The Guidepost Glossary of Montessori

From A to Z, a comprehensive breakdown of all the Montessori terms you need to know

Melissa McElhill

What is Practical Life? Why guide and not teacher? Do you Nido an explanation of the absorbent mind? Ramp up your Montessori vocabulary with the terms that really matter

absorbent mind

The type of mind a child has from birth until around six years old. It absorbs its surroundings without discrimination, while simultaneously constructing its more conscious aspects. This means that children take everything in from the moment they are born: how we talk, how we move, our cultural customs, and so on. Our guides harness the power of the absorbent mind in the classroom by exposing young children to a variety of experiences, which the child absorbs and uses as a launchpad for a life of thought and action.


The third plane in Maria Montessori's developmental theory, this is the phase of growth children go through aged 12 through to 18 years old. This plane of development is characterized by a greatly increased awareness of the broader social world and a corresponding need for direct practice with adult thinking and work (see Middle School).


Our Guidepost at Home team delivers the Montessori curriculum through a series of albums, which contain thoughtfully designed, carefully sequenced, hands-on lessons which parents and educators can select and implement at home. Learn more about Guidepost at Home here (see also Virtual School).

Casa (see Children's House)

Children's House

A classroom environment for children aged three to six years old, named after Maria Montessori's first school in Rome, La casa dei bambini (the children's house). By calling her school a "children’s house," Montessori suggested that the place in which children spend their days learning should be designed with their needs in mind—not the adults'—which is a legacy we carry on today. Every Guidepost campus caters to the social, emotional, and academic needs of children. They have guides who empower children to use all the materials available to them, which range from practical life activities to geography to mathematics. Learn more about our Children’s House program here.


By offering children a safe, caring space in which they can focus on their work, we give them the opportunity to strengthen their concentration. Concentration is a learnable practice at the foundation of thought and deliberate action. Our goal as educators is to make it as easy as possible for students to become great thinkers who live intentionally (see discipline).

control of error

In order to appeal to the child’s need for self-correction, our classroom materials contain a control of error. This means that the materials themselves manifest errors in their usage, so that a child can work with them independently of adults. Control of error encourages the child to form a healthy relationship with making mistakes, viewing them as tools to tell him whether or not he has succeeded at his task, not as a form of judgement or evidence of failure.

directress (see guide)


As young children practice controlling their physical movements, making their own choices, and pursuing their own goals, they develop discipline. With discipline comes the ability to pursue one’s own interests, to follow the will of others, and to concentrate on tasks beyond the initial period of intense interest. Closely related to 'will,' discipline is a skill that children will take with them well into adulthood (see will).


The elementary age, from 6 to 12 years old, is a distinct developmental plane. The child’s mind is no longer absorbent, and the child hungers for explanatory knowledge. Our elementary programs are truly unique: mixed-aged Montessori communities, with multi-year age bands learning alongside one another. We integrate the use of Montessori materials into mathematics and literacy, with a sequence of classical academic content in the humanities and the sciences. Learn more about our Elementary program here.

Family Framework

A free digital Montessori resource for parents and caregivers. Join the world’s largest dedicated network of Montessori schools online, where Montessori educators, parents and homeschoolers come together for personalized at-home learning, daily tips and resources, as well as virtual events and community support.

grace and courtesy

The Montessori approach to social-emotional learning (sometimes called the "hidden curriculum" of the Montessori classroom). In the same way that we do not expect children to be born with knowledge of math, we do not expect them to know how to behave appropriately or conduct themselves in certain social settings. Bad behavior is not an issue in the Montessori classroom because we never isolate or give up on a student who is having a tough time or does not yet know what we expect of him. Instead, we offer grace and courtesy lessons—modelled and role-played exercises in all aspects of manners and etiguette—in order to teach children how to hold themselves with dignity and be kind to others.


A deliberate terminological shift from "teacher," the adults in the classroom are referred to as guides. (In some other programs and also historically, Montessori educators are also sometimes referred to as directresses). "Guide" emphasizes the role the educator plays in the classroom: leading the children in their academic and social development, but in a way that centers the child’s individual development. The work of the guide is to actively nurture and support the child in what is fundamentally a self-directed process of development. In modern terms, the classroom guide is like a personal trainer, offering the right exercises at the right time, and encouragement if it is needed, so that the child can do the work necessary to grow.

