The Montessori method, like any science, has its own vocabulary and terminology.

Dr Maria Montessori introduced many new terms and concepts to describe how children grow and learn. You may encounter these terms as you learn about the Montessori approach to education.

Absorbent mind

From birth through approximately age 6, the young child experiences a period of intense mental activity that allows them to “absorb” learning from their environment quickly and easily without conscious effort.


A natural process as the child absorbs their environment in which they engage. They adapt to their culture, time and space, and this becomes an embedded part of the individual’s identity. This could include the prevalent traditions, customs, manners, and beliefs in the environment the child is exposed to or grows up in.

Casa dei Bambini

In Italian, “Children’s House,” and the name of Dr Maria Montessori’s first school.

Children’s House

In many Montessori schools, this is the name of the classroom for children ages two and a half or 3 to 6 years; other schools call the classroom for this age group Casa, preschool, pre-primary, or early childhood. At our school, we call this level our pre-primary classrooms.

Concrete to Abstract

A logical, developmentally appropriate progression that allows the child to develop an abstract understanding of a concept by first encountering it in a concrete form, such as learning the mathematical concept of the decimal system by working with golden beads grouped into units, 10s, 100s, and 1,000s.

Control of Error

Montessori materials are designed so that the child receives instant feedback about their progress as they work, allowing them to recognise, correct, and learn from an error without adult assistance. Putting control of the activity in the child’s hands strengthens their self-esteem and self-motivation as well as their learning. Although many Montessori materials have the control of error built into their design, as the child progresses through the School into prepared environments containing more abstract work, the control of error is in the form of check sheets. “Marking” and self-correction is thus still done by the child themselves, before showing an adult.

Coordination of Movement

Refining large – and fine – motor movements is one of the accomplishments of early childhood development, as the child learns to complete tasks independently. The Montessori classroom offers opportunities for children to refine their movements and children are drawn to these activities, especially to those which require exactitude and precision. As they become older, children are automatically encouraged to move by selecting their own work from those prepared both inside and outside of the classroom. In addition, they are free to move their table and chair to a favourable working area, either inside or out, free to sweep the School grounds, to do gardening or other community work, to practice music, or to practice physical education skills on the oval. These options fulfill their need for physical expression and coordination of movement at any time during the day.

Cosmic Education

Dr Maria Montessori urged us to give children a “vision of the universe” to help them discover how all its parts are interconnected and interdependent, and to help them understand their place in society and the world. In Montessori schools, children in elementary programs (between the ages of 6-12) learn about the creation of the universe through stories that integrate the studies of astronomy, chemistry, biology, geography, and history. These lessons help children become aware of their own roles and responsibilities as humans and as members of society, and help them explore their ‘cosmic task’ – their unique, meaningful purpose in the world. Cosmic Education acts as a backdrop against which all subsequent knowledge, or curriculum content, can be located in both space and time (geographically and historically).

Didactic Materials

Refers to specially designed instructional materials designed or intended to teach – many invented by Dr Maria Montessori, which are a hallmark of all Montessori classrooms.

Director / Guide / Advisor

Historically, ‘director’ or ‘guide’ referred to the lead teacher in a Montessori classroom, and some schools still refer to the lead teacher as such, while others use the more recognisable term ‘teacher’ and, while still other Montessori schools refer to their teachers as ‘advisors.’ In Montessori education, the role of the director / guide / teacher / advisor is to guide individual children to purposeful activity based upon their observations of each child’s readiness and interests. At our school, we use the terms teacher as well as advisor.

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German for ‘child of the earth,’ this term describes a Montessori learning environment for adolescents ages 12-15 that connects them with nature and engages them in purposeful, hands-on work in which they contribute to the community. Erdkinder programs are often referred to as ‘farm schools.’

Freedom within Limits

Montessori classrooms are carefully and thoughtfully designed to encourage children to move about freely and choose their own work. The limits to a child’s freedom are embedded within the prepared environment, and enable children to exercise their own free will while ensuring that their chosen activities are respectful of others and their environment. Children are not free to do what they like, but, because they have chosen their activities, they like what they do.

Grace and Courtesy

In Montessori schools, children are formally instructed in social skills they will use throughout their lives, for example, entering and leaving a room calmly, interrupting conversations politely, requesting rather than demanding assistance, and greeting guests warmly.

Great Stories

The Great Stories are five stories that introduce the child aged 6-12 to how the universe began, how life started on Earth, how humans came to be, and the beginnings of language and numbers. These stories are the backbone of Cosmic Education.


Simple concepts can be taught, but imagination is what children use to combine the concepts that are too big to be taught in a single lesson. The second plane of development, the Conscious Period, is a sensitive period for imagination since children do not need concrete materials to conceptualise understanding, as they now understand abstract ideas. Through imagination, children can come to a deeper understanding of concepts.  For example, they can imagine using ancient technology in a time long past or an invention in a future world. Within the third plane of development, creativity through self-expression (creative expression) is the adolescents’ way of using their imagination.


