Gearing up! The prepared environment

The school’s credit card is growing weary with use, and my desk is several thicknesses deep in materials request forms from teachers and invoices from suppliers. While many people’s buying sprees happen around the December holidays, mine comes in late July and into August with the furniture and material ordering I have the honor of doing for our 11 classroom, 325-student school. And then the boxes roll in, filled with brand new tables and handsome, precision-made Montessori materials. It’s better than all the gift-getting holidays combined!

Getting ready for the start of school is a huge undertaking in a Montessori community. While most of our colleagues in education return a day or two before the students begin school to plan out their lessons and tack pictures to the wall, Montessori teachers typically have one or two weeks to fully prepare their classroom environments. In fact, about half of our teaching staff has started this process early, already drifting in and out over the past couple of weeks, and some classrooms are just beginning to take shape here. It’s one of my very favorite times – with all the great anticipation and monumental work of launching into the school year.

Basic to the practice of Montessori education is preparing an environment that is highly aesthetic, is conducive to learning and to human interaction, and fosters feelings of safety and comfort – all key components to harmonious daily living. The classrooms at LCMCS express the personality of the adults and students in the room, reflecting their interests, what inspires them, and the way they like to use space. When you walk into a classroom, you’ll feel more like you are in someone’s living room (if it’s a large family!) or, if the students are there, the work space of many people conducting social research or discovering the laws of science. For that is exactly what’s happening there.

Montessori work environments, by definition, should be beautiful, orderly, and serve the needs of the inhabitants. Shelves and cabinets are open and appropriately sized to make the needed materials readily accessible to students so that they can be independent in their learning. Tables and chairs are also student-sized, with the adults garnering just one of their own somewhere in the room. Fine art work, botanical specimens,  cultural artifacts, and other impedimenta of the human and natural worlds will be found adorning walls and shelves throughout the room. The room must also include tools for cleaning up, for lunch time set up, and places for keeping one’s own things tidy: that can be a challenge in itself in a room of 30+ students!

The Montessori teacher must also think about the traffic flow, plan for group meeting space, quiet corners, and small group working areas, arranging the furnishings in an aesthetically pleasing as well as practical manner.  To accomplish this, the weeks before school might see trials of several different furniture arrangements before the materials even come out to be placed on shelves. Each area of the curriculum has its own place in the classroom, with the shelving just right for the materials the students will use. In the early part of the setup, teachers can often be seen just sitting in the space, seemingly lost in thought, while they mentally sort through the merits of one arrangement or another. Colleagues and administrators are consulted and diagrams drawn. So much thought and care goes into getting this right.

Once the furniture is set, the materials are placed in the specific order that they will be presented to students. Trays and baskets that hold the particular pencils and paper that go along with materials, or the underlays for protecting the tables, need to be placed nearby and just so. Work journals and aprons, small rugs and reference books, scissors, tape, rulers, and watering cans: Montessori teachers are masters with the axiom “a place for everything and everything in its place”.

Why all the fuss? Human beings have a love of beauty and are strongly affected by the “feel” of their environment. We also have a great need for order and organization. In a community of 30 or so people, all working independently (or getting there), everyone needs to be able find what they need and when they need it. And it needs to go back so the next person can find it, too. We also want to foster respect for the classroom – the tools, the materials, the furniture, and, of course, all of the people within that environment. When the students feel comfortable, find the surroundings are pleasing to the eye and satisfying to the sense of order, are able to care for themselves easily, find what they need and know how to take care of their classroom, that sense of community we all seek naturally arises. Students feel ownership in their classroom, become bonded with each other and find peace in the work. And that’s the best recipe for a place to learn and grow.