Guidepost at Home

A complete do-it-yourself teaching platform, offering everything you need to give children an enriched Montessori education at home. Designed for parents and caregivers of children aged 0 to 6 years old and 6 to 12 years old. Guidepost at Home also gives you the option to enlist a Montessori-trained educator to work in your home. Learn more about Guidepost at Home here.

human tendencies

Humans are naturally predisposed towards certain things, such as working, feeling like part of a community, learning, thinking, and so on. Maria Montessori viewed these needs as grounded in the distinct modes of survival and psychological characteristics of human beings, and considered them universal. Along with the child’s sensitive periods, we assess children's human tendencies in order to design activities and give presentations that strongly appeal to them. 


Total independence is something we all strive for: to function as an autonomous being, willing and able to define and author one’s life. Maria Montessori considered independence to be the fundamental aim of development and education. Children become increasingly independent, and educators can magnify and support the child’s growth in independence. As educators, we consider it our imperative to empower our students so that they can be as independent as their age will allow. This satisfies a deep need within children and also helps them grow into successful, happy adults.

indirect preparation

A conspicuous feature of Montessori pedagogy is preparing the child indirectly for tasks they will be interested in at a later stage in their development. For example, while a child may not be mentally ready for the physical act of writing, he may still want to put his thoughts into written words, which is why the moveable alphabet was created. It gives children the opportunity to spell out their thoughts without putting pen to paper.

Mandarin Immersion 

Children under the age of six absorb language effortlessly, which is why many of our schools offer bilingual environments. In our Mandarin Immersion program, children learn both Mandarin and English literacy skills, however, the prevailing language spoken throughout the day is Mandarin. The overall emphasis on Mandarin rapidly increases fluency, as children feel naturally compelled to communicate with their Mandarin-speaking guides. Learn more about our Mandarin Immersion program here (see also Spanish Immersion).

Maria Montessori

A distinguished scientist and educator, and the eponymous founder of the Montessori Method. Read more about Maria Montessori here.


Distinct from toys, this a catch-all term for the objects used to aid learning in the prepared environment. Some materials are didactic materialized abstractions and unique to Montessori education, such as the pink tower, while others are more commonplace, such as household objects, but used in a way that deeply appeals to children.

Middle School

We offer a Middle School program for 12 to 14 year olds (grades 7 to 9). Guidepost’s mixed-age community is tailored to meet the unique developmental needs of adolescents. With a holistic focus on the student, Guidepost gives adolescents the academic, personal, and social tools they need to succeed in high school, and beyond. Learn more about our Middle School program here.

mixed ages

One of the main tenets of Montessori pedagogy is the mixed-age classroom. The natural diversity of interests of children of different ages minimizes futile competition between peers over the same resources. It also allows children to interact with peers who are both younger and older than them, and therefore play different roles throughout their school careers. When a child enters the Children’s House at 2.5 years old, they will observe and admire the older children. When they are about 5 or 6 years old, they will lead the younger children by example. Other benefits include an extended, deeper relationship with one guide across time, and accessible experiences of diversity and growth.

Montessori Method

The name of the book published by Maria Montessori explaining her pedagogy as well as her thoughts on the purpose of education. The book was originally called Scientific Pedagogy, which indicates its systematic and methodical approach. Indeed, the Montessori Method is a teaching methodology rooted in observation, experimentation, and research. It aims to support the child at each stage in his development in order that he can live the best life possible, and become an independent, successful adult.


One who embraces Montessori pedagogy.


Nido (or "nest" in English) describes the classroom environment designed for infants aged around 10 weeks up to 16 months old. It is a calm, loving environment, where infants feel safe to explore and grow, as well as form strong bonds with their caregivers. Human developmental needs such as movement, language, sleep, and exploration can happen naturally at a pace that soothes the child and builds her confidence. Find out more about our Nido program here.


The successful process of normal, “natural” development, by which a child becomes calm, happy, and independent. Maria Montessori argued that all children who are born within the compass of social adaptation will become normalized if they are given a chance to work and occupy a role within society. Normalization is a process supported by the Montessori school, not a prerequisite; children reach this flourished state with the support of our guides.

