The Child's Self-Created Mind
Originally published on The Parenting Handbook
When one thinks of the explosive discoveries of science made throughout history, it is tempting to think that the great minds who made those discoveries had an extra insight into the workings of the universe that was not available to the average man. Yet, thousands of men before Newton had observed apples fall to the earth. Thousands of men before Archimedes had observed that the water level of a bath rose when a person sat in it. Those many thousands of men, despite making the same observations, did not discover any new principles or come to any grand conclusions. What was remarkable with men like Newton and Archimedes, what set them apart from the mass of men before them, was that they did not settle for uncritical observation of the world around them. They believed that the world was fundamentally decipherable and they therefore sought to uncover the universal laws that would explain their observations.
Maria Montessori followed in the footsteps of these great thinkers in her observations of children. People had been interacting with and observing children since the dawn of time. Thousands of people had observed infants learn to speak a language, learn to walk, and learn to use their senses to understand the world before Montessori. Yet, it was Montessori who, believing that children’s behavior was fundamentally decipherable, sought to discover the natural laws governing a child’s development that would explain her observations. She made numerous discoveries about the nature of the child’s mind, how children learn, and what their mental needs are beginning from birth. She championed ideas, taken as obvious now in the 21st century, that science did not have the power to experimentally corroborate until decades after she wrote of them.
At the time Montessori was first writing, she acknowledged that many great advancements in the care of children had been introduced. Discoveries about the causes of disease, a child’s nutritional requirements, the role of vaccines and hygiene had led to a much safer and healthier infancy and childhood for millions of children. While she believed these improvements deserved to be celebrated, she noted that these were all made solely in the physical realm and no similar advancements had been made for the care of a child’s mind. In fact, it did not seem that many people even recognized that a child had a mind or mental needs at all. She remarks:
"The infant is treated like a young plant. Children to-day enjoy the rights which from time immemorial have been accorded to the vegetables of a well-kept garden. Good food, oxygen, suitable temperature, the careful elimination of parasites that produce disease; … But let us beware of so grave an error. The babe is a man. That which suffices for a plant cannot be sufficient for him. … The infant as a man—such is the figure we ought to keep in view. We must behold him amidst our tumultuous human society and see how with heroic vigor he aspires to life."
Based on her astute observations of children, Montessori concluded that children had a mind and a mental life from birth. This meant that, to her, education was proper and necessary for infants and young children. Yet, it was clear that education for infants and toddlers could not function in the same way as education functioned for older children and adults. She noted that one would have more luck “talking to the wind” than trying to instruct or reason with young children. Their unique minds demanded a rethinking of education. It required a new philosophy, new methods, and new teachers. In order to develop these new methods, it was essential first to closely observe children, define the functioning of their minds, and discover their capacities and natural laws that governed their development.
The Period of Creation
The first six years of a person’s life are a time of significant change and development. Today we know that 80% of a person’s brain (by volume) is developed by age 3, and around 90% is developed by the time a child enters kindergarten. While the assertion that the early years of a child’s life are immeasurably important for his future is ubiquitous today, it was revolutionary when first championed by Montessori.
She writes how, at the time, a person’s university years were seen as the most important part of one’s education. Earlier education was important, to be sure, but its significance was rooted in its role as preparation for this later, more significant stage. Children under the age of 6 were largely disregarded and not viewed as candidates for education of any kind. By contrast, Montessori asserted that the first 6 years of a child’s life were the most important stage of his life and his education. She called this period of development the “period of creation.” She believed that these first 6 years are the time when a child’s intelligence and character are formed, when a child develops a conscious mind and will.
She emphasized that this was a period of creation, not simply growth or development, because nothing existed prior. The newborn child’s mind had no contents, no conscious control, no will of its own, no character, no memory, no personality. If one imagines a newborn human, he is uniquely incapable compared to the newborns of other animals. Unlike animals which are born able to communicate in the language of their species—a newborn kitten can already meow, a lamb can bleat etc.— all the child can do is scream and cry; no form of human communication is open to him. The newborn is also practically paralyzed at birth. He cannot self-locomote or defend himself in any way. He may be able to flail his arms and legs, but even then, these movements are not often under his direct control and are useless for defense or locomotion. This— compared to the newborn foal which is on its feet shortly after birth and scampering after its mother, or even the newly hatched bird which can crane its neck and vie for the best position in the nest— is fragile indeed. Finally, the child has no knowledge of the world around him, no memory, no instincts to guide his actions like animals.
