Through observation, Dr Maria Montessori developed a theory of universal human development. Understanding the purpose and process of child development during the first six years will help you implement Montessori principles into daily life with your child at home.
The four key concepts are:
- Absorbent Mind
- Sensitive Periods
THE PURPOSE: Self-construction and adaptation.
Your child is in the process of creating his or her mind, body, and unique personality during the first six years in order to survive and thrive in the surrounding environment.
Dr Maria Montessori inferred that children are born with potential but without any predetermined knowledge of the world so that they would be able to adapt to the cultural and ecological surroundings specific to where they are born.
For example, a newborn has the potential to speak any language in the world. The language this child creates depends on the language that surrounds him or her during the first six years of life.
Neuroscience has confirmed that the human nervous system is incomplete at birth and the body and brain are not integrated. Genes program the sequence of neural development but the brain hardware is not fixed.
The brain constructs itself via information received through the senses when your child physically interacts with the environment. Every sensory impression leaves an imprint on the brain, and the most used neural connections become strengthened. About 90% of the brain's wiring is complete by your child's sixth birthday.
THE PROCESS: Via your child's absorbent mind, guided by sensitive periods.
Your child's absorbent mind means the capacity of the brain during the first six years to absorb knowledge directly and unconsciously through sensory-motor experiences.
Your child takes in the environment without thinking about it in order to develop naturally. Your child doesn't choose what to absorb and the process happens without any conscious effort or fatigue. The absorbent mind functions like a camera that records whatever is in the viewfinder without filtering.
Your child has the power to teach himself or herself because of the absorbent mind. Let's look at how your child creates language to see how the process works.
Although your newborn is unable to communicate beyond crying, his or her absorbent mind takes in the sounds of the human voice, vocabulary, syntax, and accent. This information is stored in the brain while the organs of speech needed to utter syllables develop.
Your child learns the sounds of the language by matching the results of her articulation with the sounds she hears. At around 2 years old, your child exhibits an explosion of words and phrases that include grammar to express thoughts.
The creation of language is complete around 2 1/2 years old. During the next few years, your child practices and refines his or her verbal skills, enlarges and enriches vocabulary, and learns to write and read.
When your child is around 6 years old, he or she is no longer able to absorb language unconsciously and the organs of speech and hearing become fixed. An older child can still learn another language but it requires conscious effort and memory.
Sensitive periods guide the absorbent mind.
A sensitive period is characterized by an unconscious, passionate interest in some aspect of the environment to the exclusion of everything else. Sensitive periods push your child from within to interact with the environment to get what's needed at that moment for optimal development.
The absorbent mind has the function of taking in information, whereas the sensitive periods guide what your child absorbs.
The four interconnected sensitive periods are:
- Sensorial Perception
The sensitive period for order exists so that your child absorbs the patterns and cycles of the natural world and daily life. Order is also the framework for the mind. Your child needs to classify and organize absorbed impressions to be able to think in an abstract way in the future.
The sensitive period for language exists so that your child creates his or her own language by absorbing the sounds of the human voice, vocabulary, and accent.
The sensitive period for movement exists so that your child begins to direct his or her own movement to explore and interact with the environment. Repetition of movement is necessary to build neural pathways in the brain so the muscles and mind can work together.
The sensitive period for sensorial perception exists so that your child develops and refines his or her senses to absorb the environment and make comparisons and judgements. More refined senses can perceive impressions more precisely. This helps build a more ordered mind that can better understand abstract concepts that people in our culture have agreements about.
Your role as a Montessori parent is to provide a prepared environment that respects and supports your child's process of natural development.
When you start looking at your child's behaviour from the perspective of natural child development, it becomes a whole lot easier to be patient.
Rather than thinking of your child as naughty or testing you, think of your child as a scientist who is actively exploring to figure out how the world works. A toddler who drops food on the floor may just be figuring out natural orders of the world such as gravity. A child who tattles on other children may just be trying to figure out the rules.
Of course, this doesn't mean that anything goes! Freedom within limits is one of the fundamental principles of the Montessori approach to parenting. It is a lot easier, though, to calmly state limits and allow your child to choose from the acceptable options when you understand the purpose and process of child development during the first six years.
As a Montessori parent, you can relax in the understanding that your child is using the absorbent mind, guided by sensitive periods, to construct his or her mind, body, and unique personality. You cannot make your child develop, but you can provide a rich sensorial environment and allow your child the freedom to follow inner urges to explore the environment sensorially through all forms of movement.