It often happens that mums and dads, although the years go by and their children grow, feel bewildered and inadequate in their parental role when confronted with their children’s behaviours and reactions. Frustration is right there, below the surface, waiting to rear its head and tell us that today’s world is so complex that educating children is too difficult and might be a pointless struggle.
And this is precisely our mistake, because educating is not a struggle but should be a help in our children’s lives, and also for us grownups!
Did Maria Montessori ever speak to or write for parents?
She certainly did, and very extensively. Maria Montessori set out from the premise that before undertaking any profession or job it is common practice for adults to get information and training, so much so that they take dedicated training courses to that end.
This being the case, she was puzzled by the lack of attention given to education and training on the subject of parenting, which most people approached by relying on common sense and hands-on experience. But common sense is extremely subjective and deeply influenced by our genes and our own experiences.
Today, by contrast, we have evidence and ongoing neuroscientific discoveries showing us some beaten paths, of course with many stumbling blocks for each of us, but the paths are there, and this is no longer the era of common sense but the era of knowledge! That’s why it is important to have knowledge ahead of time, in order to be equipped with the most appropriate tools not only to cope with any challenges we might face as parents but also to share and make the most of our children’s positive moments too.
Can the way we educate our children influence their cognitive development?
Mario Montessori, Maria’s son and heir to her work, wrote the following words about the conception of education in the Montessori approach: “Maria Montessori’s conception was that education is not an episode in life, but it should begin a birth and last as long as life itself. She saw education not as a mere “transmission of culture”, but rather as an aid to life in all its expressions” (Mario M. Montessori).
With our children, we often find ourselves puzzled by certain situations that lead us to think that certain behaviours are due to their character, but that’s not actually the case!
Firstly, we should know that every brain performs the same cognitive functions, which each individual then obviously develops in a different way. Cognitive functions are mental processes that enable us to receive information from our surrounding environment through our senses, and to select, memorise and process them (through attention, memory, perception, reasoning, language, praxic abilities, executive functions, intelligence, and so on).
Maria Montessori, based on her close observation of children, had already realised that there are distinct stages of cognitive development, and if we, as parents, become more aware of what is happening in our children as they grow, we can choose the best way to educate them, with countless benefits, not only for the children, but also for ourselves and our emotional relationship with them.
What are the planes of development identified by Maria Montessori?
Montessori identified four planes of development, corresponding to four precise age groups, in which the child acquires a succession of specific skills. The acquisition of these skills is not exclusively determined by each individual’s inherited genetic makeup, as we might easily suppose, but by the environment and context within which each of us is immersed. Let us now examine in detail the first three planes of development.
- FIRST PLANE: from 0 to 6 years (INFANCY)
During this period, children begin to move around, walk, talk, grasp objects and develop their will. This is a phase of creative development during which they learn about the world through their senses and by doing things. Montessori divided this into two sub-planes:
- From 0 to 3 years old, children have an absorbent mind that unconsciously assimilates everything from the world around them. That’s why it is key to be attentive and ensure they are in a welcoming, positive environment because they are truly like a “sponge that absorbs” anything, whether good or bad!
Moreover, until the age of three, children don’t develop their will, so they are not able to consciously choose toys or activities to focus on.
We can easily see how important the adult’s role is during this stage in understanding what to offer children according to the needs of this age group. If we offer what truly interests them, they will develop a high level of concentration, enabling them to learn in depth.
- From 3 to 6 years old, based on the experiences they’ve had in their first three years, children begin to develop awareness and will. They start to order inside their mind the things they’ve absorbed, expressing their own interest in toys and activities. During this sub-phase, children develop their memory and begin to order and classify everything they’ve absorbed in the first three years of life.
- SECOND PLANE: from 6 to 12 years (CHILDHOOD)
The period of development from 6 to 12 years old, is a completely different stage from the previous one, though strongly underpinned by it. Montessori describes this second plane as a "calm phase of uniform growth", in which children begin their journey towards abstraction and imagination, thanks to a mind that gradually becomes more and more rational, even though their brain still needs concrete, direct experiences.
There is no limit to what children in this age group can explore.
Their abilities are so strong during this period that, as Montessori points out, it is easy to underestimate them and thus set boundaries and restrictions, possibly due to our own fears and concerns, but in actual fact there is absolutely no need for them. Montessori underscored that during these years of development, children must be offered opportunities to establish ever broader and diverse relationships and to have as much contact as possible with the vastness of culture. That’s because children between 6 and 12 years old are “hungry for culture”!
They want to know and understand not only the world created by nature but also the world created by humans, their curiosity grows, and they ask themselves why things happen: they want to understand the reasons for and the causes of the events that occur.
This is also a period in which, at the social level, children begin to experiment with the rules of the society they live in, and experience their first real relationships as these begin to expand, partly through school, beyond the circle made up exclusively of family friends.
- THIRD PLANE: from 12 to 18 years (ADOLESCENCE)
From 12 to 18 years old, children enter adolescence. Like the first plane, this period too is marked by creativity and is divided into two sub-planes: from 12 to 15 and from 15 to 18 years.
This is the plane in which the individual leaves the state of childhood and enters that of adulthood, becoming a full member of society.
The period from 12 to 15 years old is a phase of very intensive development accompanied by huge hormonal changes that can sometimes cause a sense of awkwardness in preadolescents. They themselves feel that something is changing inside and outside them, and sometimes they seem to display regressive behaviour because they become short-tempered and impossible to deal with, whereas in fact they are just very fragile, but this fragility will gradually disappear when they find their Self within their social environment. In fact, the most important thing for their development during this period is to learn to be totally independent, rather than focusing primarily and exclusively on acquiring more knowledge. This is a very important time for learning to interact positively with their peers and adults.
Montessori tells us that this is “the sensitive period when they should develop the most noble characteristics that would prepare a man to be social, that is to say, a sense of justice and a sense of personal dignity”.