When the child is willing and able to complete tasks without the help of an adult. It is when the individual takes over control of their own life and is able to learn new skills and make judgements without consultation. Independent children both think and act for themselves. As the child gets older, this involves planning work schedules and managing longitudinal studies, lasting several weeks.

Intrinsic Motivation

The act of doing something without any obvious external rewards. The child does it because it’s enjoyable and interesting, rather than because of an outside incentive or pressure to do it, such as a reward.


Purposeful work is often divided into jobs, which seek to isolate a specific learning concept or activity. Each job is mindfully selected or carefully made to entice the child to work with effort. Children may complete several jobs within the day; whether it be maths, reading, drawing, cleaning, each of them is equally important.

Materialised Abstractions

Materialised abstractions refer to the materials that are used in the learning process. These materials are useful in communicating abstract concepts using physical objects. These abstract concepts can be seen as internal and the materials are the external representation that communicates the idea to the child through tactile means. Sometimes, this Montessori equipment is called ‘concrete materials,’ but it’s never made out of concrete! See also Sensorial Materials below.

Maximum Effort

Children are internally motivated, the work until the task has been completed and they leave the work feeling invigorated not exhausted as adults do. If the work is appropriate to their developmental plane and they have had the freedom to choose it, they will work happily and intensively paying attention to every detail. Observation is important as the adult makes judgements of children’s readiness and responds accordingly by presenting appropriate materials.

Mixed-Age Classrooms

One of the hallmarks of Montessori education is that children of mixed ages work together in the same class. Age groupings are based on the Planes of Development as identified by Dr Maria Montessori. Multi-age groupings enable younger children to learn from older children and experience new challenges through observation, while older children reinforce their learning by teaching concepts they have already mastered, develop leadership skills, and serve as role models. Because each child’s work is individual, children progress at their own pace and there is cooperation rather than competition between the ages. This arrangement mirrors the real world, in which individuals work and socialise with people of all ages and dispositions.


The term may refer to Dr Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori method of education, or the method itself.


‘Nest’ in Italian, this is a Montessori environment for infants – though not all schools that offer an infant program use this term.


A natural developmental process exhibited by a love of work or activity, concentration, self-discipline, and joy in accomplishment. Dr Maria Montessori observed that children in Montessori programs exhibit normalisation through repeated periods of uninterrupted work during which time they work freely and at their own pace on their own chosen activities. A normalised child is a happy, well-adjusted child who exhibits positive social skills in the Montessori classroom and is fully independent.

The term also refers to the process by which all people in the room exert influence on one another and thus peaceful activity is enabled. The adults in the room rely on the interactions of the children between themselves to normalise the room (or the behaviour of those who are not yet normalized). This is not a formal process, rather an indirect result of friendly, informal conversations between children, perhaps with a little indignation, sometimes involving chastisement between themselves and, on occasion, outright objection.


The development of a universal empathy for the needs of all living things. Universal morality means that all things have a right to live and function; these are principles that humans cannot change. Morality cannot be learned vicariously; individuals need to interact with other people, animals, and the environment to have a true appreciation for natural morality. Dr. Maria Montessori’s didactic materials for teaching Fundamental Human Needs emphasise that, despite moral codes being embedded in specific cultural practices, Universal Morality exists and should be championed. She urged that we acknowledge our differences by celebrating all that we share as humans, surviving together on a living Earth.


Description of the child’s true unique self; it is the combination of the physical and mental. For so long as the child is in an appropriately prepared environment and is allowed to act spontaneously as nature dictates, then their true personality will be nurtured and potential will be met. It is these virtues imbued from the environment as they form their personality, which result in their character.

Planes of Development

Four distinct periods of growth, development, and learning, which human beings progress through.

  • Infancy (ages 0-6) – The ‘Absorbent Mind Period: During this period, children seek physical and biological independence as they are sensory explorers, learning to become functionally independent in their immediate environment and community.
  • Childhood (ages 6-12) – The Reasoning and Abstraction Period: The developmental focus of this period is intellectual independence, hand in hand with the development of ethics and social responsibility. During this plane, children become conceptual explorers and they use reasoning, abstract thought, and imagination to explore and develop their understanding of the world.
  • Adolescence (ages 12 to 18) – The Global Socialisation Period: During this period, children crave social and financial independence and become humanistic explorers seeking to understand their place in society, and to contribute to society.
  • Maturity (ages 18 to 24) – The Responsibility and Purpose Period: Young adults develop specialist knowledge and skills, preparing them to take their place in the world and to establish social and economic independence.

Learning about the planes of development isn’t just useful for Montessori educators; understanding your child’s development can help at home too.

Practical Life

A term that encompasses ‘domestic’ work to maintain the home and classroom environment, self-care and personal hygiene, and grace and courtesy. Practical life skills are of great interest to young children and form the basis of later abstract learning. In addition, this type of work assists with gross and fine motor skill development as indirect preparation for later learning, muscle development, hand-eye coordination, and so forth.

