By Judith Jolma
What did Aristotle, Charlotte Mason, and Maria Montessori have in common? They each knew that the environment was every bit as important as the lessons.
"Education is an atmosphere," Charlotte Mason famously wrote.
Maria Montessori agreed:
“The teacher’s first duty is, therefore, to watch over the environment. This takes precedence over all the rest.”
The child’s environment is a microcosm of the universe. What he experiences through his surroundings literally becomes the lens through which he will understand the world for the rest of his life.
So what makes the difference between a classroom that serves education versus one that sabotages it? Beauty, peacefulness, order, and freedom of movement are just some of the features that create an ideal learning environment.
Nearly two millennia before Charlotte Mason or, Maria Montessori spoke about the importance of the learning environment, the world’s greatest tutor had already proved their theory.
Aristotle’s school looked like a scene straight from Greek Mythology. Nestled in a deeply shaded cave along the river banks in the Greek city Naoussa, it was surrounded by beautiful landscapes, paths, and dense vegetation fed by cool, serenely flowing streams.
The setting must have evoked images of mythical Greek gods and fairies dancing among the fragrant plants because long before Aristotle, ancients had used the caves as a sanctuary dedicated to Nymphs. Before abandoning the shrine, they had built out the caves with great architectural beauty and left behind relics full of historical, cultural, and religious significance. The cave itself became a study of history, philosophy, and religion.
In this carefully chosen environment, Aristotle formed the mind of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known: Alexander the Great.
Clearly, the great tutor knew all the necessary ingredients for an ideal learning environment. Coincidently, (or not) they are the same six elements that Maria Montessori said perfectly serve the child’s needs in their environment.
Structure and Order
Is it possible to apply these same ingredients within the home incorporating them into everyday life? Yes. Not only is it possible, but it is essential.
Dr. Montessori identified the environment as one of the three pillars of education. We know that we cannot teach without a student. So the student is the first pillar of education. We can intuit that the teacher must be well prepared. So the prepared adult is the second pillar of education. But of all the other things that we could identify as the final support for a solid education, it was the prepared environment that Dr. Montessori identified. Not socialization. Not even critical thinking skills or a Biblical worldview. I guarantee Aristotle did not use Sharpies or glitter in his cave. He did not begin young Alexander’s intellectual education in Pre-K. In fact, Alexander did not begin his formal education until about age 14! And the great philosopher certainly did not use grades or tests.
But he did choose and prepare his learning environment with great care. We should not be surprised. The creator, too, carefully prepared the Garden of Eden as the first classroom. He prepared the environment as the first essential to loving his children.
Here are a few elements to consider when preparing your learning environment:
(You can learn more about the prepared environment in my webinar series The Three Pillars of Education).
1. The environment is more than its external surroundings.
“The atmosphere includes conversations, a sense of calm and peace, structure to the flow and return of the day. There is an internal environment that is as important as the external environment -- that internal environment is created by the prepared adult who does not bring stress, anxiety, sloth, or frustration into the space,” Maria Montessori.
2. Beauty is a key intellectual element that should be created in the child’s space.
“Beauty” should not be confused with “expensive.” While expensive things are often beautiful, the elements of an environment do not need to cost a lot to be very beautiful. However beautiful things do communicate value. If you present a lesson to a child with a book or object that is tattered and mistreated, it communicates that both the thing and the lesson are of little value. Beautiful things are clean and are not broken. They are bright, cheerful, and simple. Keep in mind that commercial and cartoonish elements may be fashionable but they are not beautiful. Children crave real art over Disney.
3. Nature and Reality
Children are driven to learn about the universe through their immediate surroundings. That means the prepared environment should not be artificial -- plastic, pretend, or disposable. As much as possible prefer real materials: wood, cotton, meddles, glass -- things that break! When you show them images of their alphabet, prefer real script or manuscript over cartoonish letters. Give them images of real faces and animals instead of cartoons. Children love real work: sweeping, helping in the kitchen or garden, folding cloth, polishing, and watering plants. They want to feel valuable by being welcomed into everyday activities like scooping, pouring and serving. Older children want to carry heavy things, help dad fix the car, etc. They all need the adventure of the outdoors. Just experiencing the weather change is an adventure for a small child.
Children are designed to learn in motion. They must have freedom of movement. A child that is restricted from moving is restricted from learning. They must have the freedom to see the consequences of error. In other words, they have to see that mishandling glass causes it to break. White carpets and furnishings show errors much better than dark or patterned materials. Hiding spills may be desirable in most of the house but in the learning environment, we want them to be able to identify errors so they can correct them.
Imagine living in a house made for giants. What if you had to struggle to climb up on a couch just to relax. This is how little children feel every day. We can increase their freedom by offering them child-sized materials. Make sure there are child-sized tables and chairs around. Spoons and dishes that fit in their hands so they can do real things. Freedom means allowing them to choose their own work and how long to work. Freedom to explore, to interact socially, and freedom from interference.
We know we have created a successfully free environment when the children begin to deeply concentrate. Dr. Montessori judged success by the teacher’s ability to say, “The children are now working as if I do not exist.”
5. Structure and Order
Everything has a place and that place is always the same. Little children need consistency in repetition. They need a daily schedule. “No” always means “No.” They cannot learn where there is chaos. (Do not confuse chaos with commotion.)
6. Social Environment
A well-prepared environment is one that is a social environment. That doesn’t necessarily mean lots of people as much as it means a variety of kinds of people: Adults, children, elderly, special needs… It also should be one that offers the opportunity for collaborative work. This is one of the reasons that the home is a far superior learning environment to the classroom. The family structure is naturally a social environment. Age-segmented or even gender-segmented classes are the opposite of a healthy social environment. Students need the freedom to interact and help each other. The social environment should include ample child-directed (rather than adult-directed) play.
Fill up your home and learning environment with things that cause children to wonder: Rich picture books and art, gadgets that do interesting things, maps, and elements from nature like bird’s nests, rocks and shells. Display these things in a way that invites the children to touch and explore. Don’t answer all their questions immediately rather let them ponder curiosities. Read above their grade level. And never use baby talk.
The above elements are so important to successfully forming children into adults that Dr. Montessori goes so far as to say if the environment is not properly prepared all other efforts will be unsuccessful in teaching:
"If the above aspects are not recognized, the intellectual environment will not reach its purpose. The purpose of this prepared environment is to develop the whole personality of the child, not merely his intellect."
But she offers great encouragement at the same time:
“The teacher becomes the keeper and custodian of the environment. She attends to this instead of being distracted by the children’s restlessness. From this will come healing and the attraction that captures and polarizes the child’s will... The Teacher’s first duty is therefore to watch over the environment, and this takes precedence over all the rest. Its influence is indirect, but unless it be well done there will be no effective and permanent results of any kind, physical, intellectual or spiritual.”
By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.
Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at Sophiahomeschool.com
Learn how to create a homeschool method and environment based on your family's needs so you can thrive. My Foundations of Homeschooling Masterclass teaches parents to work with their budget, schedule, learning style, teaching style, and resources so each member of the family has his or her needs met— including yours! Learn to create a peaceful and joyful learning environment that lasts a lifetime. Identify learning differences and adapt your educational plan accordingly. Unlock the mysteries of teaching multiple grades at once. By knowing what your needs are, you will save thousands of dollars, time, and energy on methods that do not work. We will end homework battles and restore your relationship with your child.