From her observations, Dr. Maria Montessori found that children have inner powers and drives which support their development. As adults, we simply have to assist. As such, Dr. Montessori asserted that education is an aid to life and that education needs to support all aspects of human development.
At the core of the Montessori philosophy is the belief that peace comes about not by trying to change adults but rather by looking closely at how children develop and providing them with the appropriate environment for each stage in their development. Dr. Montessori wrote: "We must take man himself, take him with patience and confidence, across all the planes of education. We must put everything before him, the school, culture, religion, the world itself. We must help him to develop within himself that which will make him capable of understanding. It is not merely words, it is a labor of education. This will be a preparation for peace, for peace cannot exist without justice and without men endowed with a strong conscience and personality."
Dr. Montessori observed that the child changes so dramatically at each new stage in development that it is akin to "a series of rebirths." If a child has unique characteristics at each period of life, the environment should be different. If we provide an environment that supports the child, they will maximize their potential of bringing the best of one plane to the next.
Upon entering a Montessori classroom or "prepared environment," we can imagine ourselves experiencing the specific physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual attributes that contribute to each plane's developmental goal. Quite reasonably, we can ask, "Whose plane is it anyway?"
Below is a list of the attributes or psychological characteristics of each plane of development, an understanding of which can give us deeper insight as we traverse the journey of a child in a Montessori environment.
First Plane of Development (birth - age 6)
The developmental goal of the child aged birth to six is "Help me to do it myself." If you were a child in the Youngest Children's Community and Children's House, you would embody the following characteristics:
✦ An Absorbent Mind: The Absorbent Mind is the creative mental power of the child between birth and age six years. Dr. Montessori said that for the first three years of life, the child is an unconscious explorer. During this time, the adult can indirectly influence the child by what the child is offered in the environment. Between the age of three and six, the child's consciousness emerges, and there is consolidation and expansion of the experiences which have formed them during the first three years of life. This is the period of life where the child is a conscious explorer.
✦ Sensitive Periods: Sensitive Periods are specific inner guides that direct the child's absorbent mind in a particular sequence and manner. Modern science refers to these as "critical periods" in development. Dr. Montessori identified five sensitive periods in human development: Language, refinement of the senses, movement, order, and social behavior. During a sensitive period, a child can grow and develop in a way they will never be able to again. It is like a theater stage that is dark until a spotlight shines on a particular actor. We don't notice the rest of the actors as much as the area of the spotlight. The rest of the actors are still there, nonetheless.
✦ Independence: During the first plane of development, the child is eager for functional independence. They are mastering movement to get to a place where they can meet their own needs. This is the foundation for the psychological and eventual intellectual independence the child will seek as they mature.
Second Plane of Development (ages 6 - 12)
The developmental goal of the child aged six to twelve is "Help me to think for myself." If you were a child in the Early or Upper Elementary, you would embody the following characteristics:
✦ Developing Imagination and Abstraction: While the first plane child explores what is concrete in the world by using their senses, the second plane child can imagine with his "mind's eye" what is inside of things. Using their powers of imagination and abstraction, the second-plane child explores the universe and fulfills their drive to think for themselves.
✦ Developing Intellect and a Reasoning Mind: While children in the first plane ask "what?" children in the second plane ask, "why?" While a first plane child needs external order to create internal order, the second plane child's organization is inherently internal.
✦ Herd Instinct: The child in the first plane works towards perfecting themselves as an individual; the second plane child is drawn to social construction. Second plane children tend to move about in "herds."
✦ Big Work: Dr. Montessori said we need to offer the second plane child the world. The Montessori elementary curriculum is called "cosmic education" and is designed to appeal to the child's imagination and intellect, allowing for self-directed exploration. The second plane child has a desire for "big work."
✦ A desire for Justice: The second plane child is creating their own value system, and this desire for justice often leads to the comment, "It's not fair." Children of this plane look to the adults in their lives to model fairness and equity.
✦ Hero Worship: As the second plane child's peers become increasingly important, they start to venture away from the safety of their family. Whereas the child's parents were their primary role models during the first plane, the second plane child starts to emulate figures other than their primary caregivers. This may be a teacher, fictional character, perhaps even a "celebrity" from popular culture.
Third Plane of Development (ages 12 - 18)
The developmental goal of the adolescent aged twelve to eighteen is "Help me to consciously become and find myself In the world." Dr. Montessori asserted that in support of the developmental laws of the third plane child, we should "abandon the schoolroom and open the gate of life." The ideal model she presented was for adolescents to live on a farm with their peers, away from their parents. While they work the land, adolescents use this experience to fuel academic work. It is also the best time to offer creative arts.
If you were an adolescent, you would embody the following characteristics:
✦ Vulnerability: During the third plane, adolescents experience emotional volatility. Like in the first plane, they are often sick and experience fatigue. Along with physical and hormonal changes, sleep cycles change, and adolescents need more sleep than in the second plane.
✦ Engagement through Community and Economic Independence: Dr. Montessori said that adolescents should partake in real life, with genuine responsibilities and consequences. This leads to the "valorization" of the personality the adolescent formed by absorbing what the environment offered in the first plane of development. When an adolescent realizes they can do meaningful work, contributing to something more significant than oneself, they can "succeed in life by their own efforts and on their own merits."
✦ Altruism: During the third plane, the adolescent starts to look beyond their home and immediate environment and wonder how they can contribute towards the greater good in society. In doing so, the adolescent moves towards greater social and emotional independence.
The cornerstone of the Montessori pedagogy and philosophy is that human beings become what their environment offers. In light of this, when we have the privilege to parent or work with children, we ask: What are we offering them? If we consider each plane of development in preparing environments for children, how high can they soar? As a result of what we offer children in these prepared environments, what will be their destination?