by Cynthia Dyer

Through scientific observation, Dr. Maria Montessori developed her own theory of human development from birth to maturity and called it “The Four Planes of Development”.  Each plane lasts for approximately 6 years and is broken down into 2 sub-planes.  During Montessori’s First Plane of Development, the years from birth to age 6, young children are developing the skills and cognitive processes that will serve as the foundation for their life-long development.  They rapidly and effectively absorb everything around them – from the language to the relationships between people – due to their incredible capacity to absorb large amounts of information in order to understand their culture and become a part of it. This capacity is known as The Absorbent Mind.

Looking at the two sub-planes of the first Plane of Development, we see that the Absorbent Mind is also divided into 2 stages known as the unconscious mind and the conscious mind.  During the first sub-plane, the years 0 – 3, all learning is done unconsciously through sensorial learning.  They act on their environment relying on adult collaboration to maintain order in their environment and routines.  During the second sub-plane, from about 3-6 years, children enter the conscious stage of learning.  Now they learn through the connection between their intellect and their hands.

The characteristics of the Absorbent Mind include:

  • Universality and timelessness – The Absorbent Mind can be observed in all  children in all cultures – past, present and future. 
  • Effortlessness – The ease with which a child takes in information without becoming fatigued.
  • Self-construction – the Absorbent Mind will take it all in; the good and the bad so it is important to prepare the environment and remove any obstacles to learning.
  • Non-judgemental –  young children are not capable of placing value on what they are absorbing.  For example, if children are brought up in chaos – that becomes their understanding of life.   If they are indulged – that is their expectation of life.  The behaviours absorbed within their environments will be used in other environments because that is what they’ve learned.
  • Permanency –  whatever the child has absorbed during the first plane, is permanent.  Behaviour can be unlearned but in times of stress, the undesired behaviour may come back.

Dr. Montessori compared the Absorbent Mind to a camera:

“Let us compare a camera with an artist, a painter. If someone stands in front of the camera, someone has only to click the camera to get a picture of the person. If twenty people stand in front of the camera it takes the same amount of work, just clicking the camera brings everything into focus, no matter how complicated the view may be. It is quite different for a painter. It is not the same thing at all for him whether he paints one individual or twenty individuals, whether there are only a few things in the environment to be painted or a great many objects. The camera takes each picture with equal ease but it can mean a great deal of work for the painter”.                                                            (Montessori, Maria, London Lectures, pages 50-51)

One cannot write about the Absorbent Mind without also saying something about sensitive periods and the horme.  Sensitive periods are short-term periods of time in a child’s life when he is especially sensitive to certain aspects of the environment.  These periods manifest themselves through a pattern of behaviour, such as a repeated action, that has no immediately apparent reason but may, in fact, be helping the child to perfect a specific function – such as the pincer grip. The horme is the inner drive that compels children to explore and to develop themselves.  I witnessed this one day while watching my son in his high chair.  He was around 1 year old and was sitting with a bowl of dry cereal (Cheerios).  He carefully took each piece out of the bowl and placed it on the tray.  Once he had taken them all out – and there were a lot – he began to put each piece back into the bowl.  As I watched, I realized that he was carefully using only his thumb and first finger and I was seeing the Absorbent Mind in action.

In conclusion, the adults within the child’s environment can either aid or obstruct learning by their understanding of the workings of the Absorbent Mind, the sensitive periods and the horme.  In order to create the optimal learning environment for any child, the adults – be they caregivers or educators – need to meet the developmental needs of the child, ensuring that the child can move freely, and that the environment is beautiful, orderly and structured.  The adult must also allow the child to have freedom of choice and the responsibility of that choice. Most of all, adults must respect the child’s independence and will.  


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