Education from Birth
At the time Montessori was working with children, it was accepted wisdom that children under six couldn’t be educated. After all, infants and young children can’t focus, wait motionless and in silence until they’re called on, or listen to a long lecture. Nor can they think abstractly, follow instructions, or talk with fluency, but are still building up their vocabulary and self-awareness.
But when Montessori observed children, she made a startling connection–one that others had missed for millennia—the abilities that older children possess (language, abstract thinking, self-control, focus, and attention span) come from somewhere. They don’t spring up ex nihilo on a child’s 6th birthday, or at any other arbitrary moment. Instead, they are built gradually, step by step, through the child’s own exploration, effort, and experience with the world, and which can be encouraged and nurtured by the inputs and environment that adults provide.
When Montessori observed the infant and young child, she really looked—past the dimples, curls, and coos—and she noticed curious things. An infant, only a few months old, would focus intently on his parents’ mouths while they were speaking and would soon begin to mimic syllables. A toddler would carefully observe daily human activities, and then demand the right to take part: to dress himself, feed himself, carry things himself. A 3-year-old would show intense interest in the tiniest details, in a trail of ants on the sidewalk or the glittery specks on the surface of a pebble. Based on observations like these, Montessori came to see that young children are not just idly waiting to turn 6 before they start learning. The young child clearly had a mind.
In recognizing that even the youngest child engaged in cognitive activity, and in seeing the child’s development as a unity—as a progression containing certain salient features, with each stage laying the groundwork for the next— Montessori saw the need for a system of education, one that begins at birth.
Montessori viewed the first period of childhood as the most important, because it lays the foundation for everything to come. Of course, a child will continue to refine and develop his capacities throughout childhood. Indeed, for the rest of his life. But these refinements and developments rest on the foundation built in the first period. The stronger this foundation, the more complete the child’s development and the more potential he can actualize.
During this period, a child is building the foundation of his mind—observation, discernment, judgment. He is building the foundation of his character—the ability to independently make good choices, to concentrate, to persist. Most importantly, because it determines the use of his mind and character, he is building the foundation of his outlook on life—an evaluation of the world he lives in and of himself.
In evaluating the world, the child is deciding, among other things, whether it is safe, interesting, and intelligible. For Montessori, the goal is for the child to feel curious, attracted to the world and eager to engage with it. The danger is that a child recoils from the world, seeking protection, an escape, or retiring out of boredom. Describing the alternative facing the child, Montessori says:
“The environment instead of proving attractive, as it should to a being in course of development, is repellent. And if a child, from the very first infancy feels repulsion towards this environment, which ought to be its means of development, certainly this child will not develop normally. He will not be the child who conquers, who is destined to take the whole of his environment and incarnate it in himself. He will do so, but with difficulty and incompletely. He is the very picture of the saying ‘To live is to suffer,’ To do something is, to him, to go against his own nature.”(1)
In evaluating himself, the child is deciding whether he is capable, able to succeed, able to surmount challenges and meet aspirational goals. For Montessori, the goal is that the child feels independent, confident, triumphant and supreme over his own functioning and direction in life. The danger is that the child feels ineffective, has no desire to succeed, no motivation to pursue ambitious projects, no will to imagine, create, or collaborate. Describing the importance of this conclusion, Montessori says:
“It is surprising to notice that even from the earliest age man finds the greatest satisfaction in feeling independent. The exalting feeling of being sufficient to oneself comes as a revelation. This is undoubtedly a fundamental element of social life, because when one is completely dependent upon others and the feeling of one’s practical incapacity has become a conviction, the urge cannot arise to be of help or to seek the cooperation of others to act with one’s own energy.”(2)
A healthy outlook on the world and the self is fundamental to the child’s development, according to Montessori. It’s what enables flourishing in every area of life. And while the child can’t help forming some kind of outlook over the course of the first six years of life, he doesn’t form a healthy one automatically. It’s all too easy for the child to become bored, scared, or defeated by the world and insecure about his own abilities. To build a healthy outlook, the child needs the adult’s help.
Yet, if the young child does not have the abilities of a 6-year-old, if adults can’t reach him through direct instruction and lectures
Reaching the Child
In order to reach the young child, Montessori asserts that we must first understand the nature of his mind. Namely, that at this age, the child learns by absorbing details from his environment and acting independently. For adults to reach the child, then, they must consider the type of environment he is exposed to and the kinds of actions it enables and encourages him to take.
If the goal in designing the child’s environment is for him to conclude that the real adult world is safe, interesting, and intelligible, if the goal is for him to reach adulthood and feel that he is capable and able to succeed in that world, then the proper environment for the child is the real world, according to Montessori. Not a “magical” world, that shelters the demands and “boredom” of life, and sets up for disillusionment when the practical side of life can no longer be ignored and fantasies must subside.
