"Can I see your shelves?"
What an odd question. And, yet, if you spend much time with Montessori teachers, you'll almost inevitably hear them asking each other about how they prepare their shelves. You'll see them kneeling down in front of each other's shelves to see which materials are color coded or to open box lids to see what's inside. A visiting Montessori teacher comes to observe your classroom? You'll enjoy a brief moment of eye contact before they start glancing around the room, surveying the layout of the shelves, tilting their heads to see what's organized where.
Unless you understand the emphasis Montessorians place on the Prepared Environment. When we talk about the Prepared Environment, we don't just mean that the place is orderly or welcoming or beautiful. We mean that every decision in the environment is made intentionally, with an eye to the development of the children that environment serves. Yes, even the shelves.
Montessori shelves are organized into the five primary areas of the curriculum: Practical Life, Sensorial, Mathematics, Language and Cultural Materials. Within each area, the shelves are prepared to sequence the materials from easiest to most complex, with the simplest material located on the top shelf, all the way to the left, and the most complex material located on the bottom shelf, all the way to the right. That is to say, that's how they're sequenced in countries that use Latin, Modern Greek, Cyrillic, Indic or Southeast Asian scripts. Why? Because those languages, including most modern languages of Europe, North and South America, India and Southeast Asia, read from left to right and from top to bottom.
You might be thinking, "Seriously. Montessori teachers, chill. Not EVERYTHING has to be that precise."
We'd disagree. Actually, everything should be that precise.
Particularly during the period of development that Montessori termed, "The Absorbent Mind," we understand that the child is developing cognitive habits that reinforce different patterns and norms for organizing new information. We want the Prepared Environment to reinforce those habits, to support the child in moving with ease from simpler activities to more complicated ones and to build upon prior knowledge without having to re-learn it. Organizing the materials, then, in the same pattern that language follows means that, when it's time for the child to learn to read, the teacher won't have to first tell them where to begin on the page. The child's own experiences will guide them to start at the top left and work across the page before moving down to the next line.
You should, then, be able to see the skills build within any sequence of materials. If a Practical Life shelf "ends" with Carrot Cutting, for example, you will be able to "read" earlier materials on the shelf to find lessons that range from using a sponge to managing a cutting board. This structure reinforces the patterns of language and habits of mind we want to support in the child, and simultaneously motivates the child, who can see the materials on the horizon. Children are aware, then, both of how far they've come and of how many more enticing materials await them, by the visibility and reliable sequence of the materials.