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The Beauty of The Montessori Early Childhood Three Year Cycle Series – The First Year

| Cathy Bachman |

By Catherine Mathews

The three year cycle gives a child the opportunity to be a youngest child, middle child, and oldest child in the classroom community. Regardless of their birth order they can experience what that means within our own class family.

First Year Student Experience:

First Year students spend the bulk of their time learning how to be independent in their daily movements. Having lately come from the Toddler environment or home life they are really wishing to do things by themselves as often as possible. Our responsibility and gift is to prepare an environment that fosters this independence and unlocks their potential.

First Year students spend a great deal of their time in observation. Observation of lessons, observation of peers and older children’s work, observation of the environment. Many First Year students will opt to sit in the observation chair or wander the classroom. They are absorbing their environment. As long as they are not disturbing others we allow this observation to continue. This is important work for First Year students. In fact, any child regardless of age may wander the classroom for observation purposes. We find again and again that those children who take to this activity are often benefited from this exercise and that if we force them to take up work, except when they are becoming a disturbance to others, their development will become obstructed. We do not always understand exactly how a child learns best and this is particularly true in their first year of Montessori education. 

First Year students are working on concentration, coordination, independence, order, and hand-eye coordination. The materials and lessons presented to the First Year student have this goal in mind and they are attractive to the student because they are in a sensitive period for such things. The development of all these skills and innate drives in the First Year student and its further development in the Second and Third year lays the foundation for lifelong success not only academically but in all aspects of the future life of the child. For this reason we cannot state the importance of the Practical Life and Sensorial Areas to the Early Childhood student enough, especially to the First Year student.

Areas of Emphasis:

Practical Life, Sensorial, and Grace & Courtesy

Practical Life:

While all students use and love the materials from Practical Life the First Year student falls in love with this area. Having just come from a toddler life many things have been unavailable to them that they have desperately wanted to do. The Practical Life Area of the classroom gives them these keys. How to pour and gain control of this skill. They begin by pouring large items from small glass creamers and eventually move to pouring small, fine items and water from large opaque containers to uneven sized smaller containers. They begin by transferring larger items from one bowl to another with child sized tongs or large spoons to small items such as a single mustard seed at a time with the tiniest of spoons or tweezers. They begin by learning to roll rugs carefully and eventually learn to fold napkins in intricate ways. They begin by scrubbing an object and learn to scrub a table, chair, or shelf. They begin to appreciate and understand that each material has a specific home and there is a sequence to the order of the works in difficulty. They learn they must necessarily wait for one child to complete a work and to restore it for another child to use it. They begin the all important task of practicing their patience. They must come to understand that even if they wish to use a particular material, when another child already has chosen it they could choose to use it for as long as they wish.  Therefore they must choose something else to do until that material becomes available. The First Year student innately knows the value of developing their fine motor skills. Not only this, but they also have an inward pull to do so. They are moved from within to continually progress. As these exercises are taught the child is indirectly taught the correct direction for writing – top to bottom, left to right, circular motions etc. This lays the proper foundation for later writing skills. The Practical Life Area is a key to unlocking the necessary control of the hand which prepares the First Year Student for burgeoning writing skills to be used later. We observe children who feel shaky in their hand-eye coordination returning again and again to several particular works that develop this. They may use those works every day and even multiple times in the same day until they feel confident and their body no longer needs them. It was only necessary for the adult to show the lesson once or twice, but through their practicing of a particular movement a child teaches themselves the control they crave. Once a child has mastered a skill their use of a work immediately drops off and we know they are ready to tackle the next new and finer skill. This is the work of Early Childhood but most particularly the First Year student. While this list is not exhaustive, some of the necessary movements for successful writing the Practical Life Area develops and hones simply by being so interesting are:

The twisting of the wrist from side to side (such as in squeezing water out of a sponge in the sponging work)

The squeezing of the hand tightly (such as squeezing a small sponge tightly enough to get all the water wrung out of it)

The twisting of the hand with a clenched fist from front to back (such as twisting a small rolled up cloth to wring it out)

The three-finger pincer grasp (such as in using the dressing frames to learn zipping, buttoning, and safety pinning)

The twisting of the fingers in a bent pincer grasp (such as used in twisting large nuts onto their corresponding bolts or the Locks and Keys work)

The twisting of the fingers in an extended pincer grasp (such as in using a small screwdriver to tighten down screws into their places)

The thumb and forefinger pincer grasp (such as using a spoon, scoop, or tongs to transfer materials from one container to another)

