Thursday, December 15, 2016

Montessori Theory Part III - The Formative Years

The Formative Years

"L" is a happy and active four year old who happens to be my nephew.  He is highly articulate and precise in his use of language.  He is the middle child of three boys and loves to imitate his older brother who is six.  He usually gets along fairly well with his younger brother until he tries to take whatever he might be working on; then he feels upset.  He will tell him to leave his things alone and stands firm without yelling or hurting until the younger one relents.  His parents are very loving and concerned for his development and well-being.  They ask good questions and study good books about how to aid his development.  They are particularly kind, calm and set appropriate boundaries consistently.  He is always busy doing something and especially loves to spend his time outdoors where he loves to pick the vegetables and dig in the dirt.  We were a little concerned about his vocabulary development for a while when at two years he wasn’t really speaking much, but one day he burst out with words and quickly caught up with his peers.  Some of my favorite times are when "L" comes to visit.  He always asks if I have some works he can do.  He knows just where to find the rugs and gets busy.  He will work until he has had his fill and is ready to move on.  He has a rich social life with his large extended family and friends and plenty of enticing and interesting modes for development.According to UNICEF early childhood is a critical time for emotional, cognitive, social, and physical development in children like Lincoln.  During this time the building blocks of lifelong function are formed as child’s developing brain is highly absorbent and flexible to change as trillions of interconnected neurons are established through the interaction of character traits, environment and experiences with that environment and others.  Nature has set the path for childhood development which requires a stimulating environment, adequate nutrients and social interaction with attentive and adequately informed caregivers.1

The Psychic Life of the Child

It wasn’t too long before Maria Montessori’s entrance onto the scene of medicine that a correct understanding of the development of the embryo took place.  It used to be thought that inside the egg was a minute form of the baby we see born.  This was because the embryo develops in secret; hidden away from the eyes of the world.  Montessori said that the growth of the embryo is a miracle of creation and so wonderful because it is carried out in secret and alone… This marvel of creation, however, has been carefully hidden.2Montessori also spoke of a development that was just as important in the life of the human as physical development.  She spoke of the psychic development.  In her research she said that “just as every fertilized cell contains within itself the plan of the whole organism, so the body of a newborn creature, no matter to what species it may belong, has within itself psychic instincts which will enable it to adjust itself to its surroundings.  This is true of every living being, even the humblest insect… and just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species.  It would be absurd to think that man alone, so superior to all other creatures in the grandeur of his psychic life, would be the only one to lack a plan of psychic development.  Unlike the instincts of brute animals, which may be seen immediately in their way of acting, a child’s spirit can be so deeply hidden that it is not immediately apparent.” 3It is this psychic life that helps humankind move from infant to adult. Not an adult that is the same as any other, but one with a particular individuality and personality.  There is a hidden pattern of development which must be revealed by the child.

The Absorbent Mind

When the child is born it seems that he begins with absolutely nothing; a blank slate. How then does this tiny thing go from nothing to a babbling baby and then to a confident reader?  From the moment he is born he begins taking in stimulus from his surroundings and it is filed away for later use.  The child has what is termed an absorbent mind.  “He wills that which does not yet exist.”4Because the child’s mind is not yet formed, he must learn in a different way form the adult.  The adult has a knowledge of his environment on which to build, but the child must begin with nothing.  It is the Absorbent Mind that accomplishes this seemingly impossible task.  It permits an unconscious absorption of the environment by means of a special pre-conscious state of mind.  Through this process, the child incorporates knowledge directly into his psychic life.  “Impressions do not merely enter his mind, they form it, they incarnate themselves in him.”  An unconscious activity thus prepares the mind.  It is “succeeded by a conscious process which slowly awakens and takes from the unconscious what it can offer.”  The child constructs his mind in this way until, little by little, he has established memory, the power to understand, and the ability to reason. 5When a child is young he doesn’t just learn how to play the piano or water the plants, whatever he experiences with his world becomes a part of his person.  This means that every good thing is absorbed as well as every bad thing.  Therefore, “a struggle, fright or other obstacles, may produce effects that remain for the rest of life, since the reactions to those obstacles are absorbed like everything else in development…In this epoch therefore we have not only a development of the character, but also a development of certain deviated psychic characteristics which children will manifest as they grow older…So also it is with any defects and obstacles acquired now; they remain, and grow; and so many defects that adult people present are attributed to this distant epoch of their life.” 6Some years ago I had a little girl in my class.  The place where I worked had bathrooms lights that turned off automatically with a sensor.  Everyone shared the same bathrooms in the hallway and they had heavy doors.  One day she accidentally went into the boy’s bathroom and was so still that the light turned off.  She was a tiny girl and froze with fear.  She cried and cried, but they couldn’t hear her behind the door.  I went looking for her after it seemed like she was taking too long to get back.  Since she was in the boy’s bathroom it took me longer to find her.  She was a wretched little thing in that bathroom stall and a changed person.  It was so devastating to me to see her brightness change to fear.  She was afraid of the garbage truck coming while we were outside.  She jumped at noises.  She was afraid of the wind.  I worked as much as I could with her to help, and her issues lessened.  However, in the two years following it was apparent that she had been affected long-term.  I decided right then that I would never install automatic lights, if a child could be so affected it would never be worth it.

