Dr. Montessori observed that the child’s mind is like a sponge. But unlike a sponge which in time dries up, the child’s mind incorporates what it soaks up. She called this ‘The ‘Absorbent Mind’. The ‘Absorbent Mind’ of the child is soaking up his entire environment unselectively.
It takes in the child’s entire environment. In the first 6 years of a child’s life, his mind absorbs unconsciously specific things at specific times; she called these times ‘The ‘Sensitive Periods’.
However, the Absorbent Mind is limitless. She determined that the role of the educator is to strew around in the environment of the child useful items appropriate to each stage of his development.
The Absorbent Mind
Dr. Montessori said, “The Absorbent Mind is indeed a marvellous gift to humanity.” (Montessori, 1997 p61)
During her observation of a small child’s development, Dr. Montessori came to realize that the child absorbs his whole environment, without effort and unconsciously. Dr. Montessori said “The child creates his own ‘mental flesh’, using for this what he finds in the world about him. This we have called the ‘Absorbent Mind’.” (Montessori, 1997 p66)
The Absorbent Mind is likened to a sponge, which actively seeks out and soaks up useful information from the child’s environment, and it is limitless. The Absorbent Mind constantly and continuously absorbs the whole of the child’s environment. As he absorbs his environment into himself, he adapts it to himself. “The child seems to take in these things not with his mind but with his whole life.” (Standing, 1957 p110).
The mind of the child remains in this absorbent state from birth until 5-6 years. The whole of the child is being formed unselectively. By just living, and without any conscious effort, he absorbs every little detail from within his environment. The child is absorbing everything in the Montessori nursery and, by doing so, he is forming his whole self. Dr. Montessori likened the absorbent mind to a camera, which she said “is similar to the absorbent mind. It works rapidly, taking in everything without effort and without will”. (Standing, 1957 p110).
- This period of the Absorbent Mind can be split into two sub-stages.
- The first sub-stage runs from 0-3 years. It is the period when a child’s intelligence, his very mind, is being formed. Everything the child hears and sees is absorbed into his unconscious mind, where it remains hidden until the light of the next stage of development.
- The second sub-stage, from 30 months to 6 years, is when the child moves to develop consciously, doing things purposefully and with awareness. Dr. Montessori said “through movement, which follows the path of pleasure and love’” (Standing, 1957 p.111)
The Sensitive Periods
Dr. Montessori said “One of the most resplendent miracles of nature is the power which the new born have, despite their utter lack of experience, to orientate themselves within, and to protect themselves from, the external world. They are able to do this with the help of the partial instincts of their sensitive periods.” (Montessori, 1936 p203)
Dr. Montessori also observed that there were a number of important periods of development within the first stages of a child’s life, during which he builds his ‘mental flesh’, and that these developments happened at specific times. These times, she called the “Sensitive Periods”. As soon as one Sensitive Period is fulfilled another Sensitive Period comes to light. The Sensitive Periods overlap. It is in these inner Sensitive Periods that a child has a wonderful window of opportunity in which to learn.
These Sensitive Periods will only have a finite duration; a child who misses this window of opportunity will not be able to reclaim them. The Absorbent Mind and the Sensitive Periods are collectively known as the Creative Sensibilities, which are constantly Driving a child forward. The Sensitive Periods are like a shining light, they Dr.aw the child to certain activities, which signal the arrival of the Sensitive Period.
Dr. Montessori realised that the child is forming his whole self, both mentally, spiritually and physically, through his Absorbent Mind, and using things within his environment to do so. During her observations, she realised the great importance of a well-prepared environment through which a child can then construct himself. Dr. Montessori prepared within the ‘Children’s House’ a special environment,“ (Standing, 1957 p265), She gave the child freedom to move around within this prepared environment, absorbing whatever he finds there.
The Sensitive Period for Language
The sensitive period for language begins from birth. Dr. Montessori said, “The only outwardly recognizable sign of the onset of the sensitive period for language is the child’s smile”. (Montessori, 1997 p169)
Language is the most difficult of a child’s achievements. Through the studies of Itard and the Wild Boy of Aveynon, we learn that there is a certain period of time in which to learn a language. There is a sensitive period for language from birth to 6 years old. If the concept of language has not been grasped during this window of opportunity the child will never be able to learn a language and hence be able to speak. Dr. Montessori said, “It is useless to try to catch the sensitive period after it has passed. We have missed the bus – the last and only bus for that particular destination.” (Standing, 1957 p136). As each sensitive period becomes manifest, it is essential that the window of opportunity for learning is not missed.
