Purpose of This Blog

Devoted to guiding educators towards a centered and intentional Montessori practice.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A School of Experience in the Elements of Social Life


Human beings are masterful at adapting to their environments. Powered by an ever reflective and evolving ingenuity and creativity unique to the animal kingdom, we are able to continually shape the natural world to meet our biological needs. Nearly everywhere we find ourselves on the planet can become our habitat through our associated alterations to, and developments of, the natural world. “Man… by his work transforms the environment, creating another world that pervades all of nature. This world is something more than nature, for to build it man uses everything that exists in nature” (Montessori, Education and Peace 96-97). Humans have created a supranature.


In the development of human civilization, social cohesion facilitated an early reliance on each other for ideas and materials to perfect our world; collaboration was the norm. We were united in the pursuit of the preservation of our species. Such intimate dependence continues to the modern age. “[O]f necessity, each and every one of us depends on the work of others and is obliged to work for others… it is men who keep other men alive; each lives thanks to the life of others and contributes to the life of the other” (Montessori, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” 10). There is an inherent solidarity to our ancestry that binds us to this day.


We must, however, be cautious of progress. As biological organisms, we first work to ensure that our physical needs are taken care of. Once secured, we then preferentially design our environments for comfort and pleasure. In time, “men have become accustomed to considering things from the mere point of view of obtaining economic and material benefits, to satisfy their vanity, to gain respect from others, or from ambition” (Montessori, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” 16).


In an effort to continually provide for greater and greater ease, we have created a shadow species of inanimate objects - many of which can operate independently, without human input following their genesis. These machines have acquired a near intelligence that is unlike anything the world has seen before: human creations that change and evolve on their own.


The rate of human-created mechanistic development now appears to be outpacing our own biological evolution. A computer’s operating system is constantly adjusting to the stresses of use, age, incompatibility with the breadth of software to which it communicates, and to what it encounters in the cybersphere - triggering alerts and updates and new versions of itself - effectively running through multiple iterations of natural selection until it can no longer function in the environment for which it was created.


Humans have responded to the needs of machines with whole industries built on the care and support of them, often through the creation of more machines that can tackle the pace and diverse scope of the need - while still attempting to provide for the once-promised simplicity and ease to the individual organism. Merely maintaining the machine is not truly living; it is slavery, self-induced servitude.


Throughout human history, systems of education have been developed in response to the world as it presented itself in particular environments across the globe in order to provide for the biological success of the species. We are animals, predisposed to behaving in ways that protect our own. From observation, to demonstration, to the presentation of abstract concepts, to experimentation - each method of sharing information about the world to the younger generations was employed to ensure the success of our genes. Only relatively recently in our development as a species have these systems provided codified opportunities to wonder, postulate, theorize, and question; in short, to be educated.


We now live with, within, and side-by-side supranature. It is a projection of what we value and demand. And yet, we are its creators, and ultimately do have sway over how truly dependent we are on it - and how independent it becomes. We can train ourselves to see supernature for what it is: a manifestation of what human history has needed and desired. Its mere existence, however, does not mean that we have to accept and embrace all that we have created. “We must fight this flawed and dangerous attitude with all our strength” (Montessori, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” 16). We can celebrate our ability to imagine, design and create, while always tempering those accolades with discussions of morality and balance. We can embrace the scientific and technological developments that unite and advance our global human collective while establishing the limits to which we will allow such developments to go:
“A unifying culture of science and technology is what we have inherited; it is what we share as a unified human organism on the planet - even as it continues to develop and change in our hands… There is nothing inherently evil about our advances in supranature. It is only out of balance with human moral development” (Ewert-Krocker, “Montessori’s Plan for Work and Study: An Explication” 323).


There is both magic and menace in what humans have created. What is needed is a new morality, one that is able discern the benefits of supranature as well as the dangers of continuing to blindly feed it. “This world, marvelous in its power, needs a ‘new man’” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 84).The educational programs we craft, therefore, for today and for the future need to be designed as true aid to life, not the needs of the machine:
“[A] new morality, individual and social, must be our chief consideration in this new world. This morality must give us new ideas about good and evil, and the responsibility towards humanity that individuals incur when they assume powers so much greater than those with which they are naturally endowed” (Montessori From Childhood to Adolescence 78).