The Sensitive Periods

Maria Montessori felt that of all her contributions to early childhood studies, her discovery of the Sensitive Periods was the most import.  During her life she called for the greater in-depth study of the importance of these years.7  There is now much more research that supports these critical periods of learning.  There are several well-known Sensitive Periods spoken on news programs and in newspaper articles, such as the acquisition of language.  Sensitive Periods are critical times of learning when the child is attracted to certain activities in order for specific developments to occur.  These can be parallel stages of development.  Each period has its unique characteristics that require a specific kind of environment and teaching.These periods of sensitivity in the young child are detailed by the Montessori Institute Northwest as follows:

  • Sensitive Period for Order (birth through age 4 1/2)- Guides the formation of mental structures necessary for the emergence of human intelligence; and organizes the child’s experience to provide the foundation for all aspects of the child’s adaptation to his time and place
  • Sensitive Period for the Coordination of Movement (birth through age 4 1/2 -5) - Guides the formation of physical movement of the body and the hand, movement which is directed purposefully by the Mind (specifically, by the mental power know as the Will)
  • Sensitive Period for Development and Refinement of Sensory Perception (birth through age 4 1/2) - Guide continual development and refinement of perception through the five senses (touch, smell, taste, hearing, and vision or sight) leading to: first, the classification of sensory impressions; and, second, the formation of abstractions for sensory experience (memory)
  • Sensitive Period for Language (birth through age 6) - Guides the formation of the specific human language (or languages) used for spoken communication in the child’s environment 8

The importance of the child remaining free to follow the pull of interest during this time is so important that Montessori stated, “If the child is prevented from following the interest of any given Sensitive Period, the opportunity for a natural conquest is lost forever.  He loses his special sensitivity and desire in this area, with a disturbing effect on his psychic development and maturity.  Therefore, the opportunity for development in his Sensitive Periods must not be left to chance.  As soon as one appears, the child must be assisted.” 9  It follows that it is necessary for the child to have assistance from adults who are educated in the specific needs of that Sensitive Period, who know how to follow the child, when to intervene, and more importantly when to remove themselves.When a child is in a sensitive period for any particular thing he can learn to make adjustment and new acquisitions with ease.  He does not tire from his efforts, but his enthusiasm is increased.  One characteristic of the child’s environment becomes the focus to the exclusion of others.  They appear in the individual as ‘an intense interest for repeating certain actions at length, for no obvious reason, until – because of this repetition – a fresh function suddenly appears with explosive force.” 10By the time my fourth child," B", was little I was learning as much as I could about Montessori philosophy.  When he was three my friend gave our school room a gift of some brightly colored nesting boxes with lids from IKEA.  I gave him a lesson on how to stack them like a tower and left him to it.  I had never experienced such a tiny thing working for hours and hours on the same work.  He explored EVERY possible combination with incredible speed, and then repeated this work again and again and again.  It felt almost pathological, watching this happen for the first time, and it was only my promise to adhere to the rules of not disturbing his work that kept me from stepping in and stopping him.  Eventually that feeling subsided and longer I watched, the more awed I became at what was taking place.  He worked relentlessly through lunch and playtime without noticing anything going on around him.  He became the work entirely.  Finally he was done and he put it away happy and ready for the next thing.  The work didn’t tire him out; on the contrary, it filled him with happiness and a readiness to find something new to work on.

