Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Prepared Environment, Montessori Method and Brain Development

By: Rigel Whytsell

Having a prepared environment for children may be more necessary than previously thought. Recent research now suggests that in order for children to have the optimal opportunity to reach their full potential that they need an environment specifically tailored to their developmental needs. The environment should stimulate the children emotionally, socially, cognitively, and physically as well as provide a rich sensory experience. This was Maria Montessori’s vision of a space that meets the needs of the child and coincidentally promotes brain development.

Marian Diamond and her colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley pioneered research showing that the structures of the brain are modified by one’s environment (Diamond & Hopson, 1998). Her research is the foundation for the concept of neural plasticity—the brain's ability to change its structure and respond to external experiences. According to Diamond and Hopson, the best environment is one that “includes a steady source of environmental support, nutritious diet, stimulates all senses, atmosphere free from stress and enjoyable, challenging, allows social interaction, promotes development, and gives the child a chance to assess the results of their actions, all in all allows the child to be an active participant rather than a passive observer”. After years of observation in the classroom, Paula Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jessen stated “In order to achieve this full potential a human being needs interaction with the immediate environment and sensorial awareness. This is evident with the child’s growing independence, coordinated movements, language and developed will” (Lillard and Jensen, 2003). So it is necessary, in order to afford children the best opportunity to thrive, to have a prepared environment that meets these needs.

This description, founded on research is congruent with the Montessori Philosophy of the Prepared Environment. Montessori believed that children are given the best chance to learn when they are free to move about the classroom, choose activities or “work” that interests them and have the option of working with their peers. She also believes that the materials used in the classroom should have a built in “control of error”, meaning that it should be obvious to the child when the activity is done incorrectly, rather than the child being dependent on the adult for confirmation. She also believed in offering the children a rich sensory experience and even dedicated an entire part of the curriculum to refining all five senses.

It is clear then that the Montessori Philosophy and current research point to the same type of prepared and stimulating environment, but how does this promote brain development? Since the Montessori Method promotes movement in the classroom, then a classroom where children are free to move about is one that promotes brain development. Neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford explains “Movement is now realized to be helpful and even essential for increasing learning, develop creative thought and a high level of reasoning.” Dr. Judy Herr, professor of early childhood at the University of Wisconsin - Stout points out that it is also known and accepted that “a wide variety of visual, auditory, and sensory experiences will help promote brain connections,” and therefore having sensorial activities and materials in a classroom is ideal for promoting brain development.

It should be clear then that a properly prepared environment such as the ones found in a Montessori classroom is advantageous for proper children’s brain development. The science is clear, children require a prepared environment that is rich in sensory experiences, offers movement and is appealing to the child.

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