Principles and proven ideas

This is not a science that measures the personality. It is a science that transforms the personality

Dr Maria Montessori

Child development from a science perspective

Maria Montessori did have excellent training in observational skills which she acquired durning her time studying to become a medical doctor before the age of diagnostic equipment. After her medical studies, she also studied anthropology. This combination of studies, combined with her inquisitive mind, gave her the possibility of looking at child development – not from the point of view of an educator, but from the point of view of wonderment, of questioning what best supports normal human development. She did not begin her work with a selection of developmental theories. She began by observing children, children given a space in which to spend time, children given a certain level of freedom. She then sat and observed, spoke with the adults with whom she was collaborating, and refined her “experiment.” She eliminated toys and experiences that, in general, did not apply to all children – or activities that did not capture the children’s interest. Over a number of years, she continued to observe, refine, and discuss her findings, creating what we have today known as the Montessori Method.


Human development is a long process, a process which cannot be managed but a process which does need understanding and support. We cannot force it – we can only recognise it and offer our best efforts to both understand and accept it.

From our Montessori point of view, it is the normal progression of life. For this reason Montessori called her approach “psycho-pedagogy”, not an educational method. This pedagogy is based on the psychological characteristics of children which change periodically. If education is considered from this point of view, with deep understanding and knowledge, then children can be supported in becoming the human being they are destined to become.

Social development

In terms of social development, Maria Montessori’s ideas are somewhat different from a more traditional educational approach. In traditional education children under six are usually given experiences in groups.

Everyone paints at the same time; everyone builds with blocks at the same time, etc. Once a child enters elementary school, the work is individual and children are discouraged from helping each other, particularly in an exam. In Montessori psycho-pedagogy, the development of the individual is stressed until sometime during the 5th year. Maria Montessori based her educational approach on human development, not educational theories. She noticed that the normal characteristics of children changed at particular time periods and she therefore grouped characteristics around these normally occurring time frames. So we have groups of children from 0-3, from 3-6, from 6-12 (or 6-9 &9-12), 12-15 & 15-18, 18-24. There is a transition time between each of these stages which is very individual, some children may start exhibiting certain characteristics, for example the desire to work with others rather than just focus on individual work. So the Montessori environments acknowledge these transition periods and the pedagogical materials allow for this shift. Montessori pedagogy stresses the construction of the individual before the age of six, believing that any society is only as strong as its weakest member. After six, the focus is on collaborative work, work usually done in small groups.

Developmental support from the birth

Maria Montessori did not limit her work with children to work in schools only. She began with the family – just as we do today. If we consider the various types of families evident world-wide today, is there one “gift” possible within every family for every child to receive? There is! That “gift”, which sounds so easy to give, is sometimes not evident. That “gift” is the gift of attachment. In order for any child’s development to proceed along a healthy developmental plane, it is necessary for that child to have a secure attachment to at least one adult – ideally the birth mother – but this not being possible, to at least one consistent adult. From this secure attachment, the child can create secondary attachments – but there must be a secure attachment to one figure as a foundation.

Maria Montessori did not know about “attachment theory”, per se, but she was very much aware of the importance of the family in a child’s life. In many parts of the world, as a support for working parents, there are Montessori environments for infants and toddlers. This work was begun in Italy in 1947 and continues today in many, many countries. A Nido, the Montessori environment for infants – prior to walking securely, has a home-like feel to it. The number of infants is limited to 9 or 10, with a 3:1 ratio.  The environment offers the possibility of movement, of language development by the children being surrounded by one or more languages spoken by the adults. There are opportunities for the children to develop, along with the development of their motor skills, the ability to feed themselves, undress themselves, eventually dress themselves (with help), choose activities for themselves. They live together in this environment, each child being allowed to progress along their individual developmental path. From the security of an attachment to their mother, they are able to form at least one other attachment to one of the adults in the environment. Their main task is to develop themselves as unique individuals.

Self-affirmation of the small child

Once a child is walking well, they have the opportunity to move into a Montessori Infant Community. This Montessori community is comprised of 12 or so toddlers and 2 or 3 adults. The group size is critical here – as the children are still developing as individuals. They are still egotistical; they do not yet understand the concept of sharing; they are just developing the ability to understand the needs and rights of others; they are just developing the ability to be empathic. This is somewhat determined by their neurological development.