The Role of the Adult

When my oldest daughter, "S", was two years old I was pregnant with my second child.  I had not yet been introduced to Montessori principles.  During that summer we went on a short trip every day to the school for the summer lunch program.  The first day she let me push her in the stroller on the way there, but would have nothing to do with it on the way back.  She wanted to walk and explore, especially in the gutter.  It was June and beginning to be uncomfortably hot for me.  We were going to make this trip five days a week for the rest of the summer and I was certain that I could not handle the same thing happening on every trip.  I was thinking forward to July and August and how my pregnant body would be wanting to die.  I didn’t understand the importance of her walking and, therefore, didn’t take her into account.  The next day I said that we were going to race from pole to pole all the way home.  She mostly obliged but was never very happy about it. As soon as we stopped at the next pole she was ready to explore again and I was ready to move on.  When that proved to be too troublesome for me I took to driving her in the car.  I find it interesting that I have always looked back at that summer with discomfort, even in the years before I knew that I should follow the child.  I have gone back to that experience multiple times and thought of what I might have done to accommodate both her and me. It felt wrong even then, but I didn’t understand why.Montessori’s words about the relationship between the adult and child are straightforward and accusatory.  She lays at our charge that we are in a constant conflict with them because we have not understood them, that we cannot see the child as he is, and that from the moment the child enters our lives we are on our guard against it.  She further states that, “In their dealings with children adults do not become egotistic but egocentric.  They look upon everything pertaining to a child’s soul from their own point of view”. 11What children really need are caregivers who study the normalized development of the child.  Caregivers who are willing to put their convenience and comfort on hold for a while to follow the child in her developmental needs.  Because the world that the child enters now is so artificial in comparison to more natural world of the past we must make the necessary steps to fulfill the needs of the child, whether this be in homes or schools.In SummaryPersonally I feel such gratitude for what I now know about the secret life of the child.  I have always ascribed to the idea of a light that guides a child, but until I spent many years in personal research I could never have imagined that this light could be found in the minute details of the everyday. Children are not just floundering about.  There is a pattern for development and they hold the reigns.  I get to be part of it, I get to help them and provide a safe and stimulating place to do this work of growing and creating themselves.  I have the coolest job!
  1. The Secret of Childhood Maria Montessori (1996) New York, Ballentine Books p. 18
  1. Ibid pp. 19 - 20
  1. Ibid p. 35
  1. Ibid p. 36
  1. The Absorbent Mind  Maria Montessori (1949), Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House p. 187
  1. Montessori A Modern Approach Paula Polk Lillard (1972) p. 36
  1. Montessori A Modern Approach p. 32 - 33
  1. Ibid 31
  1. The Secret of Childhood p. 15

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the story of the girl with the automatic lights
    " if a child could be so affected it would never be worth it."
    I feel that we as adults do many things that are innocuous to us... and it is very rare when we consider the harm we do a child. It seems like a great responsibility to own that such a deep hurt is possible when we mean so well! Often we ignore the signs because the implications are frightening.

    I remember when my mother used to come late to pick me up, me of all the children in my after-school daycare. Twice I had thought something had seriously happened to her and I looked at the clouds and imagined that she was watching me because she had gotten into an accident and was now an angel. All of these times she would only briefly apologize, or not even mention it.

    Later in my childhood she became more dependable. It was also helpful with cellphones that we could call each other... but she never mentioned the time she made me worry into a fantasy. And when I brought this up she ignored it. I have never felt close to my mother since then - those times I felt genuine sorrow and fear that she might be no more, and tried to comfort myself. There are, of course, other things that she ignored and refused to respond to. But after a while I realized that loving her was a risk. She loved me in her way, I suppose, and she has done so much for me. But I now felt uncomfortable with the fact that I feel no sense of attachment to her. And this detachment has also affected my other relationships.

    I had actually forgotten about this but your story reminded me of this thing that was one of my earliest memories. A good reminder as I strive to change my own attachment status for my children.

    btw, the font for this post seems much harder to read than the previous ones. Might be good to tweak it?