The Developing Child and Our Wonderful Montessori Classrooms

By Wanda Whitehead

The Montessori classroom is a fertile ground in which children can meet their developmental needs, and thus grow in leaps and bounds academically, socially, emotionally and physically. Our Primary and Elementary classrooms reflect the developmental stages of the child that Montessori identified from her thousands of observations of children. I’d like to address these first two stages or planes of growth according to Montessori.

 

The First Plane of Development

The first plane in the child’s development is from birth to age six. “The overriding goal of this period is the development of the self as an individual being. This goal gives the child an egocentric focus.”[1]  There is a tendency for adults to see this self-centered focus and judge the child as selfish. We must avoid judging the child as if he or she was an adult. From the child’s point of view, the self-centeredness is practical. The child must be busy at the monumental task of finishing his neurological development. Sensorial exploration and hand-brain activities are two ways that the child changes the physiology of the brain through his interaction with the environment.

During each plane of development the child goes through periods of concentration on specific capacities. These time frames are called Sensitive Periods. The Sensitive Periods for this first plane are for walking, talking (development of language), sense of culture, movement, will, independence and mental attributes like the discovery of order in the environment, attention to precision, and interest in minute objects.

Montessori observed that children at this stage “possess a capacity for absorbing the surrounding environment merely by being in it.”[2]  From birth to three, we see this capacity as the unconscious “absorbent mind.” From 3-6 years of age, we see a child’s ability to apply and use these sensorial impressions to order, categorize and classify objects in her world. Through this 6-year process of absorbing the environment, the child brings into being her own reasoning mind.

Understanding these aspects about the child of 3-6 years, we provide a rich flow of activities for kinesthetic and sensorial work. All practical life activities fulfill the needs for both self-care and the development of perceptual-motor coordination, that hand-brain work that helps brain development. The sensorial shelves are filled with activities that allow a child to hone their sensorial impressions making visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory comparisons and contrasts. As acquisition of language is what this age child is all about, the language work included on the shelves is perfectly timed to this learning. With tactile introductions to sounds of letters, the learning begins through the senses and develops with the child through the use of the moveable alphabet for word building to pencil and paperwork.

The Kinder year in the three-year cycle is a very important year, one of tremendous realization of skills and maturity. Having had the full three years in a Montessori environment, it is a delight to see each Kinder child at this pinnacle of success applying self-care, order/classification, sensorial, language skills to their daily lives as she stands on the cusp of the second plane of development, ages 6-12 years. The children can reflect on how they have grown from that uncertain first year in the classroom to one of confidence, leadership, and “can do” spirit. Being able to experience all the social levels (novice, follower, leader) of the classroom helps the child to understand the complexities of the larger world. They are prepared to meet their next phase of growth with confidence and accept new challenges with a smile.

 

The Second Plane

Montessori’s second plane of development encompasses the elementary years. While there are degrees of difference between the Lower and Upper Elementary classrooms, the key sensitivities for learning are the same for 6-12 year olds. “Montessori observed startling changes in children beginning at approximately age six indicating both a new goal and a new direction in their development. The children’s focus shifts from individual formation to development as social beings and the direction of their explorations of the world tends to the abstract rather than the concrete. All children’s behavioral tendencies serve these new purposes.”[3] We observe both physical and intellectual changes that allow the child to explore those sensitivities.

The proportions of their bodies, the loss of “baby” teeth for permanent teeth, their muscular strength and stamina all point to their entry into this second plane of development. Observing the child’s intellectual curiosity, mental organization of information, and ease in absorbing knowledge lead Montessori to call this stage, the Intellectual Period. “All other factors… sink into insignificance beside the importance of feeding the hungry intelligence and opening vast fields of knowledge to eager exploration.”[4]

Unlike most curriculums designed for this stage of development, our Montessori curriculum opens up the universe to elementary children beginning first with the all-encompassing view of the formation of the universe and the development of life on Earth. “Human consciousness comes into the world as a flaming ball of imagination.”[5] By relying on his acute imagination, the child can hold the greater picture of the universe, the planet, the evolution of life and becomes “enthused to his inner most core.”[6] Studies are then motivated by the insatiable curiosity and the sheer joy of learning. As children develop during these years, they pursue topics of greater specificity, expanding their knowledge base from the bigger view of life to details.

Also unlike many classrooms, our Montessori elementary classrooms provide opportunities to develop as social beings. Learning is done in collaboration and cooperation as well as individually. Social learning is addressed as new situations or challenges arise. Lessons and opportunities in Compassionate Communication, conflict resolution, and modeling virtues are part of everyday life. We know that children learn best when they experience safety and trust in their environment.

As with the kinder child, the 6th year student who has completed their full 6-year cycle of the elementary Montessori program, stands at the pinnacle of this phase of development and peers into the next plane of development (12-18 years) with a sense of confidence, a tremendous ability to learn, and to be a leader.

 

 

[1] Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from

Birth to Adulthood. Schoken Books, New York, 1996.

[2] Ibid, p.37.

[3] Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from

Birth to Adulthood. Schoken Books, New York, 1996.

[4] Montessori, Maria. To Educate the Human Potential. Kalakshetra Publications, India,

1948.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

 

About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).