We have within us the capacity for the spiritual equilibrium needed to bring the world to peace. It is rooted in our inherent biological nature, and can be fostered through following the natural laws of development from birth. We must remember our biology. There are rhythms in nature that are our rhythms, cycles in the nature that are our cycles; we are of nature and to nature we can again commit. To be truly, fully human means to be rooted in our bodies and our natural predispositions as part of the natural world. The schools of tomorrow, contrary to what the momentum of supranature might suggest, need to be more firmly grounded in our wildness. In so doing, we can “[reveal] something of the potential lying untapped in the commonplace, in our own places, in ourselves, and the relation between all three” (Orr, “Place and Pedagogy” 183).


The new morality we speak of is a result of an evolution of human consciousness. It first begins as part of our innate biological development, and our irrefutable biological tendencies towards which we lean as we grow. In such ground, it is rooted in one’s autonomous sense of self (independence), and one’s authentic sense of self and meaning in relation to one’s community (interdependence). Further, it springs from the valorization that comes from purposeful work.


The heirs of the future, the heralds of the moral development that we seek, are those most close to the adult world. It is in the mind and body of the adolescent that all of our hopes must be directed. They are poised to temper the role that supranature takes in our lives. As such, adolescent educational environments must be carefully prepared and constantly maintained with this end in mind. We must be resolute in our approach to the rationale for, and design of, these programs; our work is to champion the adolescent’s full biological, social, and psychic development within their own geographical context and place along the continuum of the human history.


In addition to fostering independence throughout a child’s development, it is the moral development of the child that must remain foremost in our minds. “Moral education is the source of that spiritual equilibrium on which everything else depends” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 73). From the earliest and very intentional lessons in grace and courtesy in the Children’s House; to learning about our world - its people and its cultures - and the interrelated fabric of our lives in Elementary; to tending to the needs of our school and opportunities to serve our local communities in Adolescence - each and every step reminds us of our critical role in helping to reshape the future. The children possessing of this new human consciousness will lead the way.


The prepared environment for a child of the Third Plane (twelve to eighteen) is uniquely designed to meet the developmental needs of the adolescent, and the manner in which the human tendencies manifest at this stage of life. The word adolescence comes from the Latin ad- (“to”) and alescere (“be nourished”) (Harper). The adolescent is a new child, as if newly born into society. Through this lens we are reminded that the child of this plane is both incredibly fragile, while also being eager to engage with his community.  He wants to know who he is, how he fits in, and what value he provides to his community:
“At adolescence we have this newborn social being who needs to find out about social life but still develop as an individual… [I]f there are any sensitive periods in adolescence, there are two: one for justice, which is social, and one for dignity, which is individual… Social development is based on individual development. But for both kinds of development to occur there must be freedom” (Davis, “Extending the Syllabus Without Distortion” 52).
As such, the prepared environment for the adolescent must necessarily provide for opportunities for self-expression and psychic development, and experiences of purposeful work and social organization within the context of science, history, and humanity.


It is through the hands of the child of the First Plane (birth to six) that the intellect comes alive. The texture, weight, temperature, etc. of objects help the child to define, categorize, and ultimately understand their surroundings. The mind cannot, to the same degree, do this work on its own. Without the hands-on manipulation of the world, the child cannot accurately comprehend - and therefore cannot truly, fundamentally interact with - the world. The hand and head go together in service of the developing child.


Throughout a child’s life, the degree to which the hand and head serve as vehicles for comprehension oscillates: the child of the First Plane relies on the hand and head working together to satisfy his sensitive periods; in the Second Plane (six to twelve), while still working with materialized abstractions, the child relies more heavily on his capacity for imagination; and then, in the Third Plane, the child’s intrinsic drive towards self-discovery is accompanied first by a decrease in intellectual stamina, and a predisposition to do service-oriented, manual work; followed by an analysis of one’s knowledge, the selection of education that meets one’s interests and goals, and a perfection of one’s skills. Education [for the adolescent] should therefore include the two forms of work, manual and intellectual, for the same person, and thus make it understood by practical experience that these two kinds complete each other and are equally essential to a civilized existence” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 65). Both the head the hand continue to work in concert to aid this critical stage of human development.


