A Glossary of Terms

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Activities of Practical Life

In Montessori schools, children are formally instructed in “domestic” skills they will use throughout their lives, including:

  • Care of Self – These activities provide the means for children to become physically independent. Activities in this area may include learning to wash one’s hands or learning to put on one’s clothing. For an 18-month-old, it could be as simple as assisting in pulling down his own pants, but for an elementary student, it could be packing lunch or an overnight bag.[1]
  • Care of the Environment – Keeping a clean, orderly classroom is important in a Montessori environment. The practical life activities teach children how to take care of the space around them—from physically cleaning to, on a deeper level, appreciating one’s environment. These activities may include how to set the table, how to clean dishes, or how to water and care for plants. For example, in the Montessori table washing activity, the child would be shown how to go to the correct area of the room to gather cleaning supplies, take a pitcher to the sink and fill it with water, and then methodically scrub the table. Another example: toddlers love learning how to put out a flower arrangement in the classroom. Not only is it beautiful, but they get to make choices about what will make it the most beautiful, all while performing a very involved sequence of tasks with a naturally mandatory order (separating the flowers, filling vases with water, etc.)[1]
  • Grace and Courtesy – saying “please” and “thank you,” interrupting conversations politely, requesting rather than demanding assistance, and greeting guests warmly.[2]
  • Elementary Movements – One of the major accomplishments of early childhood. Through the child’s own activity, she refines muscular coordination and consequently acquires increasingly higher levels of independent functioning. Because of this developmental need, children are drawn to activities which involve movement and especially to pastimes which demand a certain level of exactitude and precision.[3]

Absorbent mind

From birth through approximately age 6, the young child experiences a period of intense mental activity that allows her to “absorb” learning from her environment quickly and easily without conscious effort.[2]



Casa dei Bambini

In Italian, “Children’s House,” the name of Dr. Montessori’s first school. In many Montessori schools, the name Children’s House is used for the classroom for children ages 2.5 (or 3) to 6 years.[2]

Cosmic education

Maria Montessori urged us to give children a “vision of the universe” to help them discover how all of 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.[2]



Behavior commonly seen in children that is the result of some obstacle to normal development. Such behavior may be commonly understood as negative, (a timid child, a destructive child, etc.) or positive (a passive, quiet child). Both positive and negative deviations disappear once the child begins to concentrate on a piece of work freely chosen. These are areas where normalization is lacking.

Didactic materials

Didactic meaning, “designed or intended to teach,” these are the specially-designed instructional materials—many invented by Maria Montessori—that are a hallmark of all Montessori classrooms. They are self-correcting or offer “control of error” and they focus on a single variable or offer “isolation of difficulty.”[2]

Control of Error

Montessori materials are designed so that the child receives instant feedback about her progress as she works, allowing her to recognize, correct, and learn from an error without adult assistance. Putting control of the activity in the child’s hands strengthens her self-esteem and self-motivation as well as her learning.[2]

Isolation of difficulty

Each scientifically designed material isolates a specific quality such as color, size, or shape. This focuses the child’s attention on this one characteristic, and teaches her to sort, classify, order, and develop vocabulary to describe objects she experiences in the world around her.[2]

Direct Aim

The specific skill that a material is designed to develop or the main lesson that an activity is designed to teach; the short-term goal or primary purpose.8


Historically, the designation for the lead teacher in a Montessori classroom; some schools still refer to the lead teacher as “directress” or “guide,” while others use the more recognizable term, “teacher.” In Montessori education, the role of the teacher is to guide individual children to purposeful activity based upon her observations of each child’s readiness and interests.[2]



Activities that build on the first presentation of a material, bringing new information, a new level of challenge, or a new way of experiencing a material. Often, these involve bringing in additional materials. These are usually presented, but sometimes discovered by a student.8


Free choice of work

Children in a Montessori classroom are able to choose their own work. The work a child needs to master calls to them and they are free to work for as long as they like. Adults should observe what work holds the child’s interest and only suggest work if the child is not respecting their environment or other people.8

Freedom of movement

Children in a Montessori classroom are able to move their bodies. Adults should observe what movement calls to the child and only intervene if the child is not respecting their environment or other people.8

Freedom within limits

Montessori classrooms are carefully and thoughtfully designed to encourage children to move about freely and choose their own work, within reasonable limits of appropriate behavior. Those limits are the classroom ground rules, and enable children to exercise their own free will while ensuring that their chosen activities are respectful of others and their environment.[2]


