My husband and I are in the process of buying a new house. Along with starting to plan where our furniture will go and what new things we may need, I've also started looking into the local nurseries and schools. Though my son is only a year old, I've decided to start stressing about it now. Yay me.
My first son went to a Montessori school until he was six. Amazingly, the Montessori nursery he went to has moved to a location close to our new house. This makes me very happy as he enjoyed that nursery very much and as long as the new place is in an equally nice setting, I think I will send my new son there when he is two and a half.
The Montessori method of educating children is named after Maria Montessori, the first female doctor in Italy. The method arose after Montessori observed children who were given freedom in a space filled with special materials aimed at "self-directed learning". As I have understood it, the Montessori method allows children to discover things on their own and are therefore imbued with a deeper understanding of the world around them. There have been several studies showing that children who attend Montessori schools perform better academically and socially than children at 'mainstream' schools up until the age of 12. In my experience, Montessori kids are happy, confident and relaxed with adults.
The first thing I noticed when I visited my first Montessori nursery was that it was very ordered and the children were peacefully doing their "work" (all learning activities the children do are called 'work' as opposed to 'play'). It wasn't like other nurseries I'd visited where my senses were overloaded immediately with bright colours everywhere, loud music playing and children shouting and running around.
On my first visit to a Montessori nursery, I watched in amazement as a three-year-old child walked to a shelf, pick up a bit of work on a tray, place it on a table, sit down and immediately concentrate deeply on what they were doing. When they were done they would put everything back on the tray, stand up, push their chair in and take the tray back to the shelf... then find another bit of work they wanted to do. All quietly, peacefully, happily.
Now, the 'work'. It may sound odd to refer to something a three-year-old does as 'work', but Montessori believed that children learn and develop more when they are actively engaged with their environment in the present moment rather than when they are playing 'make believe'. Of course, Montessori children play 'make believe' like all other children, but when they are at nursery they are happily focused on their 'work'.
Examples of some of the materials used in Montessori nurseries can be found on the Montessori sensorial materials page on Wikipedia. They include things like different-sized blocks that need to be put into size order or blocks that are all the same size, but are different weights and need to be put into weight order. Practical skills such as washing dishes, buttoning or tying laces are a vital part of their daily work as well as learning letters and numbers. One of my son's favourite activities when he was around three, involved two little bowls filled with dried beans and a spoon. He had to spoon the beans from one bowl into the other bowl. Apparently, he used to do this time and time again.
As my son got a bit older and some of his friends were getting ready to move into a mainstream school, I elected to allow him to stay on and move out of the nursery and into the elementary class. The reason for this was mainly because I was so impressed with their mathematics. At around four years old a Montessori child will be very familiar with numbers over 1000, at around five years old a Montessori child will discover Pythagoras' Theorum, and by around seven they will understand fractions and multiplication with an ease that eluded me until much later.
My son finally moved into a mainstream school in Year 2. Luckily, his teacher in that school was Montessori trained and the head of the maths department which meant that his transition into the 'normal' way of doing things would be a bit easier. For his first couple months at school, she allowed him to use Montessori materials when doing his maths if he wanted.
The only criticism I, personally, would have with the Montessori method is that because all learning is child directed, they focus mainly on the things they love and avoid things they don't enjoy so much. On the one hand this means that if at six they get incredibly excited about, say, finding the volume of things, they will very quickly become extremely knowledgeable and advanced in that. If, however, they don't like writing stories (like my son), then it is perfectly possible for them to avoid that and perhaps delay there development.
When my son was at Montessori, his directress (as the teachers are called) would have a lesson on something such as the Big Bang. Afterwards, all of the children were to go off and do their own thing based on this lesson. Some would choose to write a story, others would choose to do a poster, some would choose to do a sculpture... my son would often choose to think about it for about half an hour and then have a discussion about it with the directress during which he would tell her his own new thoughts and also ask some very insightful questions.
My older son is now 13 and has always had problems with writing since he was very small and just starting out. I do not think this is a result of him being in a Montessori at all, but I wonder if his issues could have been picked up earlier. He is, however, fairly good at maths, loves science, has an amazing ability for designing and building things. Also, pretty much every one of his teachers throughout his entire 'mainstream' school career has said that he is an active member of the class who enjoys engaging the teacher in discussion about the subject, often asking incredibly insightful and sometimes very difficult questions. Perhaps if I'd sent him to a traditional nursery he may have been a slightly better writer, but would have been considerably less willing to engage his teachers in discussions.
If you are thinking about sending your child to a Montessori nursery, please be aware that the name Montessori is not trademarked so just because a school may call itself a Montessori, it doesn't mean they are a 'true' Montessori. Some simply use a few of the Montessori materials whilst being a more or less 'mainstream' nursery, others may not even use any Montessori materials or ideas at all.
The best thing to do is to read up on the Montessori method at the UK's Montessori Society site (which also has schools listed) and the UK's Montessori Education site which is the body which accredits Montessori schools in the UK. If the nursery you are thinking of is not listed on either of those sites, then perhaps you should visit and find out about their usage of the Montessori method and see if it feels right for your child.