Dr Maria Montessori dedicated her life to the research of the child, child’s behavior, child’s education, its mental and physical development and of many other aspects of child’s life in great depth. Her scientific texts might sometimes read like a philosophy which is perhaps because of the deep understanding and care she’s put in her writings about the child. A child was always the center to her scientific work. For Dr Maria Montessori children were the citizens of the world with greatest potential as they were at the beginning of their life journey ready to learn and to absorb everything what life and environment offers to them. That’s why it is important to protect the children and use the best approach and create the right environment in order to make them develop and learn. “But if a child has within himself the key to his own personality, if he has a plan of development and laws to be observed this must be delicate powers indeed, and an adult by his untimely interventions can prevent their secret realization.” (The Secret of Childhood, Maria Montessori, page 34) When Dr Maria Montessori started her work there was not much research done in the education of children. One can say that the issue was neglected at that time as we can feel from the quote in next paragraph.
It is through Dr Montessori’s thorough scientific approach she identified different types of mind the child is characterized by at each stage of its mental development. ““Growth is a succession of births.” At a certain period of life, a psychic individuality ceases and another is born. These successive births take place during the period of growth. The first of this periods goes from birth to six years. This period shows notable differences, but during its whole length the type of mind is the same. From zero to 6 the period shows two distinct sub-phases. The first from zero to 3 years shows a type of mentality which is unapproachable by the adult, i.e., upon which the adult cannot exert any direct influence and, indeed, there is no school for such children. Then there is another sub-phase from 3 to 6 in which the type of mind is the same, but the child begins to become approachable in a special manner. This period is characterized by the great transformations that take place in the individual. In order to realize this, it is sufficient to think about the difference there is between a new-born baby and a child of 6. How this transformation takes place does not concern us for the moment, but the fact is that at 6 years the individual becomes, according to the usual expression, intelligent enough to be admitted to school.” (Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori, page 16)
Dr Maria Montessori called this first period of growth a period of transformation, which she divided into two subdivisions:
0 – 3 years of age: The Absorbent Mind (Unconscious)
3 – 6 years of age: The Absorbent Mind (Conscious)
The Absorbent Mind (Unconscious) (0 – 3 years of age) is characterized by constant absorption of impressions from the environment. It is also a period when child’s intelligence and other psychic faculties are being formed. The child unconsciously absorbs all the impressions from his surroundings and uses them to create. ““It is therefore a period of creation; because, before, nothing existed; since the individuality starts from zero. Here we are confronted then not only with something which is developing, but with creation that starts from nothing (except of course a potentiality). To accomplish this miracle, the newly born infant must possess a different type of mind from ours, endowed with different powers.”” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 109) Child’s mind at this stage is like a sponge absorbing everything automatically without any effort. “The child seems to take in these things “not with his mind, but with his life”.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 110) It is important to mention, that child can be easily distracted at this stage and moves easily from one thing to another.
Dr Montessori explains that the transition from unconscious to conscious mind is accomplished by movement. As the child starts to move he becomes conscious. “How is this passage from the unconscious to the conscious accomplished? “It is through movement which follows the path of pleasure and love.” “When the child begins to move, his absorbent mind has already taken in the world unconsciously. Now, as he starts to move he becomes conscious. If you watch a small child of two, or even one, he is always manipulating something. This means that – while he is manipulating with his hands – he is bringing into consciousness what his subconscious mind has already taken in before. …”” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 111)
The Absorbent Mind (Conscious) (3 – 6 years of age) is characterized by the use of the own will in child’s self-construction. “If in the first period (0-3) the child was a sort of “contemplative,” observing the environment and taking in from it without effort what he needed for his growth, now in the second period (3-6), he still continues this process of self-construction, but in so doing he is using his own will. For that, too, has come into being. Before, it was as if a force outside him moved him; now, it is the child’s own ego which guides and directs.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 112) In this period child still uses the embryonic power of absorbing without fatigue which Dr Montessori calls the absorbent mind. The difference is that the child now moves around and uses his own hands which are a new instrument of his brain. Through the activity of his hands he enriches his experience with the environment. Child touches and holds the objects – plays with objects what helps him to become conscious and construct himself.
Among other observations Dr Maria Montessori was observing children who were learning new language just by listening to their parents, with no qualified teacher always so joyfully and without fatigue. She realized that this spontaneous interest in learning a language lasts only for certain period of time. During this period, children learn effortlessly and when the period passes the learning is never as easy and natural again.
