Prepared Environment

By Conny Tosch   

What drives learning? There are many factors, that influence learning. It, of course, depends on the child, the teacher and the environment the child is opposed to in a learning situation.

Maria Montessori always refers to a “prepared environment” which is designed for the child to give him the maximum ability for independent learning and exploration. The phrase "prepared environment” refers to a well-thought out classroom or environment designed with the child in mind with the aim to help the child to think for himself, to gain autonomy and independence. Through the environment we want to nourish the child and awake his interest. The material should be like a call “come, see and work with me” and the environment overall can be seen as an attractive envelope between child world and adult world and a place of discovery that is inviting and stimulating.

“The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult. ” Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood

We can basically differentiate several elements of a prepared environment, among them: 
1. Physical environment which is referring to the place/room and material
2. Human environment which is connected to the adults working with the children in the environment and what they put from themselves into the physical environment. This is not to be mixed up with the role of the adult in the classroom/environment.

Overall, the environment must be a fulfillment for the child, meaning it has to be:
- rich (=fulfilling needs to discover for all age groups)
- loving (=feels accepted/included)
- supportive (= help the child do the development)

There are generally six aspects of the Prepared, Physical Environment:

1. Freedom
Freedom in the prepared environment involves freedom of movement, exploration, social interaction, and interference from others all of which lead to freedom of choice.

Maria Montessori believed that a child must be free to explore and follow his own natural impulses. Like this he can develop his potential and increase his knowledge of the world around him. Consequently, within the prepared environment, the child must experience
- freedom to interact socially,
- freedom of exploration
- freedom of movement and 
- freedom from interference from others.

This freedom ultimately leads to a greater freedom: freedom of choice.

2. Structure and Order
Structure and Order in the Montessori classroom reflect the sense of structure and order that can be found in the universe.

Maria Montessori mentioned a sensitive period for order which occurs between the ages of one and three years. For a child, an order is necessary to secure him, to reassure him and make him feel comfortable. When the child begins to draw conclusions of the world around him, it is necessary for him to find order in his environment. If not the child’s sense of reason may be off since he will not be able to validate his findings and to have a predictable world around him that gives sense to him.

3. Beauty
The prepared environment should be not only in an order, but as well beautiful, simple, wellmaintained, and inviting to the learner. The material should be attractive, shiny, dust-free, complete and spotless, “a pleasance for the eye”. The environment should reflect peace and tranquility. This atmosphere is easily seen by the attitude of those working there, both child and adult.

4. Nature and Reality
Maria Montessori had a deep respect for nature and believed that we should use nature to inspire children. Consequently, natural materials are preferred to any others, such as real wood, bamboo, reeds, metal, cotton, and glass are preferred to synthetics or plastics. In addition, all items need to be on child size (material, furniture, tools etc.) and reachable / usable, independent of the adult. Rakes, pitchers, tongs, shovels should all fit children’s hands and height so that the work is made easier, thus ensuring proper use in autonomy and completion of the work without frustration.

5. Social Environment
The prepared environment is also a social environment (“microcosms”). The child is confronted with social situations throughout the day as they interact through work with others. Where there is freedom to interact, children learn to encourage and develop a sense of compassion and empathy for others and become socially aware. As children develop in age (around 5 years), they become more socially aware, preparing to work and play in groups. This social interaction is encouraged with the nature of multi-age classrooms. The environment is supporting the social interaction. It develops collaboration and not competition. Children cannot really compare where they stand with regard to their development. That there is only one set of materials, e.g., makes them learn to share, to wait and to value the moment when they work with it.

6. Intellectual Environment
The purpose of the Montessori environment is to develop the whole personality of the child, not merely his intellect. By guiding the child through the five areas of the Montessori curriculum (Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics, and Cultural subjects), the child can bloom his full potential.

“We must clearly understand that when we give the child freedom and independence, we are giving freedom to a worker already braced for action, who cannot live without working and being active.”
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Preparing a class room
A lot of time and effort is involved in creating a prepared Montessori classroom. It is the role of an educator to think about the setting of the environment, this means, how should it be prepared to respond to the children’s inner needs. He needs to keep in mind how the child is thinking and of course his development stages (absorbent mind, sensitive periods).

General rules to follow:
1) Define the areas in the class room
2) Define the activities in each area
3) Define the place for a specific object in each area.

Ad 1) Definition of areas
In general, we are having five parts in the Montessori environment:
1) Language
2) Sensorial
3) Practical life
4) Mathematics
5) Geographical

When defining the areas, the children’s needs must be kept in mind. Practical life is a starting point for children on the first day as these are activities they have seen before and they might have worked with. It is like a transition between home and school. As this is a busy area, a quiet book corner, e.g. should not be right next to it.

In the class room must be enough space for single and double tables, shelves, space to work on the floor and of course space to move for a child. The sensitive period of movement needs to be respected as it is feeding intelligence following Maria Montessori. This means in detail that
- There is just the right size of a room, where is enough space to move freely around, going from one activity to another one (smooth movements, not too many shelves and tables) with about 4m2 per child (3m2 by law in Switzerland).
- There is a room that invites a child to walk slowly. A room which is too big might invite a child to run, one who is too narrow, limits his movements in a way needed
- Corners to hide should be avoided
- Everything needs to on child-size as a child should be able to work independently and can become more and more precise in his movement

Ad 2 & 3) Activities and objects on the shelf
There is as well an internal order within the shelf and each activity. The activities are arranged from the simplest on the very left to most complex activity on the right, resp. hierarchically from simple to complex and concrete to abstract. Each activity consists of a beginning, middle and end and can as well be presented in different degrees of difficulty. This motivates the child to repeat the activity due to the feeling of success. Repeating will lead to a certain level of concentration. The child starts with one simple activity and continues with a more complex one (series of action in an activity needed).

The material in the sensorial area, e.g., is very concrete, but there is an abstraction behind (e.g. the red woods are 1 m long. By touching and feeling the red wood, the child got the feeling of length). There is a materialized abstraction how Maria Montessori named it.

Replacing shelves for the children (e.g. cotton balls, towels) on child-size level, as well as for the adults (e.g. a second set of glass pitchers) needs to be present as well. The teacher does not need a desk, the classroom is designed for the children.

Keeping in mind the didactic triangle, it is obvious, that the material is not managing it all. One needs a “soul in the classroom”, a personal spirit. the social aspect, someone who can do the presentations and give his inner love/support (adults in the classroom).

Underling the aspect of the human environment it is necessary to
- keep the prepared environment in a constant, predictable order
- assure a good team spirit, love, care, support to the child. The adults should be happy to come to school.
- create an environment who is exposing to do errors. A protective environment but not overprotective. The aim is that the child is able to have a self-correction and to realize a mistake. This means for example, that a child can see stains (no tapis, better tiles), hear when things make noise (e.g. no pads underneath the legs of chairs), or break.
- Act as a role model in own movements, voice, tonality etc.
- Put something personal into the classroom (especially in the practical life area).
- Give the environment a good spirit. Everything is prepared in detail. Someone has put effort in, which is valuing the child.

Therefore, in the calm, ordered, yet personal/human space of the Montessori prepared environment, children experience a combination of freedom and self-discipline, as guided by the environment. They work on activities of their own choice at their own pace. They experience a blend of freedom and self-discipline in a place especially designed to meet their developmental needs.

Creating a peaceful environment for peaceful people!


“The child can only develop fully by means of experience in his environment. We call such experience ‘work’.”
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind