Montessori Program Overview

At Forest Bluff School, our programs are designed in accordance with the primary Montessori program principle of “planes of development.” As a result of her extensive studies and observations, Montessori recognized that child development is not linear. Instead it occurs in four distinct “planes” of approximately six years each.  During each plane, the child possesses unique characteristics and needs that are best met by a specially prepared environment and supportive, well-trained adult.

Therefore, at Forest Bluff School, our classrooms are organized by a Montessori program of planes and sub-planes of development and contain mixed ages instead of specific ages. Children remain with their classmates and teacher for approximately three years in each room, allowing them to experience each classroom as both a novice who learns from and admires the oldest children and an expert who takes pride in assisting the youngest members of the classroom community. Additionally, completing a three-year cycle in each classroom enables teachers to know each child on the deepest and most enduring level. Parents, too, develop close and trusting relationships with their children's teachers as they work together over this extended period to support their children's development. 

A spiral diagram of the planes of development, part of the Montessori program overview

Montessori Program: The First Plane of Development

Maria Montessori described the first plane of development, from birth to six years, as the time when the child's mind is truly absorbent. Children effortlessly absorb language, mathematical ideas, movement, and social behavior just by exposure to them. 

Children in this plane of the Montessori program work best alone, with great concentration, but within the context of a larger group that supports and inspires their work. Forest Bluff School offers three separate programs for these important early years.

Montessori from the Start

From Birth to 3 Years

During the year we offer a series of weekly lectures and practical sessions for parents of very young children, or those who are expecting. The lectures focus on different areas of development such as language acquisition, movement, purposeful activities in the home, and introducing children to nature. Our goal is to help parents understand how they can serve their growing children's needs at home and support their children's teachers when they have entered Forest Bluff School.

Practical sessions are for parents and their children from birth to eighteen months. Our Parent and Child directors work alongside parent and child in order for parents to discover developmentally appropriate activities from the Montessori program for their children's use in the home.

Young Children’s Community

Ages 18 Months to 3 Years

A child's first experience in a Montessori classroom is in a small group of no more than ten children, with a teacher and an assistant. Children come to school daily from 8:30 to 11:30 and enjoy being with other young children in an atmosphere that is calm, peaceful, and purposeful. They choose from among activities that are modeled after those they have seen performed by adults at home such as food preparation, cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, sweeping, plant care, and flower arranging. 

A student in our Young Children's Community having a snack, part of our Montessori program


Ages 3 to 6 Years

Our Primary Level introduces children to a larger classroom community where they learn the fundamental academic concepts that are the foundation for their later learning. The teacher presents new ideas and manipulative materials as each child is ready and shows interest. Children then are free to choose this material on their own. When necessary the teacher provides assistance, but for the most part children work independently or in small groups. By the end of the Primary Level, many children are writing their own stories of several sentences or more and have established a basis for reading fluently. They understand numeric place value and work comfortably with mathematical operations involving large numbers. They are working with puzzle maps and know the names of continents, oceans and seas, countries, and many aspects of different peoples and cultures of the world. They also know the names of many of the world's plants and animals, their parts and their functions, and habitats. Younger children in this Montessori program stay from 8:30 to 11:30, while five and six-year-olds remain for lunch and are dismissed at 3:20.

Montessori Program: The Second Plane of Development

From the ages of six to twelve, children are finding their places in society and are fascinated with the workings of the wider world and the universe. Rather than fight this social tendency, the Montessori program embraces it, allowing children to work together in small or large groups. Although the teacher holds children accountable for their own work, this opportunity for collaboration allows children to find joy in new studies and to inspire others with their work.

The teacher's presentations at this level appeal to the child’s sense of wonder at the universe and its marvelous details. Children are ready at this age, too, for their own research projects, chosen according to their own interests and passions. Children in the Elementary Levels have the opportunity for "going out" experiences – walking to the Lake Bluff Library, and chaperoned trips of small groups to museums or local businesses to expand on their chosen research projects.

Lower Elementary

Ages 6 to 9 Years

Children now stay at school until 3:30, engaging in a full day of academic work and exploration. Forest Bluff School utilizes the full and ambitious Montessori curriculum for the elementary ages. Working with manipulative materials children develop an abstract understanding of advanced concepts in mathematics, grammar, biology, earth science, geometry, and history. They develop an understanding of music theory and composition through a series of musical materials designed for this purpose. They are also exposed to a variety of art materials and techniques, and have daily opportunities for outdoor play and exercise. 

