One of the key components of any Montessori classroom is what we refer to as the “prepared environment.” In fact, Montessorians use the terms “classroom” and “prepared environment” interchangeably. At first glance, we might dismiss the term as being too obvious. Isn’t every classroom a prepared environment in some sense? But as we discover more about the inner workings of the Montessori pedagogy, we find that the term is a rich and many-layered description. We can think of it as having three main components: the classroom materials, the adults (or “directresses” and “directors”), and the other children in the space. Physically, the classroom is arranged to be conducive to the children’s independent, self-directed work. We notice low shelves, inviting materials, and work spaces both on the floor with work mats and at tables for both group and individual use. The hands-on materials are designed to meet the learning needs of the children in the relevant age group and are presented in lessons and then placed in the environment in a logical and sequenced manner. The adults in the classroom are well educated in the didactic use of the materials as well as in child development, and they actively support a classroom culture of challenging work, movement, and independent work. Lessons in responsibility, in grace and courtesy, and in sharing become part of the fabric of this environment, prepared to best suit a child’s learning.
The prepared environment describes a classroom that has been laid out carefully and methodically to maximize the independent and spontaneous work of the child. The pedagogy is based on the foundation that children move through the different stages of development as part of their natural growth. They will independently acquire what they need if they are presented with the appropriate concepts, at an optimum age, with manipulative materials. Any effective environment for children needs to be set up in such a way that the children can access the materials, which are laid out in a logical manner, with a maximum amount of independence and a minimum amount of adult direction. Further, the classroom must be beautiful and peaceful in order to better allow each child’s energies to flow without obstacles or distraction.
The Montessori materials themselves, as part of the prepared environment, also have a strong role to play. Besides their pedagogical function (hands-on, self-correcting, isolation of concept and difficulty), they too are objects of beauty. Montessori believed that working with quality materials, such as tongue-and-groove boxes, wood and glass pieces, and beads, is a crucial element to a child’s learning that would be diminished if the materials were rendered in cheaper plastic, shabbily made, or easily broken.
Of course, we can also see that the term “prepared environment” must refer to more than the tables, the desks, the rugs, and the Montessori materials, to include the rest of the children in the classroom, the teachers, the daily schedule, etc. Thus, the role of the “teacher,” which is better translated from Montessori’s Italian as the “guide, directress, or facilitator,” is less to talk at children than to prepare a classroom environment that will best facilitate a natural process already present in each child.