The Magic of the Mat

There are a few things typical to Montessori classrooms worldwide that might give the casual observer a pause. Picture it: you walk into a beautiful Casa environment, full of children working – individually and in groups – at low tables or on mats rolled out on the floor. Some of those mats are quite large and it takes significant effort and concentration to carry them and roll them up neatly. On the shelves and tables, most materials are not standing directly on the surface, either. Instead, they are carefully arranged on low trays or in baskets. The students moving through the room know to weave between mats, avoiding those islands of activity, and take care to carry trays carefully, without dropping anything.
Recently, upon entering a classroom being prepared for the new school year, I saw piles and piles of rolled up mats, baskets, and trays, waiting to be used on the shelves. The teacher herself was astonished at having amassed so much, but by the next day, all were assigned their rightful place, and none could be spared. Why do we invest so much time, effort and cost in setting up these tools and instilling their proper use in the children?
First of all, Dr. Montessori would undoubtedly tell you that the effort of the students, in manipulating and using trays and mats properly, carries its own reward. It is yet another way we employ to guide children towards graceful and precise control of movement, expending effort and perfecting one’s command over our body. There is, however, much more.
The classroom materials and lessons are – any teacher will tell you – very special things. We treat very special things with care. We don’t allow them to be strewn across the floor, banged around, lost; we don’t let pieces to spill and be forgotten. We corral them in pretty baskets and place them on mats when working on the floor. It is a pleasure to look at the neat and beautiful shelf. This beauty has a higher purpose and Dr. Montessori spoke often of the deep need to make the child’s environment beautiful, to fill it with things of value. Presentation adds to the value considerably.
Most importantly, the mat is an enormous aid to the child. It defines her space, forms the boundaries of her work. It allows the child to be respectful of others’ space, and others to be respectful of her – she knows to not let her activity spill outside of the mat and others will know not to step on or take items from her mat.
Meanwhile, on the shelf, the youngest student can see with ease a complete set up of the tray. He understands at first glance that all of the items belong together, and he can carry them to his chosen workspace without forgetting anything. He is confident and purposeful as he chooses his activity and takes it from the shelf.
These functions fulfill a fundamental need of the child – one of order and orientation in the environment. We cannot overstate the need for supporting this need in children – or, really, in people of all ages. So whether you work with children in a school setting, are looking for ideas setting up a home environment for your own children, or even for a way to brighten up your own living areas – do consider investing in a few mats and trays.

This article is a kind contribution by Michaela Tuckova, International Montessori School of Prague