Ground rules

Classroom rules in the Montessori classroom are typically referred to as “ground rules” which dictate appropriate behavior in the classroom. At all age-levels, the ground rules are simple—children are free to work with any material or activity displayed in the environment as long as they use it respectfully. They may not harm the material, themselves, or others.[2]


Human Tendencies

A central tenet of Montessori philosophy is that human beings exhibit a predisposition to exploration, orientation, order, abstraction, work, self-perfection, communication and a spiritual life. The tendencies are universal, spanning age, culture and racial barriers; they have existed since the dawn of the species and are probably evolutionary in origin.[3]


Indirect Aims

The ultimate goals that a given material or activity can prepare a child to accomplish; the skill that many other lessons put together will lead to in the long run.8

Intrinsic Motivation

The drive to achieve a goal comes from inside a person. Rather than motivating students with external rewards and punishments, Montessori educators trust that a child’s intrinsic motivation guides them to complete work to the best of their ability.8

Mixed-age grouping

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; 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; there is cooperation rather than competition between the ages. This arrangement mirrors the real world, in which individuals work and socialize with people of all ages and dispositions.[2]






Normalization of a Child

An individual child’s state of psychological health characterized by love of work, concentration, self-discipline, and sociability. Enabled by a safe, stimulating environment that provides caring, competent adults, meaningful work, freedom within limits, etc.8 If children are repeatedly able to experience periods of spontaneous concentration on a piece of work freely chosen, they will begin to display the characteristics of normal development; a love of work, attachment to reality, and a love of silence and independence. Normalized children are happier children: enthusiastic, generous, and helpful to others. They make constructive work choices, and their work reflects their level of development.[3]

Normalization of a Class

A collective state of psychological health characterized by children working of their own accord with very little need of any adult intervention.8


Observation and scientific pedagogy

Following the scientific method, Dr. Montessori would carefully observe the children and test hypotheses with the end goal of improving their experience. All in all these observations and discoveries allowed Dr. Montessori to remove the obstacles to the children’s development. As she did so she marveled at their dignity, order, and ability to learn.[4]


Planes of development

Four distinct periods of growth, development, and learning identified by Dr. Maria Montessori that a human being progresses through:

  • Plane 1, age birth to 6, absorbent mind
  • Plane 2, age 6-12, reasoning mind (the period of reasoning and abstraction)
  • Plane 3, age 12-18, newborn into society (when adolescents construct the “social self,” developing moral values and becoming emotionally independent)
  • Plane 4, age 18-24, contributor to society (when young adults construct an understanding of the self and seek to know their place in the world)[2]

Point of Interest

The most interesting moment or point of an activity. The element that will catch the attention of the child and attract the child toward the activity.8

Practical life

The Montessori 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.8 Young children in Montessori classrooms learn to take care of themselves and their environment through activities such as hand washing, dusting, and mopping. These activities help toddlers and preschool-age children learn to work independently, develop concentration, and prepare for later work with reading and math; older children participate in more advanced activities such as cooking, gardening, or operating a business.[2]

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.[2] The space housing a Montessori class is thoughtfully designed and ever-evolving. Great pains are taken to consider how each of the senses will interact with the space and with each material in it. The teacher arranges the environment to allow children maximum independence, with developmentally appropriate materials and opportunities to engage in meaningful work. Teachers strive to incorporate order, beauty, and natural elements into everything that is placed into the classroom, and they will remove any object that is not sparking curiosity or creativity in the students.

Presentation, Qualities and Characteristics of a Good

Start with observation. Consider the child. What drives him? What are his physical traits? For example, is he left handed or right handed? Are his fine motor skills weak or strong? Check the environment. Are things in order for the child to focus? Check the material. Are all components available and displayed attractively? Consider yourself. Are you prepared and in the right frame of mind? Be simple. Be clear. Be focused in your presentation. Use precise movements and economic words. Leave out anything unnecessary. Allow the child to get involved in the presentation, but don’t coerce the child to pay attention or participate. Be intentional about putting the material back on the shelf to model completing the work cycle. End with observation. Consider the child, the environment, the process, the results of the lesson, and your own actions. [1] Simple, slow, silent Use movement you want children to use Pause occasionally Give at the right moment 8

Presentation, Steps of a

1. Preparation - Check that the adult, the child, the environment, and the material are all ready. 2. Statement of Invitation - “Let me show you how to…” 3. Materials - Get whatever is needed from the shelf. The child may help. 4. Position - Let the child sit in front of the table/rug, at your non-dominant side. 5. Attention - Watch for the attention of the child to be on the work. 6. Statement of Intention - Restate “I am going to show you how to…” 7. Presentation - Do the activity as perfectly and deliberately as possible. 8. Separation - “Now it’s your turn.” Allow the child to do the activity without you. 9. Observation - Step back and take notes. Do not interfere or correct. 10. Completion - If the child needs help putting materials away, show him how or help him.




