The Montessori Method and Sensitive Periods for Learning

Elementary school girl building a rainbow structure

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The Montessori method is an approach to the education of children pioneered by Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy, who spent her life studying how children learn. While Montessori remains well-known for the practical application of her ideas in Montessori schools around the world, she also developed a theory of development that helps explain her approach to early childhood education.

Key Takeaways: The Montessori Method

  • The Montessori Method is Italian doctor Maria Montessori's approach to childhood education. In addition to creating the method used in thousands of schools that bear her name around the world, Montessori laid out an important theory of child development.
  • Montessori’s theory identifies four planes of development that indicate what children are motivated to learn during each stage. The planes are: absorbent mind (birth-6 years old), reasoning mind (6-12 years old), social consciousness (12-18 years old), and transition to adulthood (18-24 years old).
  • Between birth and six years old, children experience "sensitive periods" for learning specific skills. Once a sensitive period has passed, it doesn’t happen again, so it is important that adults support the child during each period.

Planes of Development

Montessori’s theory came from her observation that all children tend to experience the same developmental milestones at approximately the same ages, regardless of cultural differences. Physical milestones, like walking and talking, tend to occur at about the same time in a child’s development. Montessori posited that there are psychological milestones that likely occur along with these physical developments that are equally as important to the child’s growth. Her developmental theory sought to flesh these phases of development out.

Montessori outlined four distinct planes of development that take place between infancy and young adulthood. Each plane involves specific changes, both physical and psychological, and therefore, requires changes in the educational environment in order for optimal learning to occur.

The Absorbent Mind (Birth to 6 years old)

During the first plane of development, children have what Montessori referred to as an “absorbent mind.” They constantly and eagerly absorb information from everything and everyone around them, and they learn naturally and effortlessly.

Montessori divided this plane into two phases. The first phase, which occurs between birth and 3 years old, is referred to as the unconscious stage. As the name suggests, during this time, children take in information unconsciously. They learn through imitation, and in the process, develop basic skills. 

The second phase, which occurs between 3 and 6 years old, is called the conscious stage. Children maintain their absorbent minds during this period but they become more conscious and directed in the experiences they seek out. They are motivated to expand on their skills and want to be able to make their own choices and do things themselves. 

The absorbent mind plane of development is also characterized by what Montessori called sensitive periods. Sensitive periods are optimal points during development for mastering certain tasks. We’ll discuss sensitive periods in more detail in the next section.

A majority of Montessori schools include programs for children in the conscious stage of the absorbent mind plane of development. In order to support this stage, Montessori classrooms let children explore freely during uninterrupted blocks of time so children can learn as much as they want without being reined in by the teacher. Each classroom includes a plethora of well-organized learning materials that are attractive to the child. The teacher may guide them in their choice of what to learn, but ultimately it is the child who decides which materials they want to engage with. As a result, the child is responsible for educating themselves.

The Reasoning Mind (6 to 12 years old)

At around six years old, children grow out of the absorbent mind plane of development and have completed the sensitive periods. At this point they become more group-oriented, imaginative, and philosophical. They’re now able to think more abstractly and logically. As a result, they begin to ponder moral questions and consider what role they might play in society. In addition, children in this plane are interested in learning about practical subjects such as math, science, and history.

Montessori schools support children in this stage with multiage classrooms that allow them to develop socially by working together and mentoring younger students. The classroom also includes materials about the practical subjects that interest children in this age group. While they may have been interested in these subjects earlier, in this stage, the prepared instructor can guide them to carefully prepared materials that will enable them to dive deeper into math, science, history, and other subjects that may be of interest.

Development of Social Consciousness (12 to 18 years old)

Adolescence is marked by both physical and psychological upheaval as the child goes through puberty and transitions from the safety of family life to the independence of life in society at large. Because of these immense changes, Montessori believed children in this plane no longer have the same energy they did in earlier stages to devote to academic pursuits. Thus, she proposed that learning at this point shouldn’t emphasize scholarship. Instead, she suggested it should be connected to skills that will prepare the adolescent to transition to the adult world.

Montessori never developed a practical educational program to support this plane of development. However, she suggested that in school, adolescents should be encouraged to work on tasks together such as cooking meals, building furniture, and making clothes. Such projects teach children in this plane to work with others and become independent.

Transitioning to Adulthood (18 to 24 years old)

The final plane of development Montessori specified occurred in early adulthood as the individual explores career options, chooses a path, and starts a career. People who make fulfilling and enjoyable career choices at this stage successfully acquired the necessary resources to do so at the previous developmental planes.

Sensitive Periods

As mentioned above, the first plane of development is marked by sensitive periods for the acquisition of specific skills. During a sensitive period, the child is uniquely motivated to acquire a specific ability and works hard to do so. Montessori said that sensitive periods occur naturally in each child’s development. Once a sensitive period has passed, it doesn’t happen again, so it is important that parents and other adults support the child during each period or it will have a negative impact on their development.

Montessori specified several sensitive periods including:

  • Sensitive Period for Order — During the first three years of life, children have a strong desire for order. Once they are able to move independently they maintain order in their environment, putting back any object that’s out of place.
  • Sensitive Period for Tiny Objects — At around 12 months old, children become interested in tiny objects and start to notice small details adults miss. While images aimed at children usually include bright colors and large objects, Montessori observed that at this stage, children pay more attention to background objects or small elements. This shift in attention represents a development in children’s mental abilities.
  • Sensitive Period for Walking — Starting at around one year old, children become focused on learning to walk. Montessori suggested caregivers do whatever is necessary to support children as they learn. Once children learn to walk, they don’t simply walk to get somewhere, they walk to continue to fine-tune their ability.
  • Sensitive Period for Language — From the first months of life until about 3 years old, children are able to unconsciously absorb words and grammar from the language spoken in their environment. During this period, children advance from babbling to speaking single words to putting together two-word sentences to more complex sentences. Between the ages of 3 and 6, children are still in a sensitive period for language but are now consciously motivated to learn new and different grammatical structures.

Montessori’s ideas about sensitive periods are clearly reflected in the Montessori method’s emphasis on hands-on, self-directed learning. In Montessori classrooms, a teacher acts as a guide while the child leads. The teacher is knowledgeable about sensitive periods and is, therefore, aware of when to introduce specific materials and ideas to each child to support their current sensitive period. This falls in line with Montessori’s ideas, which see the child as naturally motivated to learn.

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