Practical Life Activities

Young children in Montessori classrooms learn to take care of themselves and their environment through activities such as hand washing, dusting, mopping, hammering, and woodworking. These activities help toddlers and preschool-age children learn to work independently, develop concentration, and prepare for later work with reading and math, while older children participate in more advanced activities such as cooking, gardening, operating a business.

Prepared Environment

The teacher prepares the environment of the Montessori classroom with carefully selected, aesthetically arranged materials that are presented sequentially to meet the developmental needs of the children using the space. Well-prepared Montessori environments contain appropriately sized furniture, a full complement of Montessori materials, and enough space to allow children to work in peace, alone, or in small or large groups.


The rules of a Montessori environment are simple: children must respect themselves, each other, the adults in the room, and the material/equipment – and this is a cornerstone of Montessori pedagogy. Children are reminded to keep their hands and feet to themselves, and not to disturb another’s learning space or work.


Comes from within, when a child is able to focus on the practice of an activity or topic for a length of time. The ability to concentrate is found in a normalised child; this is when they are able to make a prolonged effort to complete a task and control error.


Self-regulation is the ability to control one’s impulses and behaviour, and it encompasses self-discipline, delay of gratification, the ability to think before acting, motor control, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility, and task persistence. Montessori is an approach whose theoretical background is deeply rooted in the development of children’s self-regulation and independence. Contemporary psychological research demonstrates that the Montessori environment enhances children’s self-regulation in the present as well as in their adolescent and adult lives.

Sensitive Period

A critical time during human development when the child is biologically ready and receptive to acquiring a specific skill or ability—such as the use of language or a sense of order—and is therefore particularly sensitive to stimuli that promote the development of that skill. A Montessori teacher prepares the environment to meet the developmental needs of each sensitive period and observes each child carefully, for readiness.

Sensorial Materials

Work with these materials develops and refines the five senses – seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling – and builds a foundation for speech, writing, and mathematics. Each scientifically designed material isolates a specific quality such as colour, size, or shape. This focuses the child’s attention on this one characteristic and teaches them to sort, classify, order, and develop a vocabulary to describe objects they experience in the world around them.

Social Development

Refers to the development of the individual in society as they develop an appreciation for the cultural context and the codes of appropriate behaviour within that context. Social development speaks to the specific codes in human society and their complexities on a social, emotional, economic, and psychological level. Social order comes from the experience of being in a social group. In a Montessori environment, the social, emotional and spiritual development of a child is all considered fundamental for cognitive development and learning.

Society by Cohesion

It is achieved when students become bonded to each other more so than to adults. They form a group and are committed members. In this society, when the individual child cares more for the success of the group than for individual success they are said to be socially integrated. To contribute to the function and stability of the group for them is a reward in itself. Society by cohesion can be observed mostly in the latter part of the second plane of development as well as in the third plane of development.

The Three-Period Lesson

A three-step technique for presenting information to the child. In the first – the introduction or naming period – the teacher demonstrates what “this is.” (The teacher might say “This is a mountain” while pointing to it on a three-dimensional map.) In the second – the association or recognition period – the teacher asks the child to “show” what was just identified (“Show me the mountain”). Finally, in the recall period, the teacher asks the child to name the object (“What is this?” the teacher asks the child while pointing to the mountain.) Moving from taking in new information to passive recall, to active identification reinforces the child’s learning and demonstrates their mastery of the concept.


Valorisation is what comes from achievement and contribution. When an individual has a sense of validation, acceptance, and is confident in their ability to be successful, independent, and to make a contribution to society, they have reached valorisation.


Work is a purposeful activity. Dr Maria Montessori observed that children learn through purposeful activities of their own choosing. Montessori schools call all of the children’s activities ‘work.’ While ‘work’ sounds like a serious endeavor, Dr Maria Montessori observed that children exhibit joy when they experience this purposeful activity.

Importantly, it is always the effort that the child puts into the work that is acknowledged by the adult, not the end product of the work itself. This is because the actual ‘work” is done intrinsically, within the child and it is the work that develops the child. This is why children’s ‘work’ is never displayed in Montessori classrooms. Drawings, written work, and the like are irrelevant, immaterial, of no consequence, when the real work has been the transformation of the self, inherently, through effort and concentration. Work is experiential, not tangible. A love of learning, purposeful action, or joyful effort is the only really meaningful display of work.

Work Cycle

Within the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom, children are taught to complete a work cycle, which includes: 1) choosing an activity; 2) completing the activity to completion (perhaps repeating the full sequence of the activity multiple times), cleaning up and returning the materials to the proper place; and 3) experiencing a sense of satisfaction to have fully completed the task. This term can also refer to the periods of uninterrupted work time that students have in their day. All students at every age are provided with lengths of time to work in which they are not interrupted or moved to new activities so that their freedom and concentration are protected. A three-hour period is considered optimal and many jobs will be completed within the work cycle. Teachers will use the bell to disturb the work cycle only to alert all children to a point of interest and only if really necessary.