From birth, through his environment, the child is constantly absorbing the sounds around him. The environment into which a child is born will determine his mother tongue. These at first will be confusing and disordered. The child’s mind is empty of any thought. He listens and fills his mind with sounds. It is during the sensitive period for language that the child’s inner drive helps the child to make sense of these noises. His muscles in the mouth and tongue begin to move. As the child tries to make sense of these sounds, his muscles become ordered and he produces a range of sounds: he babbles. Children need language around them in order to develop their own idea of language.
During the early stages of a child’s life, a mother communicates with the child, not only verbally but through her body language and voice tone. These sounds of language are fixed in the child’s subconscious and become manifest later. The mother’s body language and response to a child’s cries can affect the outcome of the progress a child makes during his sensitive time to language. Negative body language and attitude may cause the child to make slow progress in developing language.
From birth, the child makes himself heard through cries which can be recognised as ‘I am hungry’, or ‘wet’ or ‘cold’ or ‘tired’. The mother is able to distinguish the different cries. From 6 months the child who, up until now, has cried and babbled will begin to make sense of his babbles with words, such as ‘ba-ab’, ‘da-da’, ’ma–ma’.
From the age of about two years old the child begins to create words, such as nouns. He is able to recognize and name things. As he develops further, and through the input of his parents, he indirectly, begins to use adjectives, conjunctions and adverbs, along with verbs. Through repetition, the child becomes his own teacher. Dr. Montessori referred to “The, child as a living miracle”.(Montessori, 1949 p103).
Dr. Montessori observed that, from the end of a child’s first year and as early as ten months, the child has realised that language has a purpose. She went on to state “When we say ‘dear little boy, how sweet you are’, he realizes this is meant for him.” (Montessori, 1949 p103). The child is becoming aware rapidly of the process and meaning of language. By the end of his first year, the child is going from the unconscious learning of language to the conscious.
Dr. Montessori gave an example of this, “After listening to adults talking about the merits and demerits of a child’s storybook, the conversation ended with, ‘it all had a happy ending’. Immediately the child in the room began to shout “Lola, Lola”. The adults took the end of the story as the final ending. But the small child having followed the conversation, cried out as the parents said the end to be ‘living happily ever after’. The little girl knew the book and had understood the picture on the back cover as the ending. Her speech was not sufficient so she used the name Lola as a means of saying ‘You are wrong it does not end happily. She cries’.” (Montessori, 1949 p106).
Language in The Classroom
Dr. Montessori realized the importance of a prepared environment and the relation to the child’s Absorbent Mind. Within the Montessori classroom, there are four areas of learning related to language.
- 1- Listening.
- 2- Speaking.
Dr. Montessori devised her materials in relation to these learning areas. She referred to “The best age for a child to learn to write is from three and a half year old to four and half.” (Standing, 1957 p137).
The Practical Life activities in the classroom indirectly prepare the child for writing, amongst other daily activities. Pouring and transferring teach the child the pencil grip which indirectly introduces the concept of holding a pencil in preparation for later writing. They prepare the minor muscular movements which help to perfect writing later. Practical Life Preliminary Activities are introduced to every new child in the nursery. When the directress introduces the activity, the stimuli used will introduce to him a new language. A child who has begun to speak has also had a stage of unconsciously preparing himself to speak his first word. He has been doing this through his Absorbent Mind.
The child will refine his vocabulary by communicating within the nursery. Communication is the key to build the child’s intelligence. This leads to the perfection of speech. Practical Life exercises are taught with very little language. The directress speaks clearly and slowly. She will repeat the stimuli and when the child has become familiar with the object he is being shown, and he has associated the chosen object with the stimuli, he will be encouraged to repeat the words. The directress demonstrates the activity in silence, all the while observing the child. “The principles guiding the process by which by which we can best do this are to proceed from simple to complex, to use repetition, and to ‘teach’ in short intervals of five or ten minutes retains a child’s concentration”. (Lillard & Jessen, 2003)
During the activity of ‘Transferring Pasta or Similar Into A Jug’, the child is using his visual and auditory senses. His intelligence, concentration, coordination and fine motor skills are being developed. He is refining the senses of feel and touch. He is developing an awareness of small objects. The skills the child is developing will later become essential to his writing and further develop his language and auditory senses.
Freedom of expression is emphasized in the classroom. Children, who have not developed language to a satisfactory level by the age of three or four years old, suddenly, through freedom of activity and the well-prepared environment, begin to speak. Dr. Montessori said, “Why does this happen? Because either a great shock or persistent opposition has impeded the child hitherto from giving forth the wealth of his language.” (Montessori, 1949 p109).
