Maria Montessori sees in children a great hope for the whole world, thanks to two aspects. She recognizes that regardless of people’s differences of opinion or cultural or social backgrounds, they all share children and childhood as a value that needs to be taken care of. “The child is the only point on which there converges from everyone a feeling of gentleness and love.” (The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press: Oxford, 2002, p. 263)
The second aspect is that education enables us to transform society for the better through individual young people who have fully developed their ability “to understand what is required to create a very powerful, a very rich and a purified world.” (From Childhood to Adolescence. Montessori-Pierson: Amsterdam, 2008, p. 93)
Maria Montessori experienced two world wars and believed that there was a huge potential hidden in children. In her book The Absorbent Mind, she writes: “I, too, believe that humanity is still far from that stage of maturity needed for the realization of its aspirations, for the construction, that is, of a harmonious and peaceful society and the elimination of wars. Men are not yet ready to shape their own destinies; to control and direct world events, of which – instead – they become the victims.” (The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press: Oxford, 2002, p. 3)
The importance of the first years of life
Maria Montessori explains that there is always a fundamental difference between a new species of life and the previous ones. She compares the difference between reptiles, who leave their eggs without interest, and birds, who take care of their young, with the difference between other species and mammals, who bear their babies in their own bodies. Man is distinguished from other species by the length of his childhood and by how the child develops during the period of childhood. The newborn baby is very far from being the person he is supposed to become. This state of the child after birth, before his mental life develops, is called the spiritual embryo. A human after birth constitutes his psyche using internal intelligence that guides him through the process. Physical equilibrium of man also depends on a healthy mental development – that is why the care for a newborn baby must be directed primarily to his psyche, not only to his physical needs. (The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press: Oxford, 2002, p. 55-56)
The child absorbs his environment like a sponge
Behavior patterns are not hereditary, but take shape based on a suitable environment that surrounds the child. A baby is born very sensitive, tracking with his senses all that is going on around him. He absorbs everything from his environment in order to become a member of the society into which he was born. Maria Montessori called the child’s ability to absorb everything from his environment the absorbent mind. Every word he hears, or every facial expression, he carefully keeps in his memory. While animals shortly after birth commonly produce sounds typical of their species, the human child first absorbs from his environment the language not of his species, but of the community into which he was born. Language is not innate – what is natural is just the ability to absorb the language and learn how to use it.
The child herself is driven by such a force that already since birth she is mostly working on her own development. She is helped in this by human tendencies, which are inherent to all people. Maria Montessori explains that they are necessary for humans to survive, adapt to society and fully develop. Therefore, they are innate and common to all people in the world. Manifestations of these tendencies vary depending on which plane of development the human being finds herself in. The human has a tendency to become independent, move, communicate, needs order and precision, examine and navigate her environment, work and concentrate, imitate and repeat … If a human develops in harmony with her nature, these tendencies will become manifest at all levels of her personality – psychological (emotional, mental and spiritual) and physical.
Maria Montessori talks about the fact that children who have had the opportunity to develop their potential behave differently to how children usually behave. She points out that what is common is, unfortunately, not normal. Over many decades she experienced how at school, children previously silent and obedient, or on the contrary, noisy or forceful, become children who are much more similar to each other in their expressions – they can all choose an appropriate activity after which they look pleased and balanced. “Then another thing happened never before seen in a group of children. It was the arrival of ‘discipline’, which sprang up spontaneously.” (The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press: Oxford, 2002, p. 184)
Thanks to a suitable environment the child finds her inner peace
If the child is in an environment that is suitable for her, i.e. in the period from three to six years of age, for example, surrounded by inspiring, beautiful and ordered materials, is in a suitable group of children, i.e. mixed-age group from 3 to 6 years of age, large enough, with a teacher who can show the children individual materials that might be of interest to them, her gross and fine motor movements get linked, the child focuses her thoughts, movements and language skills on one particular thing that she discovers through her senses. Thanks to this concentration and work, and the linking of mental and physical activity, the child can fully develop her personality.
It is natural for a child to want to be a part of society and participate in building it. Therefore, as soon as she has the opportunity to develop her concentration, diligence, temperance, affability, and does not need to act contrary to her needs, but in harmony with her development (Planes of Development), tendencies (Human Tendencies) and periods of sensitivity to acquire certain skills (Sensitive Periods), she leaves behind characteristics that hinder her becoming a beneficial member of the society, such as fickleness, untidiness, shyness and passivity.
A tremendous force that drives the child in the period up to six years of age
Maria Montessori uses the example of walking to demonstrate that at any age, the child has the ability to learn something else. And at the same time, the child at a given age has the best possibilities to learn exactly this. She explains that as soon as an organ is created, it is necessary to start using it. Only through active use is the organ fully completed. Once, approximately at one year of age, the child’s bones are firm, he can start walking. If we taught it to him with the help of the most specialized aids before this time, he could suffer an injury. On the other hand, if we restrained him when his time had come, the given organ – in this case the skeleton and muscle apparatus – would develop inappropriately.
The development of the psyche is similar to physical development. At some point, the child has the so-called sensitive periods. These are common to all children around the world and are time-limited. A child in the sensitive period shows great attention and dedication to activities she is acquiring. Instead of being tired, she is refreshed by the activity, and appears quiet and calm. In this manner, the child acquires linguistic, physical and social skills in the period from birth to six years of age. Sensitive periods change in this time, and as mentioned above, are time-limited. Sensitive periods only fully manifest themselves in an environment that supports the development of the child.