In November of this year we heard that the future King would be starting his pre-school at Westacre Montessori School in Norfolk. Like most of the UK and further afield, we took interest in where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would choose to send their first-born to start his journey of life discovery and development.

Now Prince Wiliam was one of the first royals in modern times to not be pre-schooled within the palace confines, and what we understand about his character and modern monarchy style; it is no surprise that baby George would have a “normalish” education-life.

So, a Montessori school has tongues wagging about why is it so special? Why is it fit for a Prince?And how unique and elite is a Montessori school?

Maria Montessori is one of the Learning Theorist that we teach all of Forest School trainees about, and encourage people who work with us to read up on in order to understand the some of principles that we embody when teaching and learning.

The below piece should help you understand why Montessori is revered, and hopefully help you think about the type of pre-school you want you child to attend, or even how you can get involved in your child’s learning development even if they are in mainstream nurseries or schools.

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Maria Montessori (1870-1952).

“Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, where study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants—doing nothing but living and walking about—came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning; would you not think I was romancing? Well, just this, which seems so fanciful as to be nothing but the invention of a fertile imagination, is a reality. It is the child’s way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so he passes little by little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love” (Dr. Maria Montessori, MD cited in

Maria Montessori was a remarkable woman, being the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree she is famous for an approach to early childhood education that still carries her name today. Montessori wrote that “the child can only be free when the adult becomes an acute observer. Any action of the Adult that is not a response to the children’s observed behaviour limits the child’s freedom” (Dr Maria Montessori, MD cited in MacNaughton, 2003).

Montessori developed an interest in the welfare of children who were deprived and termed ‘idiot children’ whilst in her role at San Giovanni Hospital. This fostered her interest in educational theory and she became convinced of the need for special schools for these children.

After giving birth to her son she spent more time visiting schools and studying educational theory and philosophy. She became convinced that her methods of education developed for children with mental disabilities were applicable for all children.

In 1904 Montessori was appointed at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Medicine in the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome. She stayed here until 1908, whilst continuing to practice in hospitals and clinics publishing many professional papers.

At this time, Montessori set up a children’s house in the slum district of Rome. At the Casa dei Bambino children were given simple things to play with, with staff under strict instructions to observe their play and not to intervene.

Montessori’s theory reflects her scientific backgrounds, basing her philosophy on scientific observations. She observed that education begins from birth and that children experience periods of special sensitivity during which they are eager to learn. It is at these points that the skilled professional can capture a child’s interest and natural curiosity to accelerate their ability to learn and develop.

Montessori placed high importance on the learning environment, she believed that the environment should be interesting and beautiful and regarded this as important as the teaching methods and materials used by the teacher, “our apparatus for educating the senses offers the child a key to guide his exploration of the world” (Absorbent Mind, cited in Mooney 2000, p 27).

Montessori was aware of the importance of children’s sensory development believing that “children learn through sensory experiences” (Mooney 2000, cited in Understanding the Danish Forest School approach). She also advocated for furnishings and materials that are child sized to enable children to undertake and accomplish tasks safely and with comfort. These were not readily available at this time and many of these were bespoke to Montessori’s school.  She believed that real tools such as sharp knives and scissors, woodworking and cleaning tools were important to enable children to undertake work that interested them in what she called ‘real life situations’ (Cited in Understanding the Danish Forest School approach p24).

A Montessori classroom will typically have children of mixed ability and ages. They are designed to meet children’s needs at times when they are most interested and motivated to learn. The approach is effective at harnessing children’s natural abilities to learn and offers a series of experiences to explain abstract principles.

The Montessori’s principles of education aim to support all aspects of the child’s personal and social development, something we now term ‘holistic learning’. This is put into practice through:

  • Daily living skills which provide a foundation for learning, centred on care for the environment, care for oneself as an individual and care for others in their community.
  • Education of the senses which aim to develop skills for learning, by observing, understanding and exploring the world through the senses, the child learns how to classify, discriminate, evaluate and sequence.
  • Language development which aims to develop the fours aspects of language, spoken language, listening, writing and reading.
  • Number concepts and application of number which aim to provide a concrete understanding of the concepts of number and mathematics in the environment.
  • Science and exploration of the wider world which aim to provide experiences of the natural world including plant and animal kingdoms, people, events and cultures.

(Taken from How Children Learn. P 30-31)

Applying Montessori’s observations with children to an outdoor learning setting:

  • Learning through movement: particularly hand movements which she believed are directly linked to intelligence. All sessions involving movement and kinaesthetic preferences to learning with a high degree of hand eye coordination in all planned activities.
  • Enjoy learning in an environment designed to meet their needs: Child sized tools and materials, natural resources and nature.
  • Learning through the senses: She wrote that the senses should come first, then intellect. Specific sessions focusing on the senses and activities that help the child develop each sense independently and in combination.
  • Learning to read, write and count at an early age: The use of self-expression and communication are vital elements of the four aspects of language development and are an integral part of a Forest School programme.
  • Respond to educational opportunities in an environment which is prepared to meet their special sensitivities for learning: Identifying opportunities to extend activities to engage the child to learn new ideas and attribute meaning to concepts learnt.
  • Reveal a spontaneous self-discipline within a prepared environment: Provide an environment that enabled the child to identify their own boundaries, limits and any rules for the forest school programme.