Yet, without any appearance of strain or work, without anyone taking much notice of his efforts at all, the child learns the language of the world around him. Whether he lives in a home where the adults speak English, Japanese, or Farsi, he learns to speak like those around him. Without instruction, he learns to roll over, to sit up, to stand, and to walk. He learns to balance on two feet and move forward, something no other animal achieves. He learns that he has hands; he learns to grasp, to hold, to manipulate objects. He learns to put these skills together and he walks while carrying things, then runs, then climbs! He effortlessly learns the mannerisms, the body language, the culture of the society in which he lives so that they become a part of who he is. He absorbs everything uncritically. He has no ability to judge what is important or not, what is real or unreal, what is normal or abnormal. He takes the contents of the environment and uses it to construct his mind. Montessori comments:
"He comes to life and begins his mysterious work and little by little he becomes the wonderful personality adapted to his time and to his environment. He builds his mind, until little by little he has constructed memory; until little by little he has constructed understanding, reasoning power; until little by little, he has arrived at his 6th year. Then suddenly we educators discover that this individual understands, that he has the patience to listen to what we say, whereas before we had no power to reach him. He lived on another plane, different from ours."(2)
Montessori further subdivided this period of creation into two distinct stages. From birth to around 3 years old, she describes the child as an “unconscious creator.” This is the time when he is forming his mind and intelligence. He is creating, in effect, the different regions of his brain that he will further develop and refine throughout the rest of his life. Montessori often likens this development to embryonic development in utero, calling this stage psycho-embryonic. With this analogy, we can imagine a non-specific assortment of cells rapidly specializing and dividing to create different “organs” of the mind, each with their own particular function.
From around 3 years old to 6 years old, the child is a “conscious worker.” This is the time when he is forming his character. Further, what the child was invisibly creating in the first three years of life is now visible. The child at this stage has enough memory, enough content, enough unity of mind that he has a personality. Montessori notes that this coincides with the age that most people have their first memories. The child is now an integrated whole, a unity of mind and body.
Montessori believed that the child of this stage still has the same kind of mind as the child under 3, but its function has shifted from raw creation to refinement and development of what has already been created. If there were any deficiencies in the first three years, because the child at this age still has the same kind of mind, they can be remedied with ease before the child turns 6. Once the child develops a fully conscious mind, however, this ability disappears. Any deficiencies that persist past age 6 can still be remedied, but it will no longer be as effortless.
The Absorbent Mind
Throughout history, Montessori comments that the child was seen as having basically the same form, mind and body, as the adult. Growth was seen merely as an increase in size and capability, a change in degree but not in kind. As far as the kind of mind a child had, it was seen as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with information and ideas by adults. The only substantive difference between his mind and that of an adult was in the amount that vessel had been filled.
Montessori tipped this idea on its head when she claimed that the minds of children change, not in degree, but in kind at different points in their development. She maintained that children have different psyches corresponding to different periods of their life. These stages are distinct from one another. They correspond to unique periods of physical growth, and their particular properties must be understood in order to capitalize on the child’s abilities at each stage.
During the first six years of a child’s life, during the period of creation, the child has, what Montessori called, an “absorbent mind.” In contrast to the adult, who acquires knowledge through a conscious act of will and through already-established reasoning powers, the young child absorbs knowledge unconsciously and uses this to construct his will and intelligence. The child uses what he finds in the environment and constructs himself. The language, culture, and habits of the environment he finds himself in are more than theoretical or abstract knowledge to him; they become a part of his very being.
Montessori thought that this knowledge of how a child’s mind works, while not explicitly acknowledged, was implicit in the culture. How often do people remark at the extraordinary imitative quality of children who can pick up on styles of speaking, slang, or mannerisms without any instruction? Montessori makes it explicit, though, when she asserts that children can absorb even complex knowledge such as learning to read and write or grasping abstract mathematical concepts at a very young age given the right materials in a properly prepared environment.
The emphasis on the importance of the environment in a child’s development does not mean that it determines the contents of a child’s mind or his outcome in life, according to Montessori. The objects in the environment are essential to a child’s development, but they have no constructive significance. Food and water are necessary for a person’s physical growth and their lack can cause deficiencies but still don’t determine one’s physical structure such as the the shape of a person’s nose or the color of their eyes. The objects in the environment are the mental “food” which the child uses to sustain his efforts but still do not determine his resulting mental structures.
The use of the word “absorbent” and other metaphors that Montessori uses to describe the child at this stage, such as “sponge” or “camera lens,” can lead one to conclude that the child is passive in the act of constructing himself. One might have the image of a child who needs to merely look out at the world and gaze at it indifferently in order to learn. This could not be further from the truth. According to Montessori, man is a unity of mind and body so that action, both to construct knowledge and to consolidate it, is paramount in a child’s life.
According to Montessori, it is, emphatically, not enough for a child to simply gaze at the world. A child must construct his knowledge by acting purposefully in his environment. His movements must be guided by his mind and his mental impressions must be connected to action in order for him to develop to his full potential.
The emphasis on the importance of first-hand experience and movement in Montessori can lead one to conclude that movement for movement’s sake is required for the child to absorb knowledge. But, again, Montessori viewed the child as an indivisible unit of mind and body. Purposeless action, physical education separated from any mental activity as an addendum to education, exercise unconnected to one’s mental life, were aberrations in Montessori’s view.