The teacher continues to present new materials to children, usually three or more at a time, thus helping children to extend their friendships to new companions and older and younger children. For the majority of their day children are choosing their own work with material already introduced to them or they are launching out on their own explorations and research. Weekly individual meetings with the teacher guide the children in organizing their days for maximum learning and exploration with their peers. Respect for others and responsibility to the community develop in this natural learning environment.


Upper Elementary

Ages 9 to 12 Years

Older students advance their studies in all major academic areas, still structuring their days as suits them best and learning to take increased responsibility for their studies. Additional areas of study at this age include physics, chemistry and essay and poetry writing. Children have the skills now to expand the ways in which they illustrate and convey the knowledge they are gaining in their research studies. For example they might create intricate three-dimensional models or write and produce plays for their classmates. 

Although manipulative materials are still used frequently, by the very end of this level most children have moved to a fully abstract understanding of all concepts. Therefore, mathematical problems, for example, are solved abstractly with paper and pencil only. The difference for the children however, is that they have achieved an amazing level of understanding of their own mental work that comes through their continuous years of working with tangible representations of complex concepts. 

Montessori Program: The Third Plane of Development

From ages twelve to eighteen, adolescents work to find their own places in the world and to discover and refine their core beliefs about themselves and their morality, spiritual values, and philosophy. Their new desire for privacy means that individual work and a smaller class environment will once again suit them best, especially at the beginning of this plane of the Montessori program.

The environment Forest Bluff School provides for students from ages twelve to fourteen years suits these needs for a smaller supportive community of peers and experienced teacher mentors, and honors the dignity of these exceptional young people as they enter early adulthood.

Secondary Level

Ages 12 to 14 Years

Our Secondary Level, housed in its own building on our campus, prepares students to enter high school as 9th graders following their graduation from Forest Bluff School. A smaller group of approximately 12 to 18 students and the guidance of two trained teachers create a safe and supportive environment for young adults who are just starting to find their place in the world and their identity outside of the family. 

A secondary level student works with a teacher in the second plan of development of the Montessori program

Although the coursework is now similar to that of other excellent and rigorous middle schools - or even high schools - its foundation is grounded in the Montessori spirit of discovery and exploration, both individually and collaboratively. During their two years, students complete three independent study projects of their own choosing, conducting in-depth and often original research and presenting their finished projects to the group. Students complete Algebra I but do so at their own pace; those who need to work more slowly do so without stigma, and those who are able to advance more rapidly often continue on to Geometry, Algebra II, and even Pre-Calculus. 

Much classwork is done in a seminar style setting, similar to discussions that take place in high school and college classes. Occasional quizzes and deadlines are now introduced to prepare students for a successful transition to any rigorous high school program. A striking difference from the traditional curriculum is the fact that our students are not confined to the classroom.  For three two-week sessions each year, the students embark on chaperoned camping and work trips around the country, putting their academic knowledge into practice, and learning the hard-earned values of work and endurance that will see them through life. 

A secondary level student works with a teacher in the second plane of development of the Montessori program

Recent trips have included canoeing the boundary waters of Wisconsin, building an outdoor amphitheater for a YMCA camp, dog sledding in northern Minnesota, and visiting Virginia and Washington, D.C. to continue a study of American government.  The students plan every detail of these trips themselves, from budgets and routes to equipment and transporatation to food preparation and safety.  The associated interactions with adults, whether over the phone or walking beside a dog sled, give our students the confidence and experience to conduct themselves with grace in an adult world.

The idea of an open classroom permeates the entire school year. Students work with local college professors each year as part of the science curriculum (studying chemistry and the brain in alternating years), volunteer in the community, do research at local and Chicago libraries, interview adults for their research projects, and shop for the weekly meals they prepare for the group in the classroom kitchen.

Our students invariably enter high school not only poised for great academic success and prepared for any amount of hard work, but also displaying the confidence, individuality, empowerment, and comfort with adults that will see them successfully through the rest of their self formation into adulthood.

We cannot begin to thank each of you enough for all that Forest Bluff has done for our family over the years. You have touched and influenced our lives in fundamental ways: encouraging a positive outlook on life, a belief in the goodness of individuals and mankind, a love and curiosity for lifelong learning, and that wonderful joy in productivity! These, and the respect and kindness for others, are the most important elements of what goes on in our classrooms and what we have found to benefit our children the most. We have the utmost appreciation for, and are the thankful recipients of, these attributes in our children. Their years at Forest Bluff have shaped our children and are at the core of how they conduct themselves and view the world--all of which has been demonstrably noticeable by their teachers, friends, coaches and friends’ parents in middle school, high school, and college. Their deep, Montessori-sculpted self-awareness has provided an unshakable core on which they rely as they learn to make their own decisions.