Hi, Catholic Mama--I was looking back at the older threads and realize I'd forgotten to follow up with a brief description of Montessori education!
Dr. Montessori was the first female physician in Italy, a keen observer of children who deeply appreciated their innate capacity for healthy development when they're loved and given an optimal environment to grow to their fullest capacities: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Through her observations of children, she created, and continually refined, environments and learning materials appropriate to each stage of life. She pioneered the use of child-size equipment (tables, chairs, coat racks, etc.) with the idea of empowering children to do as many of their daily activities as they can with minimal adult assistance/interference. She watched the activities in which children became absorbed at different ages and developed learning materials from the children's own choices, according to the concept of sensitive periods: times in a child's development when they are ready to learn a particular skill and will make use of objects in their environment in order to perfect that skill. Montessori believed that the chief work of the child is to create his/her adult self and that children deserve utmost respect and care (a radical notion at a time when children were still widely viewed as naturally chaotic, loud, disruptive, and destructive and in need of strict discipline).
Dr. Montessori is best known in the United States for preschool education. She observed that children of this age have a strong need for order and will thrive in an orderly environment. When they are given age-appropriate equipment and materials and taught how to use them, they will engage in these activities on their own initiative, often exhibiting a high degree of quiet concentration that amazes adults who expect little children to be unruly. She described children of this age as little scientists who are continually experimenting with their world, interacting with the world in order to create themselves continually. Her materials for this age group focus on the senses, care of the self, care of the environment, and grace and courtesy.
Although Montessori schools are non-sectarian, Dr. Montessori herself was a practicing Catholic whose faith inspired her to view children with reverence and to promote the idea that world peace starts with a peaceful upbringing. Among her many books, she wrote The Child In The Church to apply her principles and practices to religious education.
I attended a Montessori school from the age of six to the age of 12, and I benefited greatly from this self-directed, child-centered form of education. I would like to learn more about Waldorf education as well, which sounds like a marvelous experience for children too. From what I've seen, Steiner's focus was on supporting the child as an imaginative, spiritual being with a curriculum rich in art, music, dance, literature, and creativity of all kinds.