some cases the Guides will direct you if your child needs to reinforce at home something that they are currently working on.
As an American school, the primary language of instruction is English. The children in Elementary also receive lessons in Spanish language, culture and history. As we see the importance of students being competent writers and speakers in both languages, by the end of the 6-year Elementary cycle students will be on the path to becoming fully bilingual and bi-literate in English and Spanish.