Difficulties and impediments can affect a child’s speech development. The child’s development of language may be impeded by organic causes. His tongue is not formed correctly so he is unable to say words correctly. He may have a hearing impediment which will cause him not to hear sounds clearly and hinder the reproduction of the sound correctly. Defects such as stammering will inhibit a child’s speech development. Other instances such as abuse or negativity towards a child can inhibit his development of language. A child who does not interact with others and is kept alone may never grasp the sounds of language correctly.
Dr. Montessori’s exercises and methods are designed to correct spoken language. She said, “But in my methods are to be found all exercises for the corrections of language”. (Montessori, 1912 p213).
- The exercises in silence prepare the nervous channels of language to receive new stimuli perfectly.
- Lessons, which consist first of the distinct pronunciation by the teacher of few words, create clear and perfect auditory stimuli. The child repeats the words back to the teacher aloud, pronouncing their separate sounds.
- Graphic language analyses the sounds of speech and causes them to be repeated separately in several ways. For example, in the letters of the alphabet, the child learns the separate sounds and then continues on to create words and sentences. The Small Alphabetical box and the activities used in conjunction with the box assist in this learning.
- The Three Period Lessons refine the child’s understanding of pronunciation and understanding of words. They help him to develop recognition of letters and of words.
From the age of two and a half to three years old a child becomes interested in the Sensorial materials. Indirectly these activities relate to the development of his writing skills and further his language skills. The shapes of sandpaper letters and the feel of the sandpaper cultivate the child’s awareness of the shapes of letters. During this activity, touch is of foremost importance to the child’s learning. The learning of different sensorial shapes and the recognition of these shapes help to develop a child’s ability to write, and further develop his reading. A child is all the time finding ways of expressing his thoughts and refining his sensitive periods.
Dr. Montessori went on to say, “Writing is a complex act which needs to be analyzed. One part of it has reference to motor mechanisms and the other represents a real and proper effort of the intellect.” (Montessori, 1948 p203).
Dr. Montessori devised materials such as the Metal Insets and Sandpaper Letters exercises amongst others. The metal insets assist the child to develop the skill and knowledge of Drawing lines and keeping them within the boundary frame of the metal insets. With a coloured pencil that he selects, he fills in the figure which he has outlined. These exercises indirectly lead the child to later formation of letters and figures. He learns to perfect the fine control of the pen.
The cards upon which the single letters of the alphabet are mounted in sandpaper, and the larger cards with groups of the same letters, (vowels) help to develop the child’s reading and writing skills. They develop the child’s pronunciation of letters and sounds. The exercises of reading and writing start with the vowels and then introduce some consonants, creating a sound as we join these letters together. The child learns to associate the sounds of a letter with its shape, through touch and through the repetition of the sounds during or after the lesson. The Three Period Lesson reinforces the child’s knowledge of the sounds and shapes which form the letters.
Dr. Montessori witnessed the explosion into writing when a child from the Children’s House in San Lorenzo was handed a piece of chalk. He was asked to Dr.aw the chimney of the house on the pavement. After he had done so, Dr. Montessori praised him. In excitement the child said, “I write, I write.” He proceeded to write ‘mano’ (hand) on the tiles. He then wrote ‘camino’ (chimney) and the ‘tetto’ (roof). He cried out, “I am writing, I know how to write”. This was the first time he had handled any writing instrument and the first time he had written. (Montessori, 1948 p221).
In the classroom the Directress encourages writing through painting, Drawing, and making nameplates for the child, which they usually copy. The Sand Tray assists the child to experiment with different shapes, reinforcing lines and curves. These shapes form the basis for the formation of letters and numbers.
Through the Pink, Blue and Green Series the child grasps the concept not only of word recognition but also of phrases and sentences. Initially, the child is introduced to the Large Alphabetical Box and Sandpaper Letters, alongside picture cards and words. The Pink Series introduces the child to phonic sounds and sight words. The Blue Series introduces the child to larger phonic words and consonant blends.
The Green Series introduces the digraph sounds. The Directress reinforces the sounds using the green reading list, Sentence Strips and Phrase Strips.
The Book Corner in the nursery is essential in refining the child’s ability to read and further his language skills of pronunciation and grammar. The Directress plays an important part when reading to the child. Her expressions and attitude to reading will make an impression on the child. Children copy, so negative attitudes and body language may hinder the progress of a child’s reading.
Reading should be fun and an enjoyable exercise. Storytime can be encouraged, an exercise which can be introduced is by the Directress starting the story with a sentence, and the child then continues the story with his own sentence. This can be a group activity where all the children continue the story with their own sentences. The activity develops the child’s creativity and use of language.