During her research Dr Maria Montessori also focused her attention on works of famous Dutch biologist Hugo De Vries who first used the phrase “sensitive periods in development” in connection with his researches in the development of certain animals as caterpillars of common butterfly. “The particular caterpillar studied by De Vries was one which during the first days of its existence cannot feed on large leaves but only on the tender buds at the tips of the branches. … There among the tender leaves it finds the food to satisfy its ravenous hunger. The remarkable fact is that just as soon as the caterpillar has grown large enough to eat coarser food its sensitive period passes and it loses its sensitivity to light. The instinct becomes dead and completely spent.” (The Secret of Childhood, Maria Montessori, page 38) Dr Montessori noticed the phenomenon of sensitive periods also in scientific work of Jean Itard in his work with an abandoned boy found in the forest of Aveyron in 1800s. Itard studied the boy named Victor and stimulated his mind through his senses. He recorded his achievements in the book The Care and Education of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Interesting fact was that Victor showed significant early progress in understanding language and reading simple words, but failed to progress beyond a rudimentary level as his sensitive period for the learning of language had passed.
Dr Montessori’s experience with children convinced her that similar phenomenon is found in the development of any child too. ““Children pass through definite periods in which they reveal psychic aptitudes and possibilities which afterward disappear. That is why, at particular epochs of their life, they reveal an intense and extraordinary interest in certain objects and exercises, which one might look for in vain at a later age. During such a period the child is endowed with special sensibility which urges him to focus his attention on certain aspects of his environment to the exclusion of others. Such attention is not the result of mere curiosity; it is more like a burning passion. A keen emotion first rises from the depth of the unconscious, and sets in motion a marvelous creative activity in contact with the outside world, thus building up consciousness.”” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 120)
Dr Montessori found that specific periods of special sensibility also occur in child’s development at certain time between the ages of 0 to 6. Therefore it is of utmost importance to recognize these sensitive periods in child’s life and provide the child with suitable environment to develop his abilities. “If we leave these things to be taught at a later age, the special and spontaneous interest in them will not be there, having vanished to give a way to other interest of a more intellectual nature.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 131)
It is important to remember what things to look for when we try to identify whether the child is in a sensitive period. One of the clues is that a child is expressing great passion and commitment when doing particular activity. Activity is irresistible and child can’t stop doing it. Child is concentrated from start to the end of the activity and likes to repeat the activity again and again. Activity doesn’t lead to boredom or fatigue, but instead to persistent energy and interest. After an activity is accomplished child appears restful. When the sensitive period in child’s life had passed it will never regain. The child will still learn, but not with the same passion and ease as it was during the sensitive period. Dr Montessori recognized 6 sensitive periods which she observed among children between zero to 6 years of age.
Order is an important and interesting sensitive period which makes a child extremely sensitive to order. This sensitiveness appears in child’s first year and continues through the second. “A child’s sensitiveness to order may be noticed even in the first months of his existence. A positive manifestation of it may be seen in the enthusiasm and joy which children who are seeing things in their proper places.” (The Secret of Childhood, Maria Montessori, page 49) Order is one of the needs of life which, when it is satisfied, produces real happiness. Order also gives children a sense of stability. A small child can’t live in disorder. It is necessary for the child to have an order and stability in his environment because he is constructing himself out of the elements of the environment.
Dr Montessori gave an example of a situation where the sense of order was violated in child’s mind when a child was in his sensitive period of order. Dr Montessori traveled with a group of people among who was a mother with a little boy. A mother had to take her little son into her arms and carry him for a little while when she decided to take her coat off and hanged it over her arm. This caused the baby boy to cry louder and louder. Other members of the group offered their assistance. The child was passed from arms to arms what made him even more upset. So the mother took her son back in her arms what did not help the situation. Dr Montessori observed the situation and asked the mother to put her coat on again. When the mother put her coat on the baby calmed down and was happy again. The child kept saying: “Coat … shoulder.” which meant, “Your coat is on your shoulders.” A coat is made to be worn on shoulders and should not hang like a rag on ones arm. The disorder he had noticed in the person of his mother had been the cause of a trying conflict.
