An explanation of some of Maria Montessori's unique child development concepts

Maria Montessori (1966, 2007a, 2007b) brought a change of perspective in child development by creating a child-centred and child-led system which allows the child to grow at his/her own pace.  She theorised the different stages of development of a child and the way s/he learns and brought forward concepts such as “the absorbent mind” (Montessori, 2007a) and “sensitive periods” (Montessori, 1966). These concepts will be explored in this article, together with my understanding of their impact on child education and the role of adults in supporting their development.
In the first chapter of her book “From Childhood to Adolescence”, Montessori (1958) describes the development of the child through comparison to the growth of insects, from egg to butterfly, transforming in all the different stages. These stages have distinct traits and represent the path the evolving child will take from birth to adulthood. Montessori named these successive developments “rebirths” (Montessori 2007a) of the child, and categorised them into three periods: infancy, from birth to six years, childhood: from six to twelve and adolescence: from twelve to eighteen years.
The first and the last stages are periods of intense transformation while the second is calmer. Each of these periods has specific environmental needs and specific preparation of the adults surrounding the child, either teacher or parent, as will be discussed later in this paper. The first period has two sub-phases: “the spiritual embryonic stage” (Montessori, 2007a), from birth to three and “the social embryonic stage” (Montessori, 1966), from three to six. These are periods during which the child’s mind is like a sponge, capable of absorbing and internalising information and sensations from the surrounding environment in a fast and natural way.  This concept was defined by Montessori as “the absorbent mind” (2007a).
The first sub-phase, the spiritual embryonic stage is a period of formation during which the work of the new born child is similar to that of the embryo but in a psychological plan, rather than a physical one (Montessori, 2007a). His/her actions are driven by “the horme” a term developed by Sir Percy Nunn and described by Montessori as an innate force of life which directs the child towards his natural evolution (2007a).  The child’s mind is extremely active and unconsciously assimilates the environment, language, movements, culture and religion of the adults without questioning the information. All these are stored and permanently fixed in the child’s early unconscious memory called “mneme” (Montessori, 2007a) and will influence the child throughout his/her life. In this period it is not the adult who creates these abilities for the child, but the absorbent mind of the child working on its own, at its own pace.
An important process for the child during this period is independence from the adult. S/he learns to speak, walk, gain control of his/her hands and master his/her body. Once these basic skills are acquired s/he moves into the next sub-phase of the absorbent mind, which Montessori called the social embryo (1966). This is a time when the child uses and perfects the skills previously gained and during which the horme is slowly replaced by the will. Much learning and exploration during this period is made with the help of the hands, which facilitate mental development (Montessori, 2007a). The child also becomes more aware of the surrounding children and adults and develops the first inter-personal skills, absorbing the social and cultural norms. During this phase, the conscious stage of development (3 – 6 years) the child can learn new skills through deliberate effort.
Some of the most important behavioural processes observed by Montessori during the first period of development are the “human tendencies” (Montessori, 1966). She believed that all humans have certain genetic predispositions connected to their needs which can be encountered across cultures and countries such as the tendency to work, explore, imitate, socialize, move, concentrate, repeat, maintain order, achieve independence or communicate.
Closely related to the human tendencies Montessori identified particular periods in a child’s life when the acquisition of a new skill unfolds. The child is more receptive to learn particular skills or concepts and has the intrinsic tendency to repeat and perfect it. Once the ability is gained, the interest in it fades. Montessori named these periods “sensitive periods” (1966), after the Dutch scientist Hugo de Vries, who had previously observed them in animals. The theory of sensitive periods comes out of human tendencies. If humans have tendencies towards specific behaviour then there must be a fool-proof mechanism to make sure that the young are sensitised to the skills needed to fulfil human tendencies, hence sensitive periods.
Montessori (1966, 2007a) identified six of these periods: sensitivity to order, movement, small objects and language, refinement of senses and social aspects of life.
Sensitivity to order (Montessori, 1966) emerges during the child’s first months of life and can be observed during both embryonic stages. It is closely connected to the human tendency to maintain order. As chaos and confusion are unsettling, humans arrange and classify things in order to understand the world and their place in it.  Order helps children feel safe and in control, orientate, explore the environment and understand it: “[it] consists in recognizing the place for each object in relation to its environment and in remembering where each thing should be. This implies that one is able to orient one's self within one's environment and to dominate it in all its details” (Montessori, 1966, pp. 52-53).  If adults change the order of the objects in the room of the child, s/he will be disoriented and troubled, and will have to repeat the steps of internalising the new order. Order also facilitates movement. Once a child knows the place of different objects in the environment, s/he will try to reach and grab the objects. So if a child grows in a disorganised environment, the manipulation of the object will be delayed due to the lack of order in her/his environment and as the intellect of the child is influenced by the movements of the hand his/her cognitive development will also be delayed, consequently order is directly linked to intellectual development. 
The adult plays a crucial part in facilitating this period. S/he has to be extremely attentive to the child’s needs and emphatic. Objects must be carefully arranged so that each will have a place of its own. The decoration on the walls should be simple and not changed regularly, for the child to be able to absorb faster and interact with his/her environment. Eating and bed time routines should be established together with certain ground rules. The adults need to be consistent in following these rules and routines. It is highly beneficial for the child if both parents and all nursery staff align their behaviour according to these principles. If this does not happen the child will be confused and disoriented.
We have seen earlier that order is closely connected to movement (Montessori, 1966), another sensitive period which begins in the womb and continues after the birth of the child, culminating with the child’s ability to walk (Montessori, 1966) at the approximate age of 1 year.  It lasts up to the age of four (sometimes beyond) and facilitates the development of hand/eye coordination, fine motor skills (such as the manipulations of small items) and gross motor skills (such as walking or jumping). Movement relates to the human tendency towards exploration, manipulation and repetition (Montessori, 1966). For example, a two year old might be completely absorbed by climbing the stairs up and down, over and over, until s/he masters the skill.  Having done that, s/he has not only gained this physical skill, but also a sense of achievement and confidence to take on new challenges. Movement is also a key component of learning, the child learns by `doing` rather than through sedentary activities.
During my work, I have noticed adults that tend to be over-protective and impede their child to perform certain activities at a young age.  Once, a little boy in the park wanted to climb the fence. He carefully moved his hands and feet in the right places. When observed by his mother, he was taken down and firmly scolded. After a few minutes, the child clung to the fence again. She did not understand his need to learn repeat and the ability to climb.
Thus, adults can facilitate this period by being calm, supportive and confident in the abilities of the child and by carefully assessing the environment to avoid injuries. The environment should provide opportunities to move freely, crawl, push and pull, to develop muscles and balance, to play. It should be equipped with toys and materials that develop the movements of the hand and the hand/eye coordination such as puzzles, beads and balls, stacking toys and crayons. The child should be able to repeat and refine movements such as hooking, turning or inserting small objects. Safe opportunities for running, climbing and jumping should also be ensured. Parks and playgrounds can also facilitate this kind of movement. Sometimes coping with an element of risk is more important than safety at any cost.
As seen earlier, sensitivity to movement and order are connected to sensitivity to small objects (Montessori, 1966), which starts around the age of six months until the age of three (sometimes beyond). This relates to the human tendency of exploration and manipulation. Child–sized objects and furniture fit better into the child’s visual field, enabling him/her to observe and analyse them faster and benefit from their use (Montessori,1966). This sensitive period facilitates observation and concentration and the development of fine motor skills. Adults should provide enough time for individual exploration without interruption and make sure the environment is simple and attractive. The shelves should not be too crowded and objects clearly differentiated. The room should feel airy, light and inviting. During this sensitive period the child is drawn to small objects, trying to make sense of their world.
The period of sensitivity to language (Montessori, 2007a) is related to the human tendency to communicate. This sensitive period begins from birth when the infant learns language unconsciously during the spiritual embryonic stage and lasts until the age of five then repeats from the age of seven to nine. New born babies can recognize sounds from the womb. Then, they gradually and unconsciously absorb not only words, but the order of the words and their meaning (Montessori, 2007a).  A child that is not exposed to language is irrevocably damaged: “great many of the defects which remain permanently in the adult are due to functional errors in the development of speech during the time of childhood” (Montessori, 2007b, pp.215).
During the early years all communication from adults to child needs to be clear, concise and articulate. Adults should speak to the child, stimulate conversations, read and offer synonyms and descriptive adjectives (for example a wonderful, sparkly, soft toy). As language is the tool of absorbent mind, the adult’s attitude towards communication can influence the developing child, who must feel comfortable enough to share what s/he knows and what s/he is interested in.
The environment should provide language development materials: illustrated books, picture, word or sound cards, writing tools, alphabet puzzles and sensorial materials such as the “sand paper letters” (2007b) used in the Montessori pedagogy. There are also several activities and games adults can engage children in during this sensitive period, such as the popular "I spy, with my little eye [...]”, singing songs, poems, rhymes and stories. Vertical grouping (mixed age groups) in the Montessori environment meets the child`s needs during this sensitive period as well. Play is of extreme importance.