Much as the child can be borne anew through his time in a prepared environment, so must the adult who serves the child be predisposed to seeing children differently, and be open to continuously reflecting upon and refining one’s practice. This is a spiritual process as much as it a pedagogical one. When we speak of preparation of the adult we are talking about the guide being as carefully prepared as the learning environments themselves; and more: this preparation being one of knowing what his role is and what he can expect from the students. This means that the guide’s focus must forever and always be the child and his fundamental needs, developmental characteristics, and human tendencies. The guides true role, then, is to ensure that these biological and psychological rhythms are acknowledged and satisfied. This is what we mean by self-construction. The child, in a prepared environment with a prepared adult, is in the process of building himself. “What motivates the child is thus not the goal set for him by the adult, but by his own drive for self-perfection” (Montessori, Education and Peace 79). The role of the adult is to remove the obstacles to the child’s developmental tasks, and let nature run.


The adolescent is growing and changing in incredible ways. They are looking for definition: of themselves, in relation to their childhood; and, of themselves, in relation to their wider community. It is a matter of establishing their identity. “Only when there is independent development can he associate with others” (Montessori, “Third Lecture”). Dr. Montessori viewed the social development of the child of the Third Plane as occurring through both experimentation with opportunities for self-expression, and through intimate and engaged involvement in purposeful work that engenders independence. The child is as if newly born, now into society. “Who knows what will emerge from the soul of youth at this stage of life.” (Montessori, “Third Lecture”).


Adolescence is a culmination of ongoing physical, emotional and intellectual development. A child of the Third Plane is now ready to engage with the world in novel ways. In the two slim appendices to From Childhood to Adolescence Dr. Montessori outlines her recommendations for a reformed model of education for the adolescent: a powerful blueprint for practitioners striving to align their service to the child of the Third Plane.


In the first appendix, Erdkinder, Dr. Montessori describes her belief that it was important that children leave their homes for their secondary education:
“During the time of adolescence it is helpful to leave the accustomed environment of the family in the town and go to quiet surroundings in the country, close to nature. Here, an open-air life, individual care, and a non-toxic diet, must be the first considerations in organizing a ‘center of study and work’” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 67).
The idea was inspired by programs Dr. Montessori had witnessed in Germany and Holland that were part of a wider reform movement in secondary education in Europe at the time. “Erdkinder” was the name Dr. Montessori gave to this idea for secondary students living on a farm, away from their families and familiar lives, learning about human history through their immersion in work of the land. “We have called these children the ‘Erdkinder’ because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the ‘land-children’” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 68).  There is a pedagogy inherent to the places we inhabit.  Place teaches us in fundamental, foundational ways that speak to our origins. “[K]nowledge of a place - where you are and you come from - is intertwined with knowledge of who you are. Landscape… shapes mindscape” (Orr, “Place and Pedagogy” 187). The adolescent is, literally, a child of nature. When we can open deliberate avenues to access what is natural in each of us, deep connections and meaningful learning can take place.


Dr. Montessori was very clear to articulate, however, was that it was not merely being out in the country that would provide the galvanizing force for the children. “[I]t is not the country itself that is so valuable, but work in the country, and work in general, with its wide social connotations of productiveness and earning power” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 68). Indeed, for Dr. Montessori it was the involvement in the work of running a farm, and participation in the production and exchange of goods from the farm, that would most powerfully equip the adolescents to see themselves as having the potential to truly contribute to adult society. She felt that it was essential for the students to create, and be a part of, an interdependent community that is connected to the land and other humans. In an environment prepared in such a way the adolescent can not only focus solely on study and work, but develop the independence and self-confidence needed for adulthood.


The second appendix, Study and Work Plans, is comprised of two general sections -  the Educational Syllabus and Practical Considerations of Social Organization - and articulates the main facets of interwoven growth occurring in the adolescent: the development of the self, and the development of the self in relation to others. Fostering the full exploration of this duality can bring the spiritual development asked of us, needed now - and for the future.


Dr. Montessori showed us through her extensive work with and observation of young children across the globe that there are fundamental ways of knowing that are part of who we are as sentient beings on the planet. She referred to this as “Psychic Development”. We are each, for example, predisposed to the acquisition of language and mathematics. As infants we absorb the spoken language of our family, without it being formally taught to us. It is an essential part of our earliest of environments; we integrate language into our very beings as the critical tool to getting our base needs met. In a similar fashion, so are we drawn to make sense of our world through order and categorization. The development of this mathematical mind happens as we further organize our environments, transforming early sensory information into knowledge and then, through perfection, true understanding. Lastly, Dr. Montessori found that like our early sensitivities for language and math so is the young child able and eager to absorb the morals of his family. Learning the graces and courtesies of one’s culture, discreetly instructed or absorbed through observation, shape the child’s navigation of his immediate social environment and frame the more mature moral development to follow.


