Most modern educational philosophy centres around the theory that growth, development, and learning occur on a steady linear continuum from birth to early adulthood. Dr Montessori’s philosophy on how humans learn differs in some key ways: she believed learning for children and youth occurred in waves.
After years of observation, Dr Montessori concluded there are four distinct planes of development that everyone must pass through on their way to adulthood: birth to 6 years, 6 to 12 years, 12 to 18 years, and 18 to 24 years. In each of the planes, she believed that children and youth are drawn to different skills and activities. If provided with the opportunities to explore and practice these skills, children can make extraordinary progress. At Montessori Stepping Stones our focus is the first plane of development with children starting at our centre at the age of 6 months and being with us for part of their pre-school life.
The first six years of life are marked by marvellous physical and psychological growth, exploration and development. This is the period of infancy, an unconscious period of development. Physically, the body develops from head to toe. The child has a fragile immune system and is susceptible to illness. Psychologically, the child is a concrete thinker, taking in everything around him/her.
Dr Montessori coined this plane as the time of the Absorbent Mind. She believed that more learning takes place at this stage of life than during any other. Children begin to acquire language, develop cognitive and motor skills, begin to imitate the adults around them, and develop expectations of the world around them. During this first plane of development the child has many needs. Emotionally, they need love and acceptance, respect and understanding, warmth and protection. The child also has a need for security, order, as much freedom and independence as they can handle, and social relationships.
Dr Montessori believed that a prepared environment should be provided to allow the child to explore and experience purposeful activities. She believed that during this time, there should be two to three environments for the child. During the first two months, the child should be with his/her mother to build and strengthen the mother/child bond. After that, it is ideal that the child be taken care of in the home.
However, this is not always a possibility, and Montessori Infant/toddler programs are specially prepared to meet the needs of these young children. From the age of 2 ½ or 3 until about 6, the child moves towards gaining independence, where it is not uncommon to hear a child wish to “do it myself.”
It is also during this time that children undergo a series of sensitive periods or “windows of opportunity.” This is a time of innate learning: developing language skills, the urges to sit up, crawl, and walk. It is during these sensitive periods that it is easier for a child to learn certain concepts that will be more difficult as they get older. Montessori identified 11 different sensitive periods from birth to age six:
- Movement – Random movements become coordinated and controlled: grasping, touching, turning, balancing, crawling, and walking. (birth to 1 year)
- Language – Use of words to communicate: a progression from babble to words to phrases to sentences, with a continuously expanding vocabulary and comprehension. (birth to 6 years)
- Small Objects – A fixation on small objects and tiny details. (1 to 4 years)
- Order – Characterised by a desire for consistency and repetition, and a passionate love for established routines. Children can become deeply disturbed by disorder. The environment must be carefully ordered with a place for everything and with carefully established ground rules. (2 to 4 years)
- Music – Spontaneous interest in, and the development of pitch, rhythm, and melody. (2 to 6 years)
- Grace & Courtesy – Imitation of polite and considerate behaviour leading to an internalization of these qualities into the personality. (2 to 6 years)
- Refinement of the Senses – Fascination with sensorial experiences (taste, sound, touch, weight, smell) resulting with children learning to observe and with making increasingly refined sensorial discriminations. (2 to 6 years)
- Writing – Fascination with the attempt to reproduce letters and numbers with pencil or pen and paper. Montessori discovered that writing precedes reading. (3 to 4 years)
- Reading – Spontaneous interest in the symbolic representations of the sounds of each letter and in the formation of words. (3 to 5 years)
- Spatial Relationships – Forming cognitive impressions about relationships in space, including the layout of familiar places. Children become more able to find their way around their neighbourhoods, and they are increasingly able to work complex puzzles. (4 to 6 years)
- Mathematics – Formation of the concepts of quantity and operations from the use of concrete material aids. (4 to 6 years)
These sensitive periods can last days, months, or even years and stop just as suddenly as they begin. The learning occurred during the sensitive periods is not complete nor will the child have reached a level of abstraction. However, the fundamental (‘fun-developmental’) building blocks are laid for further learning to occur as the child grows older. When a solid foundation is lacking, children will experience learning difficulties later on in life.
Children in their first plane of development are constantly taking in and processing the world around them. Having a solid understanding of the physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs of each child helps us best serve the needs for the individual child in a Montessori environment.