Parent Concierge

A Montessori-trained expert who supports families throughout our online Family Framework program. The Parent Concierge assists parents and caregivers by helping them to plan a routine at home, making suggestions for the prepared environment, providing resources and suggested activities, as well as answering any questions about childhood development.

planes of development

Using her scientific training and experience, Maria Montessori observed a constructive rhythm of life, and outlined four separate planes of human development: infancy (0 to 6 years old), childhood (6 to 12 years old), adolescence (12 to 18 years old), and maturity (18 to 24+ years old). She argued that the individual is completely different in mind and body during each plane, which needs to be taken into account by parents, caregivers, and educators. The support a child needs while he is 0 to 6 years old looks different to what he needs at 6 to 12 years old.

practical life

One of the areas of the Montessori prepared environment. Practical life activities are reality-based tasks which help children develop their co-ordination movement, become accustomed to their environment, and develop concentration and will (see concentration and will).

prepared environment

When you enter a Montessori classroom, you will be struck by its appropriateness for the children and the sense of calm it promotes. The furniture is child-sized, catering to the smallest child right up to the largest child, and all the learning materials are designed for that specific age group. This aids independence, precision, and self-confidence. The child will be able to move around this environment with dignity, requiring as little help as possible to do daily things. Read more about the prepared environment here.


The act of a guide showing a child how to use certain materials in the classroom (sometimes called a "lesson"). Once a set of materials has been presented to the child, he may engage with it as often and for however long as he likes.

sensitive periods

These are phases that children go through where a particular domain of learning is accelerated: the child is particularly interested in certain inputs and feels compelled to practice certain activities. By observing the child, the guide offers activities that match his sensitive periods. This means that the child will both be interested in what the guide presents, but will learn a tremendous amount from it. For example, during a child’s sensitive period for language, he will be more drawn to look at and listen to the mouths of speakers, be more interested in story time, and will absorb more language from these experiences than he will after the sensitive period for language has finished.


In order to understand the world, you have to be able to observe it. The sensorial area of the early years classroom therefore gives children the opportunity to build a powerful bank of sensory knowledge. Sensorial materials isolate different qualities, such as color, size, and shape, in order to help the child understand different categories of each concept, and also to grapple with the concept as a whole. For example, the child learns not only the different colors on the spectrum, but also the abstract idea of color and, implicitly, even more abstract ideas like hue and the ordering thereof.

Spanish Immersion

Children under the age of six absorb language effortlessly, which is why many of our schools offer bilingual environments. In our Spanish Immersion program, children learn both Spanish and English literacy skills, however, the prevailing language spoken throughout the day is Spanish. The overall emphasis on Spanish rapidly increases fluency, as children feel naturally compelled to communicate with their Spanish-speaking guides. Learn more about our Spanish Immersion program here (see Mandarin Immersion).

three-period lesson

Alongside presentations, our guides give children lessons which comprise three parts: present, practice, and produce. These individually tailored lessons give children time and space to acquire language and knowledge. The three-period lesson model has also been embraced by the wider teaching community.


The name of our program designed for children aged around 16 months to three years old (who are often referred to as “toddlers”). The classroom environment is designed to support the child during a period of astonishing growth. The child experiences an explosion of language, and greatly improves his fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving ability, independence, and social interactions. Find out more about our Toddler program here.

Virtual School

Our Virtual School offers authentic Montessori education programs which can be implemented in the home with ease. Designed for 0 to 2 year olds, 2 to 6 year olds, and 6 to 12 year olds, to support children during each plane of development. Online resources and guidance are integrated with real physical materials sent to your home. Find out more about our Virtual School here (see also Guidepost at Home).


A key difference between the Montessori Method and traditional pedagogy is our attitude towards the will and how it is cultivated. Willpower is like a muscle: it needs to be used in order to become strong, and used in different contexts to become useful and dexterous. So while the guide is responsible for children’s safety and learning in the classroom, she gives the children plenty of opportunities to make their own decisions. When a child follows his own will, he develops his resolve. This strength of character will not only help him throughout his school career but the rest of his life (see discipline and work).


Something that separates the Montessori Method from other child-centered educational models is the respect for children’s work. By observing young children, Maria Montessori discovered they enjoyed moving with purpose, and that once they became accustomed with her learning materials, they chose them over toys and fantasy play. Though the work children do may seem trivial to adults, it satisfies an inner need in them to develop themselves. Work is characterized by purpose, concentration, fine motor control, and effort, all maintained and coordinated over time.

work cycle

In a Montessori school, the day is organized to give children the chance to work for long, interrupted periods. The exact duration differs according to age and experience. Maria Montessori discovered that children in the Children’s House could self-manage task switching and concentration for up to 3 hours, and so part of our job as educators is to safeguard that block of time in order to give children the opportunity to build up their stamina and learn to concentrate for long stretches.

Didn't find what you were looking for? Let us know if there's a term you'd like us to add!

Meet the Author

Melissa McElhill

Melissa is an AMI-certified educator who has taught children aged 10 weeks to 18 years old in the UK, US and China. She is also a positive discipline parent coach, helping families integrate Montessori principles into their lives.

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