In Montessori, we refer to toddlers as being in a ‘self-affirmation crisis’. They are in the final stages of ego-construction, when they understand – and accept – that they are a unique, separate individual, not a part of someone else. Understanding this self-affirmation crisis, gives us the opportunity to strengthen this developing ego by offering choices at any time possible. We also understand and help toddlers to accept that there are certain situations where there is no choice. Throughout the day we offer choices, gradually giving the child experiences that validate their self-construction. This individual validation lays the foundation for the development of the social being.

Freedom and independence for getting understanding of immediate environment

Once this toddler is somewhere between 2.5 & 3 years, they have outgrown the confines of this Infant Community. Developmentally they need more challenge. They need a larger group of children with which to interact. Also, they need more challenging materials to work with. They need the expertise of older peers and they need to be acknowledged by younger peers. It is time to transition to a Montessori House of Children.

This group is considerably larger. According to Maria Montessori, the ideal size of the group is 40 children. That has been difficult for many legislative bodies and cultures to accept, but in places where it is possible, excellent results are achieved. In this large group of children between the ages of 2.5 and 6+, there is one trained teacher and one assistant for the children.

With a 3 to 4-year age range, a mini society is created, just as in a large family.  As a child stays in the same environment for 3 or 4 years, each child has the possibility of beginning as the youngest and gradually growing into one of the elders of the class. With this growth, the children normally assume various levels of responsibility.

The child becomes a member of a cultural group

In this particular environment, one of the “curriculum areas” is Practical Life. These activities are those we all do on a daily basis to take care of ourselves and the space in which we live. We prepare food, we wash dishes and linens, we iron those linens, we arrange flowers for our tables, we grow plants that need to be watered and cared for, we have pets that need our care, our floors need to be swept or mopped; shelves need to be dusted, etc. The younger children are drawn to these activities for two reasons. Firstly, children have seen adults in their lives doing similar activities and they want to emulate the adults. Secondly, these activities fulfil certain developmental needs of the children. They offer the possibility of developing and refining both gross and fine motor skills; they offer the possibility of sequencing a number of actions in a logical progression.  Every item used or activity carried out has a name – so vocabulary and language usage is enhanced. These activities reflect the ways the activities are done in the child’s local, cultural environment, thus aiding a child in becoming a member of a cultural group. As a child comes to understand and carry out the activities independently, their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-reliance become positively strengthened. We comment on the work done and the effort given to the work – which is of benefit to all.

When a child is allowed to choose a particular activity, based on their own interest, and allowed to repeat the activity as many times a they choose, concentration is one of the outcomes.

Care for others

Another aspect of practical life is something we call grace and courtesy. The word ‘grace’, refers to graceful movements. Moving gracefully is modeled always by the adults. The children come to move in the same manner, thus reducing chaos in the environment.

The word ‘courtesy’ refers to the common courtesies used within a culture. We create little vignettes, little plays, explaining to the children a certain social situation and the culturally appropriate ways to handle a situation. For example, when passing in front of someone we often say, ‘excuse me.’ When asking for more food, we say ‘please may I have some more…’ In a very predictable way, we explain to children the cultural expectations for social situations and give them the opportunity to practice the use of the common courtesies. According Montessori, when a child begins spontaneously to use the cultural courtesies, it is a sign of their social development – they have understood the social situation and have the knowledge of what to say or do. We begin to see them spontaneously greet visitors, introduce themselves, offer tea or coffee, use the courtesies with their peers, etc.

Growing social awareness

As a child gets older the motivation for doing these types of activities – these practical life activities – gradually shifts from doing something solely to satisfy a personal need to recognising a communal need and carrying out the exercise to satisfy that need. Along with this burgeoning social awareness comes an understanding that one child may know how to do something that another child does not know how to do. So, the knowledgeable child gives a lesson to the unknowing child. With a 3 or 4-year age-range, and a lot of children, the environment moves from being an environment with Montessori materials to a Montessori environment. Aiding this burgeoning social awareness is the fact that many of the materials designed for older children, the 5 & 6 year olds, are designed to be done in a small group. There are some activities for younger children done in groups of 3 or 4, like sensorial games, but these often involve an adult for a longer period of time until the children can do them completely independently. Particularly for the language and math areas, many of the materials for the older children are done with a group of 3 or 4, giving the children the opportunity to work together on a particular challenge and the possibility of learning how to work together for the best outcomes. This limited experience is very helpful as a preparation for children from the ages of 6-9 where much of the work is done collaboratively in small groups.

