Should I send my gifted child to a Montessori preschool?

I am often asked by parents of young gifted children who want to do what is best for their child where they should send their child to preschool, e.g., what type of preschool would best support their child’s gifted needs. By the time they ask me, they have often already made some inquiries and visited some preschools, and quite frequently they have secretly settled on a Montessori preschool, attracted by its logical academic-style program. So when I advise parents that Montessori preschools may not be the best choice, they can’t really understand why I would have that view.

My first visit to a Montessori preschool took place many years ago when I wanted to see whether it was right for my own child, and initially it was the quiet in the preschool that struck me – you would not guess there were many children present. Everything was neat and tidy, and children were working at their own pace alongside each other. One child was pouring water into a small glass carefully from a little glass jug. Another was working quietly on a puzzle. There were very interesting wooden puzzles and mathematical blocks around, and I recall seeing a globe. There was an easel, but hardly any artwork to be seen, and the Directress (a Montessori term for the person running the preschool, who is most often NOT a university trained early childhood teacher, but has had Montessori training) seemed rather severe and serious. I ended up not sending my child to this preschool, and have since visited a number of different Montessori preschools as a Children’s Services Adviser.

I will explain why I chose not to send my child there by providing a little background: Maria Montessori was an Italian visionary educator, although she was actually a medical doctor who was concerned about poor children who received no education, and who were often developmentally delayed. She decided to do something about this and received funding for her first preschool in 1907 (similarly to Head Start Programs that started up in the United States in 1965 to help close the gap between poor and middle class children). She created special equipment and a program that had excellent outcomes for the children at her school. Western society has since adopted many of Montessori’s inventions for young children: for example, we now use small tables and chairs in preschools, and wooden puzzles with various levels of difficulty. But today’s preschools have also incorporated many other educators’ influences, ensuring that children get the best and most rounded programs. These educational influences continue to change and evolve as we learn more about child development. Montessori preschools, on the other hand, continue on much like they always have. Activities for children involve a pass or fail (e.g. spilling water or not) and if they fail, trying again before being allowed to move onto another more challenging activity. Artwork is limited and prescriptive and can in most cases better be described as craft. For example, children may be given an outline of a car on a piece of paper, and can then ‘colour in’ the car with whatever materials are provided, e.g. using textas or bits of coloured paper that can be glued onto the paper. They can fail the activity, as the ‘colouring in’ must be within the lines of the car.

In non-Montessori preschools, children are mostly provided with a blank piece of paper and all sorts of materials and they are trusted to create whatever they desire. This opportunity and other such creative activities enhance their experience with colours and shapes and textures, it provides opportunities for prediction and experimentation, it makes them proud of their creations and achievements. Similarly, equipment in non-Montessori preschools is freely available for use, and there are no rules that prevent children from approaching a new activity until they have mastered another. They are generally supported in their experimentation and their self-esteem, and can express themselves as loudly or softly as they wish most of the time. Instead of working alongside other children independently, they play and discover together with others, learning to negotiate, trying their leadership skills, engaging in make believe, becoming all manner of imaginary personas, readily accepted and co-believed by their peers. They watch and imitate others or find solutions together through a game or during free play experimentation.

Parent influence and requests is also much more welcome in community-based preschools, and individual children’s needs are more readily supported, whereas the rigid adherence to the Montessori method often prevent such flexibility in Montessori preschools.

In summary, genuine Montessori preschool programs are frozen in time, whereas other preschools run programs that have incorporated the best of what is available, and that keep evolving and improving. I believe that if Montessori was around today, she would be moving on too, because she was an amazingly creative and visionary woman who used her knowledge of medicine to form her educational philosophy, and to innovate equipment and programs to better the lives of poor children (and later on, not so poor children, too). If she were here today, Montessori would be utilising the latest brain research to shape her programming much like it is used in the curricula and equipment in modern non-Montessori preschools today, and she would consult with parents, who know their child best so that the child’s needs can be met and their strengths better supported. And she would be rather sad, I imagine, to find that although her teaching principles have remained religiously unchanged, the fees of Montessori preschools today are unaffordable for children who hail from a low socio-economic background.