Montessori is an educational method scientifically designed according to children’s developmental needs. Almost 100 years ago, Maria Montessori assessed that current educational practices were based on teaching children the way adults learn instead of devising a system of education based on how children learn. We only need to look at a child’s ability to absorb their mother tongue to recognize that children have a much deeper capacity for learning than adults. Montessori observed many different patterns in child development on which she based the design her educational principles.
The Absorbent Mind
Children enter the world with potential. They possess amazing powers to construct themselves in the same ways that all humans develop naturally, learning to walk and talk, for example, and as influenced by the culture in which they are raised: the mother-tongue they speak, the clothes they choose, even Barbie and Spiderman. They have no control over this ability to absorb everything with which they come in contact (whether we like it or not).
As adults, we can acquire information from reading a book or through active consideration. Children learn through purposeful movement, exploration, and discovery. The adult’s crucial role is to foster and protect this all-important endeavor of self-creation.
Planes of Development and Sensitive Periods
Children go through four distinct developmental stages. These were recognized by Montessori as occurring roughly between ages 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24. These numbers are a little bit liquid and are split into halves in Montessori, as each child develops at a different rate: 0-6 is broken into 0-3 and 3-6, and so on. Physically, these stages are represented by such developments as the loss of baby teeth and puberty.
During each of these planes, the child has sensitive periods (“critical periods” in developmental psychology parlance). During these periods, they seek certain stimuli with great intensity. These are transitory periods in which they develop specific cognitive functions. They occur all over the world, in every culture, at approximately the same age, in all children. If a child’s need for specific stimuli is not met during this sensitive period, the individual loses this opportunity for optimal development.
During the planes of development, the best way for Montessori educators to aid the child in constructing themselves is to observe these sensitive periods and create opportunities within the classroom to provide the appropriate stimuli.
The Human Tendencies
Dr. Montessori was able to identify distinct human tendencies, the same tendencies that have accounted for humanity’s survival since our first appearance on earth. These are things that we all share, but that need to be acutely offered to young children: Exploration, Orientation, Communication, Work, Manipulation, Order, Exactness, Repetition, Abstraction, and Self-Perfection. She built an environment for children based upon these tendencies and allowed them to explore within it. The Montessori environment enables children to discover the world for themselves, much as the first humans must have done.
The Montessori Classroom and Guide
Children’s building of their physical, mental, emotional, and social lives is an arduous, ceaseless, and delicate labour that nobody else can do for them.
To aid them in this constructive work, we need to create a place where sensitive periods, human tendencies, and planes of development are all being observed. A place where each child works at their own rate according to their own interests.
Like a seed that will not grow unless it is given water, soil, sunshine, and air, a child will not flourish unless given a safe and enriching environment that meets their developmental needs. This allows them to build their unique selves — a pumpkin seed won’t create a sunflower no matter how much we wish it to.
A Montessori environment fulfills the different needs of the child to aid them in their own self-construction.
In the classroom, the Montessori guide prepares an environment that allows the children to come in contact with the qualities and facts of the world as presented through the Montessori materials. The guide is the link between each child and this prepared environment. This role alternates between a direct and indirect one, as the guide closely and continuously observes each child and watches for the next developmental manifestation.
When a class first begins, all the children need continual help in their relationships with one another and with care of the environment. They need to make a connection to the guide and know that the guide cares for them and understands them. Gradually, in response to their new environment and the guide’s careful guidance, the children develop into a harmonious, independent community. The teacher becomes a participant/observer in a community of children.
This environment enhances the children’s inner discipline, concentration, belief in themselves, and belief in each other. They develop a sense of responsibility, an appreciation for the world, and the things and people within it.
A true Montessori environment aids the child in the construction of their own life, a fulfilled life that is a part of the greater good.