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.

  • Attachment, the first hour after birth – 3 months (the symbiotic period)
  • Gross & Fine Motor Development, Birth – 2.5 years
  • Refinement/Coordination of Movement, 2.5 years to 6 years
  • Spoken Language, 7 months to 3 years
  • Letter Shapes & Sounds, 2.5 years to 5 years
  • Written Language, 3.5 years to 4.5 years
  • Reading, 4.5 years to 5.5 years
  • Sensory Focus on Small Objects and Details, 1 year to 3.5 years
  • Refinement of Sensory Skills, 2 years – 6 years
  • Order, 1 year – 3.5 years
  • Toilet Learning, 1 year – 1.5 years
  • Music, 2 years – 6 years
  • Social Aspects of Life, 2.5 years – 5 years
  • Manners & Courtesies, 2.5 years – 6 years[5]

Sensorial Exercises

Work with these materials develops and refines the 5 senses—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling—and builds a foundation for speech, writing, and math.[2]

Spiritual Embryo

Dr. Montessori believed that the reason humans take so long to develop is our ability to be individuals, rather than just part of a species. Human movements, which take longer to master, are voluntary and not instinctual. Children are capable of becoming anything and that potential is present from birth and they mold themselves by interacting with their surroundings. By taking seriously the notion that children shape themselves, our role as caretakers shifts from the shapers of children to being their guides. Rather than pointing out where they should go, we must listen to where the child wants to go, and help them to arrive safely.[6]


The Line

Dr. Montessori noticed that children everywhere practiced balancing by walking along things. She incorporated this activity into the classroom. The children begin by standing on the line at spaced intervals. They then walk slowly, placing the whole foot on the line, and taking natural steps. Gradually the children shorten their steps, until finally they walk touching the heel of the foot with the toe of the other. The foot should be always directly on the line, the back straight and the head held high. The purpose of these exercises is to aid the children in establishing perfect equilibrium and to help coordinate movements and the development of attention and will.6 The Silence Game – Dr. Montessori brought a baby into class to show the children and suggested they be as quiet as the baby. Thus, the “game” was born. This activity helps children become aware of silence and quiet sounds. It is a religious exercise that requires stillness, careful attention, and group cohesion. 7 Three-period lesson – A 3-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 3-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?” she 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 her mastery of the concept.[2]




A different way of doing an activity that still fulfills its direct aim. These are left for the child to discover.



Purposeful activity. 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. Montessori observed that children exhibit joy and experience this purposeful activity as play.[2] Work period– 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.[2]




Works Cited

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Craycroft, Marnie. “12 Characteristics of a Successful Montessori Presentation.” CarrotsAreOrange.com, 2021 https://carrotsareorange.com/montessori-presentation
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 "Montessori Terminology." About Montessori, AMShq.org, American Montessori Society, 2021 https://amshq.org/About-Montessori/What-Is-Montessori/Terminology
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 “Glossary.” MariaMontessori.com, Montessori Administrators Association, 2017 https://www.mariamontessori.com/learn/glossary2
  4. “Observations and Discoveries.” Blog, Council Oak Montessori, Council Oak Montessori School, 1 Sep 2020 https://counciloakmontessori.org/2020/09/01/observations-and-discoveries
  5. Holly. "Montessori Sensitive Periods Birth to 3 Years." This Toddler Life https://thistoddlerlife.com/montessori-sensitive-periods
  6. Guidepost Team, The. “The Importance of Practical Life Activities Within the Montessori Method.” Parenting, The Guidepost Blog, GuidepostMontessori.com, Higher Ground Education, Inc, 2021 https://www.guidepostmontessori.com/blog/practical-life-activities-montessori-method

Other Works

“Chapters 4-6: The Spiritual Embryo.” Blog, CouncilOakMontessori.org, Council Oak Montessori School, 18 Nov 2019 https://counciloakmontessori.org/2019/11/18/chapters-4-6-the-spiritual-embryo

Homfray, Margaret. “20 Walking the Line.” YouTube, uploaded by نادى الطفولة المبكرة, d27 Feb 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrOZAI1nnRg

Homfray, Margaret. “21 The Silence Lesson.” YouTube, uploaded by نادى الطفولة المبكرة, d27 Feb 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8ik5KE1ykE

Kalkirtz, Melissa. “Notes.“ Mar 2014