The child in adolescence is a social newborn; he is as if born again. What was true for him as a young child relative to his immediate family, now returns with equal sensitivity relative to society. The psychic development the child undertakes in adolescence is now predicated on having the skills necessary to be a contributing member of society: the acquisition and practice of language in a way that allows for the conveyance of clear communication between people; the development of advanced mathematical knowledge that can now be applied to the ever-expanding understanding of the world, of supranature; and, the embodiment of morality on which the maintenance and health of society squarely rests. Each of these skills are critical for the adolescent’s integration into adult society as an active and contributing citizen.


Equal in its importance to the development of the individual at this stage of his development is the adolescent’s strong desire to explore the complex physical and emotional changes he is experiencing through “Self-Expression”. “The chief symptom of adolescence is a state of expectation, a tendency towards creative work and a need for the strengthening of self-confidence” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 63). Not only is he looking for ways in which he might meaningfully process and gain understanding of who he is becoming; the adolescent is also seeking recognition and feedback from his peers and, therein, the self-confidence so necessary to aid his developing independence. Dr. Montessori recommended Music, Language [Arts], and the Arts as the means through which a child might further construct the self in service of the adult to be. “Self-expression is an essential step in the development of one’s humanity toward human understanding and solidarity. Art, music, and language as self-expression help us to understand one another better” (Ewert-Krocker, “Montessori’s Plan of Study and Work: An Explication” 316).


The bridge between satisfying the developing needs of the self, and the self in relation to society, is completed through the section of the Plan of Work and Study called Preparation for Adult Life. For this aspect of the adolescent’s education, Dr. Montessori believed that it is essential that he is provided opportunities in The Study of the Earth and Living Things; The Study of Human Progress and the Build Up of Civilization; and The Study of the History of Humanity. In each of these areas of integrated academic exploration, the adolescent is ready to connect the sciences and humanities in ways that move beyond the imagination germane to his elementary years. Now, as a social newborn working to define himself and his place on the continuum of human evolution, he is especially sensitive to the stories of history and the scientific ways of knowing that have allowed humans to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. “These studies should consider that uplifting of the inner life of humanity towards tendencies that grow ever less in cruelty and violence and strive to form ever-wider groups of associated individuals” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 72).


The ground from which the adolescent’s spiritual equilibrium will grow is his social independence; that is, his ability to function freely and with independent thought within adult society. Dr. Montessori accounts for this when she speaks of the child’s natural predisposition for psychic development and self-expression. To fully realize the the adolescent’s moral development, however, the child must feel the valorization of working in a community in pursuit of a common goal:
At the base of all these activities there must be a gradual conquest - a gradual gaining of independence… It implies the acquiring of a sense of the power to act alone; the possibility of carrying out some useful and important action without help from others; the being able to solve one’s problems for oneself, to reach a difficult goal by one’s own efforts” (Montessori, “Principles and Practice in Education” 58).
Such work provides additional opportunities for exploring one’s gifts further; seeing how one is critically connected to the success of the collective whole; and, recognizing the satisfaction that comes from successfully participating in purposeful work that benefits others.


An adolescent child bridges two worlds: childhood and adult life. Until this point he has been guided and protected by his family and teachers. His base fundamental needs have - for the most part - been met, and he has developed a working sense of how his culture and the world operates. He possesses the knowledge most often expected of him: elemental mathematics, functional literacy, an awareness of the beacons of history, and the basics of the physical and natural sciences. What is missing, however, and perhaps the most important is knowledge of himself. The critical step for the adolescent as they step into society is the development of true, authentic independence - for independence is the foundation upon which healthy lives are made.


Dr. Montessori spoke of valorization as becoming aware of one’s own worth. This is not accomplished through external praise, but rather comes about from the completion of meaningful work, acting alone: in the solving of a vexing challenge; in service of a community’s needs; in achieving a personal goal. From such valorization grows the independence needed of individuals living in society:
“It is the ‘valorization’ of the personality, to become aware of one’s own value… he is independent, he is sure of his own actions and knows how to act. This is the basis and law on which the soul must stand...  For the ‘valorization’ of the child’s personality there must be very definite basis in social experience.” (Montessori, “Moral and Social Education” 86).