Using the hand to apply the appropriate amount of pressure to a surface (such as in holding the dustpan tightly to the ground or table in order to be successful in catching the crumbs or other items swept up)

Crossing the midline (such as in braiding, lacing, and bow-tying works)

Steadiness of the hand (such as in pouring works, watering plants, and sewing projects)

Circular motion in tight circles (such as in the scrubbing a table work)

Left to Right repetitive movement (such as in scrubbing a table, or polishing work)

Top to bottom repetitive movement (such as in washing windows)

Tracking (such as in following the scrubber in the application of suds and the sponge as they clean off the soap in the scrubbing a floor, or following the hand as it practices weaving paper in and out to make a woven placemat)

Attention to detail (each Practical Life work has a necessary attention to detail in order to become mastered)

The benefits of the Practical Life Area are multiplied since the child is learning how to live within their own world and classroom environment with ever increasing independence while at the same time indirectly developing the control necessary to be successful in writing and reading skills. Whenever we observe a deficiency in fine motor control we look for the Practical Life works that will address this need. The foundational importance of the Practical Life Area can never be overstated. The First Year is certainly not the only time a student appreciates or works on their skills in Practical Life, indeed throughout their time in the classroom children from each age group participate in works of ever increasing difficulty and finer motor skills. We simply see the First Year student spending so much of their time in the Practical Life Area because these skills must necessarily become mastered in order to be successful in so much else in the classroom; because it calls to them.


Sensorial is the other area of the early childhood environment where the First Year student spends so much time. This area develops the child’s ability to learn through their senses and teaches them, simply by using the works, to become keenly observant human beings. This area also prepares the mathematical mind by leading the child to compare very slight differences in size, length, width, sound, color, weight, roughness or smoothness, heat or cold, smell, taste and so on. As a child becomes more and more adept at discerning these slight differences they are presented with lessons in grading those differences and in placing their work in sequential order. Many of the Sensorial Area works are sequential in nature and as children use these works they naturally begin to place them in sequential order. Only one or two lessons were needed for the child to begin their practice of the materials, but as they work with the materials uninterruptedly they teach themselves and figure it out through exploration. This is one of the reasons Montessori children often say they didn’t learn anything at school, because it is such a natural and seamless way to learn that they correctly feel they taught themselves. This area of the classroom along with Practical Life are the bedrock for developing concentration and opening the keys to normalization. We love to see a child using the Pink Tower and Brown Stairs work for ever so long, even daily. A First Year child may choose to work exclusively with Sensorial materials for months before waking up to the possibility of other areas of the classroom, but we find that First Year students who are drawn in by Sensorial and Practical Life works are so well prepared to move forward with language and math the following year. We see with fair assurity that their future will be good and so we watch their work with joy.

Grace & Courtesy:

When a First Year Student enters the Early Childhood Environment they have an  almost exclusively egocentric existence as a toddler. This is simply the pattern for growth. They have little experience with thinking about anything else but themselves and their own needs, but now that they are moving out of this period they can begin looking at their community and what it means to belong to one. In the first year experience the child is given lesson upon lesson on how to function with respect, thoughtfulness, grace, and courtesy within the confines of the Montessori early childhood classroom environment. The lessons are direct, quick, and simple. This list is by no means exhaustive and include such things as:

How to walk around rugs instead of on them

How much room to put between rugs so others can walk around our work and still get to the shelves

How to get the attention of an adult

How to tell if a teacher is in a lesson and should not be disturbed

How to tell who they should go to for help

How to politely get by someone who is in your way

How to wait your turn in a line

How to stay behind or in front of someone in a line

How to wait patiently when walking somewhere instead of pushing people who have stopped in a line

How to sit by a neighbor at circle

How to ask people to scoot over and give you enough space to sit at circle

How to ask to be excused from an activity

Why we take care of our environment

Why we do not want to throw our things on the floor or leave a big mess behind ourselves

How to ask to watch work

How to ask to join work

How to watch a lesson

How to walk up and down stairs

How to hold doors for others

How to sit in silence

How to walk a line

How to observe materials on a museum shelf with only our eyes

Respect of others work and not touching or destroying their work

Why flushing the toilet it so important

The importance of washing our hands

How to ask for a Peace Talk (conflict resolution session)

By having these items brought to the attention of the First Year student they begin to look outside themselves and become connected to their environment and to the others in their environment. This is an important part of the normalization process for these students.