- Refinement of the Senses
Refinement of the senses is a sensitive period which child experiences from birth to the age of 6 years. Child has a special interest in sensorial impressions as color, sound, shape, texture and so forth. This is when we give a child the sensorial materials. These not only respond to child’s natural interest in sensorial impressions, but by the activity which they stimulate, refine the senses, perfecting their functions. There are among the sensory apparatus various materials, such as the cylinders, long stair, pink tower etc., which being carefully and scientifically graded, give accurate impressions of the dimensions of things. Through working with these objects, the children often develop a sensibility in comparing the dimensions of things by sight which is more prefect than that of any adults. Sensorial materials in Montessori classrooms help in refinement of child’s senses. It is important in some professions in adult life to possess delicate senses. “I know a doctor who tells me she is able to diagnose diseases the moment she enters the patient’s room simply by the smell; and affirms that “most diseases have an odor peculiar to themselves.”” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 130)
“When the child is born the sounds in its environment form a confusion, a jumble, a chaos. Then suddenly this mysterious urge begins in its soul, this inner flame of interest is lit up, and is turned outward as a light upon this dark exterior confusion. Under its influence sounds separate themselves, though as yet language is not understood. Nonetheless these sounds have become distinct, fascinating, alluring.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 121) The child’s mind now listens voluntarily to the spoken language; which becomes as “a kind of music that fills the soul.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 122)
It is a well known fact that a child can ‘pick up’ a language just by hearing it. It is because of the sensitive period for language which is one of the earliest and the most wonderful of the sensitive periods in the child’s development. The sensitive period for language begins in the child long before he can speak or walk. Already at four months a baby may start watching the mouth of the speaker. A baby is ‘practicing’ sounds which are the elements of words to come. These exercises give child a great joy and encouragement to continue in the practice. Dr Maria Montessori emphasized how important it is for a child to learn the language during the sensitive period for language as when this sensitive period passes the child might not be able to master the language completely.
The child expresses interest in movement in the sensitive period for movement in first four years of his life. You can see child crawling, later running around the house, from one room to another, up and down the stairs etc. Need for movement is promoted in educational process in sport, exercising, outdoor games and similar activities. “Every individual should take sufficient exercise to keep his muscles in healthy state. When they are thus conditioned it is possible to develop certain muscles for specialized activities. But if the muscles in general are not sufficiently used, ones vital energies are sapped.” (The Secret of Childhood, Maria Montessori, page 97)
Through movement child comes in contact with external reality. Through these contacts that child eventually acquires even abstract ideas.
- Small Objects
Children develop sensitivity to the small objects at the age of 2 years. Children during the sensitive period for small objects are fascinated by smallest details even when playing outside. It is important to give children time and space to spend the time observing and playing with the small objects that interest them in their environment. Adults often miss these tiny details which interest child during this sensitive period.
Dr Montessori tells us about her first observation of the sensitive period for small objects. “I noticed this sensibility for the first time in the little girl of fifteen months old. I heard her laugh out loud in the garden, in a way unusual in such small children. She had gone out there alone and was sitting on the pawing stones of the terrace. Near her was a bed of magnificent geraniums, flowering under an almost tropical sun. But the child was not looking at them; her eyes were fixed on the ground, where there was nothing to be seen. Here then was another of the enigmas of infancy. I crept up and looked where she was looking, but saw nothing. It was she who explained to me, in words that were hardly words, “There is something tiny moving down there.” With this guidance, I was able to see a tiny, almost invisible insect, the color of the stone, moving very quickly. What had struck the child was that such a tiny creature could exist, and could move, could run.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 129)
- Social Awareness
During the sensitive period of social awareness which lasts from 2 and half years to 6 years of age the child is interested in what is socially correct as he is a member of social environment within a certain culture. Dr Montessori refers to it sometimes as the “special epoch for sensation” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 131). It is a ‘period of learning good manners’. During this sensitive period children should learn how to open and close doors, handing sharp instruments to another person, eating correctly, saluting others, taking one’s leave etc. “In a word, there is no action which we do not try and teach so as to approach perfection. We leave nothing to chance.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 216).
Dr Maria Montessori had showed us the sensitive periods in early life (0 to 6 years) of every child and explained how the absorbent mind works. Having this knowledge now it is the responsibility of adults to recognize child’s sensitive periods when they occur and give the child the optimal conditions and proper environment to develop himself to his full potential. Child is a creator of itself; we need to give him the space to do it. Child needs to be free to act and seek to gather sensible impressions from his environment. Child is a discoverer. He is an amorphous, splendid being in search of his own proper form.