"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. The implicit preparation for reading is just one of the ways in which the prepared environment supports children's intellectual, spiritual, academic, social, physical and artistic growth. You'll see similar patterns in the sequencing and introduction of mathematical concepts, in the ways in which the classroom presents increasingly complicated understandings of science principles, in how children's physical development is supported through expanding demands on their fine and gross motor skills, and more.
But the Prepared Environment isn't limited just to preparation of the physical space. Montessorians understand that the Prepared Environment also includes the influence of the people who share it and the routines set throughout the day, week and year. You'll see Montessori teachers adopting a specific teaching role, one which may be different than their interaction with parents when the children are not present. They'll be more concise, more intentional in their language, more quiet and more likely to step out of the action and into the background quickly. In the combination of children, you'll see a multiage classroom in which children's needs and strengths often balance each other, with older children teaching and mentoring younger children and younger children learning from their peers, their own experiences and the reactions of the apparatus and teachers. You may wonder why most Montessori schools avoid rolling admissions, until you see the way in which the beginning of the school year is structured differently than the middle, when the preparation of the environment also includes more transitional time for children and more materials that are accessible by every child in the classroom.
These elements of preparation, from the careful design of the materials themselves to their presentation and sequence on the shelf, from the layout of the classroom to the number of mats available for the children to use (or wait for,) from the way in which teachers hasten conversation with other adults to focus their attention singularly on the children... together they offer a complex interaction that requires both thought and deep knowledge. At the beginning of the year, pay attention to the ways in which these classrooms function differently than many other children's spaces. Look for the ways in which the preparation allows for children to enact their own agency, to develop at their own pace, and to express themselves authentically, even when doing so takes more time than it will when they are adults. Follow the lead of the classroom teachers, who have prepared the space mindfully to be able to, in turn, follow the children they are designed to serve. You are watching the engagement of a carefully designed balance of ten or twenty or forty humans, each with their own drives and personalities, learning the steps of a dance that, in just a short amount of time, will look seamless and graceful. It's all a part of the design.