Dr. Montessori witnessed the child’s recognition of letters. After sorting out the box of alphabetical letters, a little boy of two years old came close to her and picked up the letter ‘r’. She went on to say, “At that moment, the children who were running in single file, passed us and, seeing the letter, called out in chorus the corresponding sound and passed on. After doing this several times (in fact for three-quarters of an hour), the child held up the letter and repeated the sound, in the confusion of sounds he had heard. The letter had made an impression upon him.” (Montessori, 1912 p187). Children learn through observation and repetition.
Dr. Montessori later went on to say, “The lesson given by the teacher, which introduces the child to the material and its use, is absolutely essential, with the material being something like a key that unlocks a door.” (Montessori, 1997 p142).
The lessons in the classroom are primarily done in silence. This allows the child to control his thoughts and concentration. Dr. Montessori said, “The sense of hearing also provides us with a clear concept of the basic principle for the training of the senses. This consists of the ability to hear well.” Itard, used the principle that the senses of hearing can be trained, through using sounds that gradually diminished from strong to weak. This taught the deaf how to hear clearer and thus to determine the different sounds. He used this method successfully to cure a number of deaf people. (Montessori, 1948 p135).
In the sensorial area of the classroom, an example of the materials used to perfect and train the sense of hearing are: The Bells and The Sound Boxes. Both exercises are done in silence by the Directress. Both exercises contain varying grades of sound.
The Silence game helps the child in refining his sense of hearing. Dr. Montessori said, “We can therefore assist the development of the senses during this very period by graduating and adapting the stimuli to which a child is exposed just as we should assist him in learning how to speak before his speech is completely developed”. (Montessori, 1948 p143). The age of three to six is of absolute importance. After the age of five years old these sensitive periods begin to decline and then are lost forever.
Mathematical exercises introduce the child to new vocabulary. He learns the concept of numbers and the vocabulary associate with each number. One example of such activities is ‘The Number Rods’, they further develop the child’s language and recognition and understanding of numbers.
The cultural activities introduce the child to a new language, for instance, the learning of such words as ‘land’, ‘water’ and ‘globe’. Different cultural activities introduce him to the various languages of the world. The Directress may introduce such words through cookery lessons or similar activities which relate to different cultures.
The Directress should ensure the environment is well prepared in order to give the child the best opportunity to learning Language. She should observe the child closely and introduce the appropriate materials to the child as he becomes ready for each stage.
Language is of paramount importance socially and as the basic structure of thought. It enables the child to integrate into society and to deal with abstract concepts. The Absorbent Mind is the child’s tool for learning the language. All the while, the child is experimenting with words he has heard within his environment. Dr. Montessori said, “By merely living and without any conscious effort the individual abstracts from the environment even a complex cultural achievement like language”. (Montessori, 1997 p61).
From birth, the child is absorbing his whole environment. He is absorbing the sounds of a language that are then fixed into his subconscious where they will become manifest.
In the Montessori classroom, Dr. Montessori referred to the period when the child begins to become conscious of using words as the ”second sensitive period for language”. She said, “It is now the construction of language which fascinates the child, and his interest now becomes focused on the relationship between words.” (Standing, 1957 p138).
The Sensorial activities and the materials associated with the language section develop and refine the child’s spoken language, his written language, and his reading. Repetition of the exercises and the Three Period Lesson reinforce the understanding that the child has of the concepts of speech, writing, and reading. Up to the age of three to four years old the child’s words have been flexible. They have not been clearly understood. They have been used singly, without structure. It is a sudden change when a child starts to make sense of his words and begins to make structured sentences. From the age of four, the child will associate his speech with written language.
Because of the pivotal role of language in the development of thought and the facilitation of social relationships, feeding the Sensitive Period for Language is perhaps the most important job of the Directress. If a child misses the sensitive period, his window of opportunity – his chance for learning a language – will have been lost forever.
Lillard, Paula and Jessen, Lynn (2003) Montessori from the start, Schocken Books.
Montessori, Maria (1997) Basic Ideas of Montessori’s Educational Theory,.
Montessori, Maria (1949) The Absorbent Mind, B N Publishing.
Montessori, Maria (1948) The Discovery of the Child, 6th ed. Ballantine Books.
Montessori, Maria (1912) The Montessori Method, B N Publishing.
Montessori, Maria (1936) The Secret of Childhood, Ballantine Books.
Standing, E M (1957) Maria Montessori: Her Life And Work, Plume.
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