More Than Meets the Eye

Direct and Indirect Aims of Montessori Materials

by Anne Marie Vega, Principal

Montessori materials are an essential aspect of quality Montessori education. The materials enable the full execution of the Montessori philosophy and methodology. They are more than “toys” or “hands-on activities.” Montessori materials are the hallmark of a Montessori classroom. 

The Montessori curriculum is divided into the following general areas: practical life, sensorial, language, math, geometry, cultural studies. All Montessori materials and presentations have direct objectives or aims. These are the skills and/or concepts that the material is intended to develop.  Montessori materials are designed to be attractive, didactic, and self-correcting. They draw the child into the work and call forth the child’s inner desire to learn and develop the self. 

Montessori materials are attractive. They are often made of smooth wood and painted in subtle, inviting ways. They are displayed in attractive baskets and trays. Human beings are, by nature, attracted to beauty and the beauty of the material invites the work of the child. Montessori materials are also didactic, meaning they are designed to teach or instruct. They engage the child in self-directed learning and are more than just a visual to reinforce the teacher’s lesson. Montessori, as a physician, recognized the intimate connection between the hand and the brain. She designed materials to engage the child in movement and specifically hand movement. 

Another hallmark of Montessori materials is that they are self-correcting. They are designed in such a way that the child knows when it is correct or incorrect. This  degree of this varies throughout the levels and depending on the material, but the design is such that the teacher does not have to be present to “assess.” As a result the child becomes more engaged and self-directed toward mastery. 

In addition to the direct aims of the materials, all materials have indirect aims.  These are the more subtle skills and concepts that are being developed for future work. These indirect aims focus on building the child’s muscular and neural pathways. They help the child begin to categorize, assimilate, and make connections. This is one reason why children are encouraged to engage with the materials over and over again.  The child might have seemingly mastered the direct aim or concept, but the continued work with the materials leads to a depth of understanding that builds for future learning. 

Montessori materials are connected across levels. What a child experiences in preprimary is reinforced and built upon at lower elementary and upper elementary. For example, the Pink Tower, a sensorial material presented to the youngest child in preprimary, has the exact same dimensions as the long chains and cubing work that is presented at lower elementary and then solidified in upper elementary. As the child feels and carries the cubes of the Pink Tower, matching them to the Broad Stair, stacking them, lining them up, etc. he/she is building the motor memory of the size, depth, height, shape of these cubes. As the child moves on to work with the counting chains and builds squares and cubes, the sensorial nature of the cube becomes a numerical reality. Then as the child is introduced to the formula of cubing, that motor memory engages the intellect and a connection is made.  This is a stronger connection than one that is approached from the intellect alone. 

The Montessori maps are a favorite activity in the preprimary and lower elementary. They are big works encouraging the young child to engage large muscles to carry them around the room. They also have small pegs which focuses the child’s “three-finger” grip and develop small muscle control. In addition, on all the pieces the peg is positioned in the location of the capital of the country. This is never pointed out to the child, but rather builds motor and visual memory. The child’s eye is automatically drawn to that location. As the child moves into the upper elementary and begins  a more in-depth, historical study of maps they unconsciously draw upon this motor memory. 

The concrete nature of the Montessori materials builds and refines, leading the child to abstraction.  The slowness with which Montessori materials are used and the multi-step nature of working in the environment helps the child to engage on many levels. The time it takes to lay out all those beads, separate the tags, walk down the hallway, etc…all this helps build executive functioning skills and allow the child to work in steps toward completion. 

Montessori materials are beautiful and engaging. They look fun and inviting. But there is more than meets the eye…Montessori materials have a timeless quality and a depth of possibility that help children of all ages to grow in wisdom, age, and grace.