Glossary of Montessori Terms

DSC00091Below are a list of terms commonly used in the Montessori environment. Check back as the list continues to grow!

Absorbent mind – The first plane of development where the child has the capability to absorb large amounts of information about their environment through their senses. During this plane of development children acquire language, develop motor and cognitive skills, copy the social skills of adults, and learn expectations of how the world will treat them.

Control of error – Montessori materials are designed so that the child receives instant feedback as he works, allowing him to recognize, correct, and learn from his mistakes without adult assistance. Putting control of the activity in the child’s hands strengthens his self-esteem and self-motivation as well as his learning.

Conscious absorption – The second plane of development when children are still able to absorb much of the environment around them, but are also beginning to focus inward, becoming aware of the choices they can make, and the desire to do so.

Conscious mind – When a person is aware and is thinking or acting deliberately, choosing one thought, action, or object over another based on the information he/she gathered from their surrounding environment.

Cosmic education – Maria Montessori urged us to give elementary-level children a “vision of the universe” to help them discover how all parts of the cosmos are interconnected and interdependent. In Montessori schools, these children, ages 6 – 12, begin by learning about the universe, its galaxies, our galaxy, our solar system, and planet Earth—everything that came before their birth to make their life possible. As they develop respect for past events, they become aware of their own roles and responsibilities in the global society of today and tomorrow.

Directed choice – gives a child the opportunity to choose between two equally attractive and positive actions, objects, or activities.

Erdkinder – German for “child of the earth,” this term describes a Montessori learning environment for adolescents ages 12 – 15 that connects them with nature and encourages them to form a society of their own; often designed as a working farm school.

Grace and courtesy – Children are formally instructed in social skills they will use throughout their lives, for example, saying “please” and “thank you,” interrupting conversations politely, requesting rather than demanding assistance, and greeting guests warmly.

Normalization – A word used to describe when children are able to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time and have a sense of satisfaction about their work.

Pincer grasp – Refers to the thumb-and-forefinger motion that’s involved for manipulating small items.

Planes of development – Four distinct periods of growth, development, and learning that build on each other as children and youth progress through them: ages 0 – 6 (the period of the “absorbent mind”); 6 – 12 (the period of reasoning and abstraction); 12 – 18 (when youth construct the “social self,” developing moral values and becoming emotionally independent); and 18 – 24 years (when young adults construct an understanding of the self and seek to know their place in the world).

Practical life – A series of fine motor skills that include cleaning and caring for the environment, preparing food, and personal hygiene and self-care. Practical life skills are of great interest to young children and form the basis of later abstract learning.

Prepared environment – Designed so that the child has the maximum ability for learning and exploration. The phrase ‘prepared environment’ refers to a well-thought out environment, classroom or home, designed with the child in mind. The goal of the prepared environment is to foster independence in the child.

Rightness for the task – the child sees a need in the environment he/she is able to find the right materials to fill and carry out the need without an adult’s intervention.

Sensitive period – A critical time during human development when the child is biologically ready and receptive to acquiring a specific skill or ability—such as the use of language or a sense of order—and is therefore particularly sensitive to stimuli that promote the development of that skill. A Montessori teacher prepares the environment to meet the developmental needs of each sensitive period.

Sensorial exercises – These activities develop and refine the 5 senses—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling—and build a foundation for speech, writing, and math through the use of sensorial materials. The exercises also bring order to the barrage of sensorial impressions the child experiences from birth onward.

The 3-period lesson – A 3-step technique for presenting information to the child. In the first—the introduction or naming period—the teacher demonstrates what “this is.” (The teacher might say “This is a mountain” while pointing to it on a 3-dimensional map.) In the second—the association or recognition period—the teacher asks the child to “show” what was just identified (“Show me the mountain”). Finally, in the recall period, the teacher asks the child to name the object or area. Moving from new information to passive recall to active identification reinforces the child’s learning and demonstrates her mastery.

Work – Purposeful activity. Maria Montessori observed that children learn through purposeful activities of their own choosing; Montessori schools call all of the children’s activities “work.” When children are able to choose their activity, they do not see any difference between work and play.


American Montessori Society’s website.

Maren Schmidt with Dana Schmidt, Understanding Montessori: A Guide for Parents. 2009.