True to every plane of development is the importance of ensuring that the work with which children are engaged is purposeful and in support of their manifesting human tendencies and path towards self-construction. The establishment of the adolescent’s identity in society comes from being part of a community to which one sees oneself as valued, contributing member. For the adolescent child, nothing so deeply resonates than opportunities to do real work in service of others - fulfilling a critical need, with each individual playing a critical part:
“We cannot overlook the importance for educational purposes of the close and intimate acquaintance got with nature at first hand, with real things and materials, with the actual processes of their manipulation, and the knowledge of their special necessities and use. In all there [is] continual training of observation, of ingenuity, constructive imagination, of logical thought, and of the sense of reality acquired through firsthand contact with actualities” (Dewey ).
Dr. Montessori speaks of what is required to root the independence necessary in order for the adolescent to be prepared to fully engage in the adult social sphere. Referred to as Practical Considerations of Social Organization, this is occupation work done in service of the community to which he belongs.“Production and change, exchange, are the essence of social existence… the youth should experience this in life. This is the secret of social life” (Montessori, “Third Lecture”).


There are many marvels in the development of the child to which the guide and parent can bear witness. Of them, independence is perhaps the most profound and transformative. When the child has become so disciplined that his activity is concentrated and wholly-consuming, and such discipline is activated not at the expense of those around him and even enriches the entirety, he has achieved independence. As we look towards the suite of skills necessary to be truly empowered beings - possessing the confidence, courage and capability that fuels innovation - independence is the one on which our hopes depend. Our job is to ensure that the child continues to be able to connect to this ultimate sense of personal possibility throughout the successive stages of his development, with freedom and responsibility.


Dr. Montessori has outlined a model for secondary education that is revelatory. It is rooted in meeting the developmental characteristics and tendencies from birth, and follows the child through continual stages of self-construction. Each step of the life-long strategy is critical. Ultimately, “[t]he human soul must shape itself” (Montessori, Education and Peace 106). What we, as parents and guides, can offer the adolescent is love and partnership for the journey ahead. “[We] must have the greatest respect for the young personality, realizing that in the soul of the adolescent, great values are hidden, and that in the mind of these boys and girls there lies all our hope of future progress and the judgement of ourselves and our times” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 72).


The role of the adolescent is to perfect the species. What he carries forward into adult society will ultimately provide the spiritual equilibrium and moral compass needed now and in the years to come to maintain human collaboration and unity.




Works Cited
Davis, Linda. “Extending the Syllabus Without Distortion”. The NAMTA Journal. 31. 1: (2006).
51-55. Print.
Dewey, John. “The School and Social Progress.” The Philosophy of John Dewey. Ed. J.
McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981. 457. Print.
Ewert-Krocker, Laurie. “Montessori’s Plan for Work and Study: An Explication”. The NAMTA
Journal. 37. 1: (2012). 311-325. Print.
Harper, Douglas,. Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. 16 July 2016.
Montessori, Maria. "Dr. Montessori's Third Lecture". Erdkinder Research and Development.
Amsterdam: AMI, 1981. Print.
---, Education and Peace. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2007. Print.
---. From Childhood to Adolescence. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company,
2007. Print.
----, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” The San Remo Lectures, 1949. Amsterdam: AMI,
2003/2004, Print.
---. “Moral and Social Education” The NAMTA Journal. 37. 2: (2012). 86. Print.
---. “Principles and Practice in Education” AMI Communications. 1.2: 2011. 50-60. Print.
Orr, David. “Place and Pedagogy”. Ecological Literacy. Reprinted in The NAMTA Journal, 38.
1: (2013). 183-188.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Considering Adolescence: A Holistic View of Child Development