Need for order to build self-discipline

In human development Montessori observed that children go through 3 stages of developing obedience, that is, putting their will under the direction of another’s will. In the first level, the child is obeying an inner motivator to develop; she referred to this energy as the horme, an internal driving force pushing a child to develop. At this age, they are particularly resistant to an insistence to obedience. These are the children under 3.5 or so. The next stage is when a child can obey the rules part of the time, but not always. They know the rules and will tell you when someone else is not obeying the rules. Knowing all this, they will still sometimes obey and sometimes not obey! When caught in not obeying, these children will sometimes lie in order to save face with the person they love and respect most – their parents or their teachers. This is a particular challenge for the 4 to 5 year old and this sometimes creates conflicts within families. The advice is to choose which things to correct a child on. Not to notice everything they do wrong. The five-year old knows the rules and can choose to obey them, even if they don’t like them. They somewhat understand the social necessity of the rules.

Lifting up intellectual curiosity

When a child is ready to transition to a 6-9 or 6-12 environment from the Casa, we see certain characteristics. We see children choosing mostly to work with friends. We see children questioning decisions and actions of others in terms of rightness or wrongness. We witness their intellectual curiosity expanding, with children wanting to pursue certain avenues of information for days or weeks. These are all indications that a child will soon be needing to transition into the elementary Montessori class.

The children group themselves spontaneously

With some suggestions and support from the adult, children learn to tackle a project with 2 or 3 friends, chosen by each child’s interest and knowledge. For example, these small group activities usually involve some research (they need someone good at research), may involve writing a report (some who writes well). The report may need to be illustrated (need a good artist), etc. So the children gradually come to know the strengths and challenges of their peers and compose their work groups accordingly. In this process they learn to work with each other collaboratively, they learn to sublimate their own desires to the higher outcomes of the group.

The children are driven by intellectual curiosity

When Maria Montessori was once asked, “how much information should we give?” she responded, “sow as many seeds of interest as possible and the children’s intellectual curiosity will be fed.” If we follow a child’s interest, what about the educational curriculum that must be met? This is a big concern for parents. The local educational curriculum for each grade represented in the environment (e.g., grades 1,2,3, 4,5,6) is posted and this is the minimal accomplishment of a child during an academic year. This expectation is generally exceeded in a well-functioning elementary class.

This intellectual curiosity is fed as much as possible, following the child’s interest, being aware of the required curriculum. One of the goals of an elementary class is for a child to gradually come to recognise what they need to learn, and plan accordingly, always in conference with the teacher. This process, which may begin with a weekly plan created by the teacher and child, gradually expands so that a 12-year old is becoming somewhat responsible for her own academic progress.

The elementary child is deeply interested in morality

To this end, children are constantly asking the teacher about what is right or wrong. They tell the teacher when they see someone doing something they question. They are doing this, not to get a friend into trouble – but as a way of seeking an answer to, “is this right? Is this wrong?”

Imagination and reasoning mind support the child to explore the universe

Children under six are interested in exploring the world of reality, using their senses. They want to know the what of everything – not the why.

The elementary child wants to know why things are as they are, what happens if, what was life like before, what will it be in the future. They want to understand how the world they have been born into functions. Through the use of their imagination, based on their factual knowledge foundation, they can explore that which they cannot see or directly experience.

Birth of the social being

When a child transitions from childhood to adolescence, there is again a shift. This is the birth of the social being, a being who needs to establish their social identity. This period is fraught with uncertainty, they are very fragile psychologically and are extremely sensitive to criticism, particularly from parents or teachers or friends. They are physically weaker than during the elementary years; their sleep needs and patterns have changed.

Due to all these changes, Montessori suggested an environment in the country, in fresh air, living communally, with low academic pressure, but academic studies aligned with living in the country, e.g. chemistry may begin with the study of soil chemistry to determine what elements the soil may need for growing which plants. Economics may be studied by growing and selling excess produce or producing something else that could be sold. So academics are not abandoned at all, they are just approached differently.

Adolescents are interested in how societies function; they need to discuss, debate, consider. Dialogue, discussion, and debate are some of their greatest tools for exploration – always in a social group. They are very interested in fairness within social groups. They have a strong volunteer desire.

During these years children become strong social individuals, able to live in different social groups comfortably and securely. They are confident, are certain about their own beliefs but open to the opinions of others. They are not easily swayed but can rationally see the necessities of different situations. They are content with who they have become, enjoy intellectual challenges, and continue to have a need to be accepted in a social group.