The Absorbent Mind
A beautiful sunflower starts as a seed with the potential to become a statuesque wonder. If given optimal soil, sun and tranquility it has no option but to flourish. A baby, too, will grow in height and strength to become a functioning marvel of physics and biology if nourished appropriately. Maria Montessori’s great contribution to the future of mankind was her reverence for the spirit and mind of the fledgling child. From the moment of conception the new life driven by an innate life force, starts his magnum opus – the formation of the future adult. He does so by consuming and digesting everything in his surroundings and assimilating it into his own being, Montessori called this “The Absorbent Mind”. The infant is like a snowball rolling down the mountainside, absorbing and taking on board all in its path. Similar to animals, the human embryo comes equipped with a blueprint, a blueprint that follows a magnificently predetermined and unconscious road map for physical development. Unlike animals, the cranium of a newborn infant is not fully fused, allowing for growth and change in whichever way the infant himself chooses. The infant has a hand in his own making! This is still a revolutionary concept.
“…the most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed. But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers.
- Maria Montessori
With the eye of a scientist and the heart of an artist, Maria Montessori’s observations forever changed our view of the developing infant. She awakened in the child development, educational and scientific communities an awareness of the significance of the first years of life to the most successful creation of the future man. She also brought to light the immense activity that was mysteriously occurring in the recesses of the infant’s mind and spirit, an activity, she said, that cannot be ignored but must be nurtured and nourished with an interactive, responsive and beautiful environment. The infant from birth to 3 years old absorbs unconsciously and effortlessly. The child from 3 to 6 years old absorbs consciously with delighted, willed effort.
Four Planes of Development
During a typical day in a Montessori classroom the child’s developmental needs and learning characteristics are met while he engages in the classroom activities. Montessori observed that a child’s needs, interests, abilities and specific characteristics can be grouped into four planes of development. Planes of development are specific phases or stages of growth. Montessori’s idea of development was far from the traditional linear movement from ignorance to enlightenment. Her planes of development describe an energy field swirling and refining, an energy field that is dictated by potentialities and sensitive periods. A sensitive period is an interval of opportunity when a child effortlessly and with great alacrity is drawn to a certain activity to the exclusion of almost all else.
Montessori pointed out that these stages occur chronologically in an age range, but that the timings are not absolute. She felt that school age groupings should reflect these stages. She insisted that children should not be grouped to convenience the system. The development of the child, she observed, occurs in a step-like manner, there are times of attainment, creation and great learning and then times of refinement, crystallization and profound consolidation. As a child climbs the staircase of spiritual and intellectual development he moves towards maturity and enlightenment. Montessori implored teachers to “follow the child” in their care through careful observation. Using meticulous observation the teachers can attend to the needs, special learning styles, gifts, challenges, interests and apprehensions of each child and build the classroom environment accordingly. Because the specific characteristics of each plane are so different Montessori classrooms have mixed age groupings reflecting the planes of development, allowing for individual differences in speed and interest in all subject areas.
The Sensitive Periods
The sensitive period brings with it a “passion and commitment” (Tim Seldin) on the part of the child. The drive comes from a deep unconscious level and is manifested in a conscious activity. Genetics determine the physical individuality of a child: eye color, hair color, height and so on. Montessori postulated another cognitive plan, a plan that determines the emotional, intellectual and personality traits of a child. These traits come to full realization only if allowed to get their full exercise during a finite sensitive period.
The Montessori Teacher
A Montessori teacher works in partnership with the child. A partnership based on trust – trust that the child will reveal the moment he is ready to move on and trust that the teacher will recognize the signs of readiness. Parents do not hurry a child along who is learning to walk, they patiently help, cajole and encourage. When it comes to reading and writing the story often changes. “My child is 5. Why can he not read fluently?” they exclaim. A Montessori teacher will answer, “He will read when he is ready and when he has completed, to his satisfaction, all the practical life, sensorial and art works he needs to be ready.”
The teacher follows the lead of the child and observes his interests providing materials accordingly. The teacher is a guide, cradling the child to allow him to fulfill his true and unique potential.
The Peace Curriculum
“But there is a third thing you must do….you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
(From “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney)
Here again we come to the crux of Montessori’s true mission: to make the world a better place. Not unlike many screenplay writers, Montessori endeavored to facilitate the creation of a superhuman being! A being that exists on a higher moral plane and transcends past generations.
“All the good of all ages must have been absorbed and surpassed.”
- Maria Montessori
Montessori developed a peace curriculum. The first steps in grace and courtesy are simple: pushing in your chair so that it is not in anyone’s way; returning your work to the shelf so that it is ready for the next person; waiting your turn to use a work; the daily greeting from the teacher at the classroom door welcoming you each day and much more.
Respect is at the core of a Montessori classroom. It is not a demanded respect, but a respect that naturally occurs because each member of the community is valuable and needed. Each member’s voice is heard and each member has a choice. A Montessori classroom thus is not a free for all as is often thought; it is an environment where there is freedom for all within the limits that the community requires to be a healthy functioning group.