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Three-Year Multi-Age Grouping in the Montessori Classroom

Three-year multi-age grouping is a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of Montessorians. We witness the benefits it brings to the children in our classrooms every day. Here are some words and phrases that immediately pop into mind when we think of multi-age grouping: leadership, self-esteem, reinforcement of knowledge, observation, absorbent mind, and synthesis.

As Montessorians, we know the value of multi-age grouping. We strive to enrich our classrooms with a balanced amount of first-year, second-year, and third-year students. This is a crucial step in preparing the environment and ensuring that children reach their full potentials.

Children are sponges...

As children go through their day in multi-age classrooms, they are free to observe other children working. At the beginning of the year, there is usually one child who will politely decline a teacher's invitation to a lesson. His parents will ask him what he did at school and inevitably, he'll respond by saying, "Nothing."

What the parents may not realize is that he absorbed information, effortlessly, simply by being in the environment. His day of doing "nothing" consisted of observing a Sandpaper Letter Lesson, watching an older child sweep up a spill around the snack table, and intently focusing on an older child complete the Trinomial Cube. Children are exposed to new information even if they don't "formally" have a lesson.

Leadership

Another benefit of multi-age settings is that older children take on leadership roles. It is a joy to observe older children as they help their younger friends. They do so with great pride. As we watch older children respectfully interact with younger ones, we see their potentials unfold.

One year, the children in my class were particularly fond of playing the "What's Missing?" game. An older child would arrange the Geometric Solids on the rug, name each one, ask her various-aged friends to close their eyes as she removed one, and wrapped it in a cloth. The children would name the one that was missing. If needed, the older child would help the younger ones by allowing them to feel the shape. If the younger child shouted out "ellipstick!" the older child would respectfully let them know that ellipsoid was the correct word. Acting as "teacher," older children increase their self-esteem and reinforce their knowledge.

Words of Wisdom from a Montessori Sage

When you're discussing Montessori philosophy with your colleagues do you sometimes say, "I wonder what Dr. Montessori really meant by..."? Wouldn't it be great if we could sit down with her, have a cup of tea, and discuss how we can best serve the children?

Unfortunately, that isn't possible for us. However, there is someone who did! Her name is Lakshmi Kripalani. She's a nonagenarian who took Dr. Montessori's teacher-training course in Karachi, India in 1946 and worked directly with Maria Montessori and her son, Mario Montessori. A Montessori sage, Lakshmi is a wealth of information and an inspiration to educators around the world.

Lakshmi landed in a refugee camp after the partition of India in 1947. Eager to help the camp children, she gathered them together and wrote letters in the dirt, used pebbles as unit beads, and used sticks as ten bars. The leaders of the camp were surprised to see her teach the children under such dire circumstances. Her determination and dedication to the children were astounding. The children thrived in this multi-age setting.

In December 2010, Lakshmi was honored by Business & Professional Institute International. Dr. Ong, Founder and Chairman of the organization traveled from Singapore to New Jersey to honor Lakshmi at an award ceremony attended by over one hundred Montessorians, friends, and former students of Lakshmi. I attended the ceremony and also visited Lakshmi Kripalani in her home. The two of us did have a cup of tea and discussed Montessori education. One topic that came up was multi-age grouping. Who better to discuss this topic with--someone who sat at the feet of Maria Montessori herself! Don't let being a nonagenarian fool you--Lakshmi has energy, spirit, and a never-ending passion for Montessori education.

Fortunately, Lakshmi's words of wisdom are available to all Montessorians in two books of her writings. Her first book, Montessori in Practice: Observations of a First-Generation Montessorian and her second book (hot off the press last month) More Montessori in Practice: Further Observations of a First-Generation Montessorian are published by Montessori Services and great resources to add to your library. Lakshmi's writings include first-hand stories that bring Montessori to life!

In her most recent book, Lakshmi stresses the importance of three-year multi-age grouping. She says, "A prepared environment means learning in an environment where young and old students can function at different levels. This is why Montessori insisted on three-year groups functioning together."

Laskhmi Kripalani goes on to explain that the prepared environment is enriched by a full spectrum of abilities. This frees the teacher from teaching each child independently. She continues, "No teacher can reach each child individually, even in the same age group. Generally it turns into group teaching where those will less capability get lost."