The way this reality is expressed in a child’s development can be seen if one observes a child closely. When a child is invisibly working on learning his native language, for example, he cannot be still and silent through the process. He must act, he must consolidate his skills in progressive stages of activity that expand in scope over time. So, the child starts by making sounds He delights in the new ability and he cannot be stopped in his babbling except in sleep. Then, months later he discovers whole words and these he must now use. He then conquers two-word sentences and continually and unconsciously internalizes the grammar of his language. At each stage, it is not enough for the child to mentally grasp a sound, a word, or a sentence. For the knowledge to be real, he must act. He must actually speak. Through this purpose-driven action he refines his skills, and consolidates his knowledge. That knowledge makes up a part of his soul for the rest of his life.
Every area of development, when keenly observed, will reveal the same quality. A child learning to roll over, for example, has a goal he wants to achieve, perhaps a toy just out of reach or a more comfortable position to lie in. He must choose this goal and then let this choice guide him in the proper action. His strenuous efforts in stretching, twisting, or reaching are guided by his choice, and his actions compound over time into self-constructed capacities and new skills. The child must actively discover knowledge, build skills, and construct his character through mind-guided action.
To aid in the process of development, Montessori discovered that children passed through periods of time when they had intense urges to complete particular tasks and were uniquely sensitive to specific stimuli. She noticed that children could learn a language effortlessly only up to a certain point, after which it became much more difficult. There were periods when children seemed to focus on understanding the order of objects in their environment, periods when they paid attention to the tiniest details in the environment around them, and periods when they were interested in the physical movements required to complete particular tasks.
Children are not conscious of their mind’s needs or why they’re motivated to take the actions they take. Yet, all children, regardless of their situation in life, pass through the same periods of sensitivities. Montessori called these “sensitive periods” and defined them as transitory urges that are confined to the acquisition of a specific skill and disappear once the skill has been acquired to whatever degree it has been mastered. While the child is in the grip of one of these periods, he is uniquely able to absorb knowledge and skills in this area. He has a power to learn extensively without needing to motivate himself to further exertions. She says:
"The child makes a number of acquisitions during the sensitive periods, which place him in relation to the outer world in an exceptionally intense manner. Then all is easy; all is eagerness and life, every effort is an increase of power. But when some of these psychic passions die away, other flames are kindled and so infancy passes from conquest to conquest, in a continuous vital vibrancy, which we have called its joy and simplicity. It is through this lovely flame that burns without consuming that the work of creating the mental world of man takes place."(4)
Montessori noted several sensitive periods, such as ones for language, order, movement, and sensorial exploration. She believed it was vital for adults to prepare the child’s environment so that they could capitalize on his intense interest and powerful capabilities while they lasted. If the periods passed away without taking advantage of the child’s abilities, what was lost would be lost forever. While a child might still be able to learn and make progress in these areas at a later age, they would never again be able to acquire them seamlessly with such ease and with so much natural interest. She explains:
“Many things lost to the child during the creative period cannot be created again. What can we do then? Society generally says:
“Be patient with youth; we can only persist in our good intentions and examples”;
and we think with patience and time we shall achieve something. We achieve nothing; with the passage of time we become older, but we create nothing. Nothing can be achieved only with time and patience; if you do not use the opportunities of the creative period when they are there, you can wait for eternity with the patience of Job."(5)
Maria Montessori observed that children come into the world uniquely disadvantaged compared to other animals and yet, make dramatic gains of knowledge and skill in the first few years of their lives without anything resembling direct instruction from adults. In fact, she observed that what children often received instead were hindrances and suppression rather than help. Despite this, children learned a language, learned to stand up straight, to walk, and to move confidently in the world. What the rest of humanity had observed, with pleasure perhaps, but without wonder, amazed Montessori and drove her to seek understanding and explanations.
She looked for the natural laws that would describe a child’s development and she discovered the child’s absorbent mind. She discovered his power to absorb language, culture, and vast expanses of knowledge in a way completely foreign to the adult’s mind. She discovered the special sensitivities that aid a child’s development and give him heightened interest to attain particular skills. She discovered that the child was fundamentally a self-creator. While the adult and the environment are important in a child’s life, they are not the motor that drives the child. The child is his own motor and it is through his own efforts that he constructs his mind, his will, and his character.
"These great powers of the child which we have described for long, and which at last have attracted the attention of other scientists, were hitherto hidden under the cloak of motherhood, in the sense that people said that it is the mother who forms the child, the mother who teaches him to talk, walk etc., etc. But I say that it is not the mother at all. It is the child himself who does all these things. What the mother produces is the new-born babe, but it is this babe who produces the man."(6)
Once the nature of the child was discovered, once the natural laws of his development were described in detail, Montessori then followed in the footsteps of another great thinker, Francis Bacon, who famously said that “nature to be commanded, must be obeyed.” With her newfound knowledge of the natural and “normal” state of the child and the unique powers of his absorbent mind, Montessori defined a new philosophy of education and developed the methods that would “command” the nature of the child and allow him to reach his fullest potential.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 8). . Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 38). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood (Montessori series Book 22) (p. 38). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood (Montessori series Book 22) (p. 37). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 306). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 19). Start Publishing LLC. 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.
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