How have the pioneer theorists shaped Early Years pedagogical practice?

When looking for a benchmark in using the outdoors in the Early Years many professionals look to Scandinavian methods such the Danish Pedagogical approach as best practice. The Danish approach has been influenced and supported by works from pioneer learning theorists such as Froebel, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Vigotsky and Montessori.

In 1928 Montessori’s learning theories we used by Sofie Rifbjerg to develop a 2 year training programme for new Pedagogues at the Seminariet for Smabornepaedagoger (Training College for small Children’s Pedagogues).  The Danish approach in Early Years has led to the development of seven guiding pedagogical principles of practice that has influenced Early Years pedagogy internationally:

  1. A Holistic approach to children’s learning and development.
  2. Every child is unique.
  3. Children are active and interactive learners.
  4. Children need real life, first hand experiences.
  5. Children need time to experiment and develop independent thinking.
  6. Children thrive in child centred environments.
  7. Learning comes from social interactions.

(Cited in Understanding the Danish Forest School Approach)

Early Years Practice in Wales

Welsh Government developed its core education policy for children & young people in the Seven Right to Action setting out seven core aims for children and young people. These were developed directly from the adoption of the articles set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The Seven Core Aims underpin all education activities in Wales.

We aim to ensure that all children and young people:

  • Have a flying start in life and the best possible basis for their future growth and development.
  • Have access to a comprehensive range of education, training and learning opportunities, including acquisition of essential personal and social skills.
  • Enjoy the best possible physical and mental, social and emotional health, including freedom from abuse, victimisation and exploitation.
  • Have access to play, leisure, sporting and cultural activities.
  • Are listened to, treated with respect, and are able to have their race and cultural identity recognised.
  • Have a safe home and a community that supports physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • Are not disadvantaged by any type of poverty.

          The Learning Country 2: Delivering the Promise (Welsh Assembly Government, 2006)

Foundation Phase in Wales (3-7 years).

Looking at extracts from Welsh Government statements on The Foundation Phase It is easy to note the similarities in the values of the new Foundation phase in Wales and Danish Early Years approach.  The Foundation Phase (FP) is based on Scandinavian in particular the Danish Early Years pedagogy.  Some important words from WG extracts on the Foundation Phase have been highlighted that directly link to the Danish Early Years pedagogy and the core principles of the Montessori approach to learning.

At the centre of the statutory curriculum framework lie’s the holistic development of children and their skills across the curriculum, building on their previous learning experiences, knowledge and skills”.

Children learn through first-hand experiential activities with the serious business of ‘play’ providing the vehicle. Through their play, children practise and consolidate their learning, play with ideas, experiment, take risks, solve problems, and make decisions individually, in small and in large groups. First-hand experiences allow children to develop an understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. The development of children’s self-image and feelings of self-worth and self-esteem are at the core of this phase”.

“It is essential that children have access to a variety of media to express themselves and ample opportunities to apply their imagination in a purposeful way. Children acquire and develop skills at different rates and must be allowed to develop at their own unique, individual pace. As children learn new skills they should be given opportunities to practise them in different situations, to reflect on and evaluate their work. In all aspects of their development, children’s own work should be respected, valued and encouraged for its originality and honesty. (Extracts taken from Foundation Phase: Framework for Children’s Learning for 3 to 7-year-olds in Wales, DCELLS, WAG, January 2008).

The Foundation phase has seven areas of learning:

  1. Personal and Social Development, Well-Being and Cultural Diversity
  2. Language, Literacy and Communication Skills
  3. Mathematical Development
  4. Welsh Language Development
  5. Knowledge and Understanding of the World
  6. Physical Development
  7. Creative Development

A key focus within the new Foundation Phase in Wales that distinguishes this approach from those previous to it, is the attention given to ‘Child-centred learning’. This enables practitioners to be an ‘acute observer’ allowing children the freedom to follow their own curiosities and interests; “take time for careful observations and reflection, and use these observations to guide your environment and curriculum planning” (Mooney 2000 p33).  A curriculum based on a child’s individual needs is part of legacy Montessori left behind and one of her greatest gifts to influence Welsh Early Years curriculum.

The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, the children are now working as if I did not exist” (Maria Montessori, cited in Mooney 2000 p 21).

Bibliography of works cited

  • Jane Williams-Siegfredsen (2012) Understanding the Danish Forest School Approach: Early Years Education into practice. Routledge.
  • Linda Pound (2005) Practical Pre-School: How Children Learn. Step Forward publishing limited.
  • MacNaughton (2003) Shaping Early childhood. Open University Press.
  • Mooney, C.G. (2000) Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erickson, Piaget and Vygotsky. St Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
  • The Learning Country 2: Delivering the Promise (Welsh Assembly Government, 2006)


Bibliography of works used

  • Sara Knight (2010) Forest Schools and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. SAGE Publications.
  • Sara knight (2011) Forest School for All. Sage.

Sources of further reading

  • Maria Montessori (1949) Absorbent Mind. London: Clio Press.
  • Barbara Isaacs: Bringing the Montessori approach into your Early Years classroom. David Fulton.
  • Tina Bruce (1987) Early Childhood Education