More about multi-age grouping from Lakshmi Kripalani

Lakshmi tells how multi-aged children can work together using materials we might usually associate with older children. One example: Grammar Boxes. She noticed that usually teachers wait until later in the year to introduce grammar but that children are absorbing grammar at home. They imitate their parents every day. She says:

"We do not have to wait to follow the sequence. In my first conversation with children, I introduced almost all parts of speech and associated each with an action without naming the part of speech. After that, it was easy to introduce grammar boxes. I kept the children walking, clapping, singing, standing, or sitting. Then I modified the actions, such as 'clap softly' or 'clap loudly' at different intervals. This activity kept the children involved and eager for the next move."

Getting back to the Trinomial Cube

Lakshmi tells us how multi-age grouping evolved its use:

"Montessori further emphasized the functioning of the psychic and psychological environment by mixing age groups and by allowing free movement of the children between primary and elementary classes. The well-known classic example is that of the Trinomial Cube. As the concept in the Trinomial Cube is higher mathematics, it was originally in the elementary classes. It was the free movement between the classes that led the younger children to bring the Trinomial Cube into the primary classes and demonstrate to Montessori that they could work with it at their level. It was then that she included it in the primary classes."

Prepare the Environment with Three-Year Multi-Age Grouping

A three-year multi-age grouping in the Montessori classroom sets the stage for success at every stage of development. The first year is the year of introduction (the foundation); the second year is the year of practice; the third year is the year of synthesis. Providing children with an enriched environment where children of mixed ages work together is a beautiful thing!

Let's take Lakshmi's words to heart as she reminds us that teachers are creators of a:

"complex physical environment that allows for careful observation and encourages kindness and mutual respect. This is part of the genius of Montessori's call for mixed-age groupings. A variety of activities take place simultaneously in the prepared environment. Children carry on different activities, and each child is involved according to his ability and interest. It is in such an environment that children learn from observing and learn from each other. Multi-age groups provide a variety of activities, an enriched environment for children, and a lens through which teachers observe. The teacher learns every day from the environment about what motivates each child."

Tips for Teachers: "Big" work for all

There are many opportunities for younger children to participate in activities we usually associate with older children. Here are a few ways younger children can get exposure to some "big" work:

  • Noun Game: I played a "noun" game with the children in my class. I'd usually start with some of the older children who sat on the floor in a small circle. We'd start a rhythm by clapping our hands and slapping our knees (sitting cross-legged). I'd chant, "A noun is a naming word" and the children would repeat. Then I'd chant, "It names a person, place, or thing." Again, having the children repeat. Then we'd go around the circle, and each say a noun. I'd start off, "pencil." Then each child would continue. The objects in the classroom were always a good source of nouns. Inevitably, the younger children were drawn to our activity and would join in. Even if they repeated the same noun over and over, they still got the idea.
  • Labeling the Environment: Older children love to write words on strips of paper and younger children love to place the labels around the classroom.
  • Adverb Game: One year, Laura, one of the younger children was particularly fond of playing the adverb game in the play yard. She'd join in with the older children as I called out the instructions: "Walk quickly and stop suddenly." "Tip toe slowly." "Skip happily." Learning about adverbs was sheer joy!
  • Golden Bead Material: Bank Game: Younger children can play the role of "Assistant Banker," helping the Banker give out the Golden Bead Material. Younger children can also fetch the Golden Beads.

Recommendation

Keep the dialogue going. Sit down with your fellow teachers. Make time each week to have a cup of tea and discuss what's going on in your classroom. Continue the work of Maria Montessori by providing the best three-year multi-age grouping possible for the children.

—by Pamela Personette, M.Ed., Montessori Educational Consultant, for Montessori Services. Fully committed to Montessori education, Pamela earned an AMS Montessori Primary Credential and a Master's of Education in Early Childhood, Montessori Education, from Notre Dame de Namur University. Pamela's passion for Montessori has taken her from head teacher for more than a decade to a unique consulting business that uses Montessori principles to teach the art of superior customer service to adults in the retail trade. Pamela continues to serve children by teaching at Montessori schools..

—Originally Published 2011

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