The child promises a special gift to the world: within each resides the tremendous potential and hope for a future imagined and not yet seen. As both a child advocate and peace activist, Dr. Maria Montessori believed that in order to “improve society we must transform the child” (Ewert-Krocker). This, she proposed, could be accomplished through aligning the natural laws of biological and psychic development from birth with intentionally prepared educational environments that match those patterns of growth at every stage:
[T]he whole concept of education changes. It becomes a matter of giving help to the child’s life, to the psychological development of man. No longer is it just an enforced task of retaining our words and ideas. This is the new path on which education has been put; to help the mind in its process of development, to aid its energies and strengthen its many powers (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 24).
For the adolescent, the child on the cusp of adulthood, we must continue to be mindful stewards. Our mandate is to ensure a “valorization of the personality” (Montessori, “From Childhood to Adolescence” 71) as they continue to self-perfect within their culture of origin. To do so requires a careful study of their journey of self-construction through childhood.
In observing children across the globe, Dr. Montessori concluded that there are specific and distinct phases of physical and psychological development through which all human beings grow - regardless of cultural context. These planes of development are biological universals, with predictable timelines and characteristics. “[T]here are different kinds of mentality in the successive stages of growth. These phases are quite distinct one from another… they correspond with phases of physical growth…. There comes a time when one psychic personality ends, and another begins” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 15). In Dr. Montessori’s view, there are four overlapping planes of human development - each spanning six years - and each marked by an initial three years of creativity and acquisition, and a subsequent three years of refinement and crystallization. The four planes are: birth to six years of age; six to twelve; twelve to eighteen; and eighteen to twenty-four. Each plane contains very specific developmental tasks that the body and mind are naturally predisposed to satisfy. The four planes of development highlight the optimal time periods in which these biological milestones are met and consolidated, thereby providing for successful adaptation and independence within the culture in which the child was born.
Dr. Montessori recognized that, in addition to the planes of development that humans move through as they mature, they are also unconsciously motivated to fulfill specific human tendencies: a set of conditions that humans of all ages are psychically predisposed to work to satisfy throughout their lives. She viewed these as “mysterious guiding principles which will be the source of [a person’s] work, character, and adaptation to its surroundings” (The Secret of Childhood 19). The tendencies are basic to all humanity, and manifest differently at each plane of development. They are drivers of behavior, and are irrefutable and intrinsic calls to self-actualization. The human tendencies, as developed by Dr. Montessori and explained by her  son, Mario, are: Order, Orientation, Exploration, Communication, Work, Repetition, Exactitude, Abstraction, and Self-Perfection. While the planes of development are rooted in biology, the human tendencies are psychic in nature. They will manifest in different ways as the child grows. Taken in concert with the planes of development, they are the foundation upon which educators must necessarily base their work. Mario Montessori writes, “There are certain basic factors which do not change. What may change is what is given the mind… These tendencies can be helped or hindered towards the fulfillment of their tasks” (The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education 15).
Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child has a different relation to his environment from ours. Adults admire their environment; but the child absorbs it. These things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul” (The Absorbent Mind 54). The absorbent mind is the a term she used to describe the incredibly rich phase of neurological development from birth to six or seven years of age in which the child’s brain is voraciously absorbing information from his environment: “[T]he child absorbs knowledge directly into his psychic life… Impressions do not merely enter his mind; they form it… The child creates his own ‘mental muscles’, using for this what he finds in the world about him” (The Absorbent Mind 21).
From birth to three, this absorption is accomplished without conscious selection, prejudice, or fatigue. The information that is collected during these first three years of life is broad in nature and sensorial: images of the child’s immediate surroundings are indelibly recorded; relationships between things are established; order, rhythm, and predictability are set; and the feelings, attitudes and emotions of others are internalized:
With this sub-conscious mind the child achieves his wonderful work of creation, through a power of such marvelous sensitivity as resembles to some extent a photographic plate, automatically recording impressions in the minutest detail. The things in his environment seem to awake in the child an intense interest, an enthusiasm that penetrates into his very life… These impressions do not only penetrate the mind of the child, they form it; they become incarnated… We have called this type of mind the ‘absorbent mind’ and it is difficult for us the conceive the magnitude of its powers. (Montessori, “Education for a New World” 13-14)
At three years of age, the child begins to more consciously interact with the material world through his hands. A focused intensity appears as the child makes new meaning of his surrounding through physical activity and manual manipulation of the objects that comprise his environment. Children may display particular sensitivities to, and deliberate preference for, specific aspects of their external world - becoming invigorated through work. Indeed, one of the remarkable characteristics of child development that Dr. Montessori consistently observed in young children was the emergence of particular sensitive periods in which they appeared to be particularly attuned to one or more aspects of their immediate environment - to the exclusion of others. She writes:
A sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in the process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait, or characteristic has been acquired, the special sensibility disappears. (The Secret of Childhood 38)
For an organism born without the benefit of instinct, Dr. Montessori believed that these periods serve as critical developmental milestones for the human child as they learn to more intimately connect to one’s family, culture, society, and local geography. This is most noticeable in children in the first plane of development (ages birth to six). As an infant, children are initially unconsciously drawn to these sensitivities, endowed by the resonant power of the absorbent mind. They are engaged and committed to constructing meaning from their world, driven from within:
It is the child’s way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so he passes little by little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love. (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 22)
As a three-year old, these sensitivities become further enhanced to incorporate progressively more complex information, accompanied by an increase in core physical stability and manual dexterity. Examples of these sensitive periods include: Movement, Refinement of Sensorial Perception, Language, Order, and Manners:
The hidden powers he was previously creating are now able to show themselves, thanks to the opportunities for conscious experience, which he finds in the world about him… [T]he period from three to six is one of ‘constructive perfectionment’ by means of activity. The mind’s power to absorb tirelessly from the world is still there, but absorption is now helped and enriched by active experience. No longer is it a matter purely of the senses, but the hand also takes part. (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 148-149)
These moments can be seen as “windows of opportunity” (Girlato) that the child’s parents and guides can anticipate, prepare for, and support as they manifest.
The depth and breadth of a child’s intellect is ultimately the result of the unconscious, sensorial rooting and organization of abstract concepts that took place during the first six years of life during the period of the actively absorbent mind. Concrete exploration of more abstract ideas and/or processes, provided at a time when the child is developmentally prepared to engage with and manipulate specific hands-on materials that inform a concept (approximately three years of age) is critical to the child’s further engagement with the world. These materialized abstractions are especially resonant to the children of the first plane. “Children show a great attachment to the abstract subjects when they arrive at them through manual activity” (Montessori, “To Educate the Human Potential” 9). While the direct aim of the materialized abstraction may not be readily apparent and/or explicitly identified to the child, it is the process of working with the material - through exploration and repetition - that ultimately results in greater cognitive understanding and a more mature mathematical mind.
Human beings are naturally predisposed to create order out of the information gathered from their environment. “[T]he form of man’s mind… all the riches of perception and imagination… is fundamentally a matter of order” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 165-166). To have a mathematical mind is to be able to categorize and organize the world in predictable and reliable ways that promote an ever-evolving understanding of one’s world and ease of adaptation to the cultural context in which one lives and learns. “[C]larity comes from order” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 165).
As the child develops through the first plane he is absorbing, consolidating, and incorporating sensorial information from his immediate surroundings into his body and his  intellect so to help guide successful engagement in his immediate cultural context. It is “this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 55).
One of the hallmarks of Dr. Montessori’s approach to education is the belief that children will inherently gravitate towards interacting with their immediate surroundings in ways that are purposeful and disciplined when the environment has been properly prepared for such exploration and engagement. This natural predisposition is organically rooted in the intersection of the child’s place along the continuum of physical and psychological development, and in the ways the human tendencies typically manifest at that time. “The human being is a united whole, but this unity has to be built up and formed by active experiences in the real world, to which it is led by the laws of nature” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 182). Normalization is the term Dr. Montessori used to refer to this most natural state in which students find themselves spontaneously free from distraction and errant behavior, and are preferentially focused on work with great concentration and joy. She explains:
[T]he normal child is one who is precociously intelligent, who has learned to overcome himself and live in peace, and who prefers a disciplined task to futile idleness. When we see a child in this light, we would more properly call his ‘conversion’ a ‘normalization’. Man’s true nature lies hidden within himself. And this nature, which was given him at conception, must be recognized and allowed to grow (The Secret of Childhood 148).
The child of the second plane of development presents differently than when in the preceding six years years. Fully rooted in the senses, the child now has an intellect capable of imagining things unseen. They can interact with their world in fundamentally new and different ways not only tethered to the concrete. Dr. Montessori said, “We must help the child after six to fulfill his tendencies. They now urge him to understand no longer, as previously, only the immediate environment, but also that which is not accessible to his sensorial exploration” (qtd, in Montessori, The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education 12). For the child between six and twelve years of age, the Montessori guide must provide an ever-increasing diet of opportunities to increase the child’s understanding of one’s culture and society. At this critical stage of development, “[t]hese two powers of the mind (imagination and abstraction), which go beyond the simple perception of things actually present, play a mutual part in the construction of the mind’s concept” (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 165). This is accomplished through leveraging the child’s capacity for imagination, deep sense of justice, and the desire to contribute to the betterment of one’s immediate community:
[A] need arises for a special method, whereby all factors of culture may be introduced to the six-year-old; not in a syllabus to be imposed on him, or with exactitude of detail, but in the maximum number of seeds of interest… Since it has been seen to be necessary to give so much to the child, let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality and an answer to all questions. We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity (Montessori, “To Educate the Human Potential” 3-5).
During the second plane of development, great impressionistic stories and lessons are employed to excite and enthrall the students about the universe, the world, and their place in it. At this age, students have the integrated sensorial underpinnings necessary to allow for reasoned abstraction about things that they do not yet understand. They are primed to tackle big questions, and consider their role in the great universal story. “To the young child we give guides to the world and the possibility to explore it through his own free activity; to the older child we must give not only the world, but the cosmos and a clear vision of how the cosmic energies act in the creation and maintenance of our globe” (Montessori, “Cosmic Education” 7).
In order to ensure that the arc of a child’s natural progression towards self-perfection is maintained without interruption, environments must be intentionally designed and prepared - built in accordance to the characteristics of the students’ relevant plane of development; the human tendencies and how they might manifest at that particular plane; and, with the appropriate materialized abstractions, activities, and experiences best suited to those children and their developmental tasks. Regardless of age or cultural context, the result of a properly prepared environment is children working with spontaneous, purposeful concentration and joy. As before, in the first plane of development:
[t]he child has to acquire physical independence by being self-sufficient; he must become of independent will by using in freedom his own power of choice; he must become capable of independent thought by working alone without interruption… We have to help the the child to act, will and think for himself. This is the act of serving the spirit (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 255-256).
Such centered independence, grounded in purposeful work - accomplished within one’s wider community - is the key to the to the development of a thoughtfully engaged citizenry. Dr. Montessori saw in the children the characteristics needed to build true solidarity:
The child’s characteristics… are mental qualities that we find in the cohesive part of society. The child collects and incarnates them, and by this means constructs his own personality… When we let the infant develop, and see him construct from the invisible roots of creation that which is to become the grown man, then we can learn the secrets on which depend our individual and social strength. (The Absorbent Mind 216).
Dr. Montessori applied this natural predisposition of normalized children for social cohesion (The Absorbent Mind 211) to what is needed in the adult sphere. Paramount to Dr. Montessori’s vision for the future was a peaceful and just society. To achieve that end requires an attention to morality grounded in a centered sense of one’s own self (abilities, knowledge, and understanding), and an awareness of one’s part in maintaining the health of one’s immediate community:
[T]his is the key to social reform… it should be made the basis of all education. Social integration has occurred when the individual identifies himself with the group to which he belongs. When this has happened, the individual thinks more about the success of his group than of his own personal success (Montessori, “The Absorbent Mind” 212).
Dr. Montessori recognized, however, that no manner of external organization - replete with rules of governance - can be as powerful or sustainable as one formed out of authentic need, by adults whose earliest years provided for the full sensorial rooting of the material world and their place in it.
As servants of adolescents, who with both trepidation and courage step into the future, ours is the job of shepherding their journey into adulthood. They will become the architects of tomorrow, and require as sensitive and carefully designed an approach to their education now as when they were in the first plane of development. The adolescent desires freedom, independence, and recognition for who they are. “Joy, feeling one’s own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul” (Montessori, “From Childhood to Adolescence” 87). In reflecting on the developmental path children have taken to adolescence, we gain valuable insights into how to support their ongoing self-construction.

Works Cited
Ewert-Krocker, Laurie. “Characteristics of the Adolescent”. AMI-NAMTA Orientation to
Adolescent Studies. July 1, 2016.
Girlato, Sandra. “The Characteristics & Sensitive Periods of the Child: Three to Six”.
AMI-NAMTA Orientation to Adolescent Studies. June 28, 2016.
Montessori, Maria. Education for a New World. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing
Company, 2007. Print.
---, From Childhood to Adolescence. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company,
2007. Print.
---. The Absorbent Mind. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2014. Print.
---. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. Print.
Montessori, Mario. Cosmic Education. Amsterdam: Association Montessori Internationale.
1976. Print.
---, The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education. Amsterdam: Association
Montessori Internationale. 1966. Print.


(Image Source: Nature Camps, Inc.)