Like many other educational philosophers, Dr. Montessori believed that human beings pass through stages in their development. She called the first stage of life, from birth to six years, the stage of the absorbent mind. This is when children literally absorb impressions from their environment through the “pores” of all their senses as a sponge absorbs water. During this period, for example, children learn their mother tongue far more easily than an adult who struggles to learn a foreign language. The opportunities available in the environment will, therefore, be a major factor in determining the child’s intellect.
Dr. Montessori believed that during these early years of development, the child passes through sensitive periods, or times when he becomes attuned to acquiring particular knowledge or skills. He will work on gaining that knowledge or skill with an interest and concentration he can never again display for that particular kind of work. Because the child learns more easily during these sensitive periods, Dr. Montessori developed specific didactic (learning) materials designed to correspond to these sensitive periods and to meet their needs. We all know well the 3-year-old’s desire for order in his environment and need for a daily routine. This is his sensitive period for order manifesting itself.
Recent advances in child development have taught us the importance of respecting each child as an individual. Respect for the child was key to Dr. Montessori’s philosophy a century ago and still is today. She advocated respect for the child’s individuality by allowing freedom of choice of activity within a specially prepared environment, a natural and beautiful environment created to suit the nature of the child. The prepared environment allows each child the freedom to learn and develop at his own pace, according to his own capacities.
Since the child chooses his own work, he is never pushed into something he is not ready for, or bored by something too elementary for him. In our classroom, we attempt to create a non-competitive environment where the child feels at home and can work according to his own tempo and unique nature. The teacher prepares the environment to meet the specific and ever-changing needs of the children in it. We respect the child’s inner rhythm when we allow repetition of activities and give him the time to work at his own pace. Only the child knows when he has satisfied his need for that activity, or has absorbed it. When we “follow the child,” as Dr. Montessori urged, we have the best chance of nurturing the child’s natural curiosity and love for knowledge.