But crucially, also not an unmitigated adult world, where everything is out of reach, nothing may be touched, implements are too heavy or too unwieldy to be used comfortably, and even the simplest task is impossible to do independently. Instead, the adult world is given to the child in essentials, with their application suited to the child’s particular level of development. For Montessori, this corresponds to her idea of a prepared environment and the practical life skills it enables.
In the Montessori prepared environment, the adult world is scaled down to the child. All the core elements of life are analyzed from the child’s point of view—from the base necessities of daily living to the loftiest desire for intellectual stimulation—and the environment is carefully prepared so that the child can have independent access. Instead of being compelled to fight for entry to the real world, its gates are thrown open.
Even in infancy, the real world is made available at the child’s level. The child is given a floor bed so that, as soon as he’s mobile, he can crawl in and out independently. Once he starts solids, he is given small versions of real, breakable cutlery so that he can learn to eat as adults do. On shelves low to the ground, he is presented with engaging objects, designed to entice and challenge, and to allow for freedom of choice.
Because the child’s abilities are constantly expanding, the environment and the activity it enables grow in scope over time. The infant who learned to crawl in and out of bed on his own, becomes the toddler who independently dresses himself for the day. The infant who learned to drink out of a glass cup becomes the toddler who uses a dull knife to slice his own banana for a snack. The infant who learned to intentionally grasp and release objects from his hand, becomes the 3-year-old who uses his hands to trace the shapes of letters and connect them to the sounds he hears in words.
In this kind of environment, the child is greeted by a world that is set up for success and independence. It’s a world where the natural desire to expend effort and perfect one’s faculties is nurtured, not thwarted. The child still faces challenges. He is not shielded from the inherent work it takes to build understanding or develop a new skill. But the challenge is always appropriate for the current level of development, without any unnecessary, added friction from the environment. The child can conclude that the world is safe, interesting and intelligible. He can conclude that he wants to interact with it, learn about it, and master it. He can conclude that there’s nothing about the world that makes any of this impossible. He can conclude that the world is his, if he puts in the work.
And, in this environment, children develop the habit of putting in the work, of refining skills while interacting with the world. With each new skill mastered, a burgeoning sense of efficacy becomes more solidly rooted. Because every effort to engage with the world has been rewarded, children are continually spurred on to ever-greater challenges, and develop an inveterate sense of being capable, surmounting obstacles, and pursuing ambitious goals.
The child, already concluding that the world is ready for him, begins to conclude that he is ready for the world.
With an education that begins at birth, one that prepares the environment and makes it possible for the child to develop a healthy outlook on the world and himself, the child can establish a sturdy foundation for life, one that he will build on and carry with him through all of life’s challenges. With an education from birth, he can attain, what Montessori called, “the strength of spiritual man,” the:
“[S]traightness of conscience that feels its responsibility, but above all the feeling that human life is triumphant over the cosmos: humankind should feel itself king of all that has been created, transformer of the earth, builder of a new nature, collaborator in the universal work of creation.”(4)
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 70). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. From Childhood to Adolescence (Montessori series Book 12) (pp. 100). Kindle Edition.
- There’s a lot to be said about how, even if the young child had the ability to sit and listen to a lecture, this would still not be the ideal way for the child to develop these conclusions about the world and himself.
- Montessori, Maria. From Childhood to Adolescence (Montessori series Book 12) (p. 102). Kindle Edition.
Samantha Blaisdell earned a B.A. in Secondary Education with a focus on Spanish and ESL from Spring Arbor University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Idaho. After working as both a brick-and-mortar and online teacher and as an engineer, she discovered and fell head over heels for the ideas and method of Montessori. Samantha lives in Idaho and, in her free time, enjoys reading, spending time outside, and playing with her cats.
- Core Philosophy
Knowledge as an Achievement
Montessori, unlike the centuries of educational tradition before her, did not view knowledge as a lump sum that can be gifted wholesale to a child, filling his mind as one would fill an empty vessel. Neither did she view knowledge as an experiential grab-bag, a disparate and disconnected assortment of facts and skills that can be learned (or not!) at random. Instead, for Montessori, knowledge is an achievement. It’s an effortful process that can be accelerated and whose product can be amplified by following a specific path.
- Core Philosophy
Creating a Child’s World
It’s common to recognize that young children are highly perceptive and unusually sensitive to their surroundings. Montessori agreed, and took this a step further: she believed that children take their early experiences and use them to build the very foundations of their minds.
- Core Philosophy
Montessori believed she uncovered the natural laws governing a child’s development and discovered that he had mental needs from birth. Based on these discoveries, it was clear to Montessori that the traditional ways of interacting with children, educating them, and rearing them were tragically inadequate. It was time to re-think childhood, education, and parenting. It was time to articulate a new philosophy.