Sensitivity to the refinement of senses is connected to the human tendency of exploration (Montessori, 1966). Children are naturally curious and love to use their senses to learn about the world. This period is characterized with the child’s fascination with sensorial experiences (smell, sounds, weight, taste and touch sight). It starts at birth and intensifies between two and five. Montessori’s innovative approach to learning also consists in the development of her sensorial materials (2007b). As the first sensorial experiences are stored in the mneme, during the spiritual embryonic stage, the child organises and classifies these experiences, thus forming the base of his/her logical thinking (Montessori, 2007a). To facilitate this period, adults should observe the child, provide and demonstrate the sensorial materials and offer the child the opportunity to work alone. Montessori (2008) suggests that being in contact with nature, through observation and gardening children develop their senses and their understanding of the world. During this sensitive period the child should be given the freedom to manipulate their environment, using their senses, keeping safety in mind.
Sensitivity to the social aspects of life emerges around the age of three, when the child becomes aware that he/she is part of the group, and lasts until the age of six. It relates to the human tendencies of gregariousness and communication. These tendencies direct the child to be among other children as well as adults so that they learn and develop socially.  To facilitate these tendencies Montessori created the “vertical grouping” (2007a) of the classroom. She believed mixed age groups benefit all children (Montessori, 2007a). Adults should therefore provide plenty of play opportunities for social interaction during this period. If they fail to do so, the child will become less socially confident and even uncomfortable around others.  

Montessori’s experience had a major effect on the way we understand and educate children today. Her pioneering work brought forward a deeper understanding of the absorbent mind of the child during the first six years of life and the energies which drive it. It also enabled us to understand the impact of the sensitive periods in the formation of the child and the role of the environment and the adult in this process. For their impact and results her methods will always be a source of inspiration and orientation for both teacher and parents working for the optimal development of the child.

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