Entering the Secrets of Childhood
Understanding the Child in the First Plane of Development, Part 1
By Judith Jolma
A teacher is not a teacher without a student. And a parent obviously cannot homeschool without the child. (Do not try to homeschool your spouse. It won’t end well.) So the child is essential to education. But who is that child learning at your feet? As teachers, it is not enough to know the lessons, schedules, and academic disciplines. We must become students of the child.
In the last century, one woman, a scientist, undertook the study of childhood development. Her findings revolutionized education. Understanding what she discovered about the planes of development is the single most helpful thing any parent can do to serve their children.
Maria Montessori, who lived in Italy in the late 1800s, never planned to work in the field of education. She was a genius — a physician and scientist — very unusual for women in her day. Invited to come help in a mental institution for children, Dr. Montessori began her work there the way she began all of her work — with scientific observations. She observed these mentally impaired children and took careful notes before ever beginning any methods or techniques of care. Only after carefully asking "Who are these children, and what do they need?" did she develop material and lessons for their education. Dr. Montessori's research set her off on a life-long journey to transform education. When her students, whom others had considered incapable of learning, began achieving academic scores equal to healthy children in schools she was asked what she had done. Her success lay in her willingness to learn from the child.
Her most significant observation was that all children go through predictable stages as they develop on a predictable timeline. These “Planes of Development” have been further researched and continue to be verified through our modern methods of brain scans and so forth. But she understood it all through her scientific observation.
The most helpful thing any homeschooling parent can do is to understand the four planes of development, not in an attempt to become Montessori educators, but in an attempt to simply understand our children better.
Dr. Montessori discovered that children develop through four major stages, each about six years in length until they reach maturity.
With each plane, there is a waxing and waning of intensity meaning the first three years of each plane can be tumultuous, while the second half of the plane seems to calm down as the child settles into and perfects the skills of that season.
Notice in the diagram that there are two planes indicated by red and two by blue. These are parallel planes. The toddler develops through patterns almost identical to the adolescent while the second and fourth plans are seasons of massive intellectual growth.
In the Foundations of Homeschooling Masterclass, Montessori expert and teacher Maggie Radzik devotes an entire two hours to discussing these planes and how the parent can best serve the child in each. It is a fascinating discussion that we will develop in our blog in little bits over time.
Let's start with the first plane. Of all the stages of a child’s development, the first is the most fascinating and by far the most important.
The Absorbent Mind
In these early years, the child is literally building the brain structure that will hold memory and interpret the world around him. Most adults do not have any conscious memory of events prior to age three because the child is physically building the brain structure to hold memory and interpret events. That structure is literally built by everything the child encounters in his environment during his first three years.
“The child’s mind is completely different from ours: his mind possesses the magnificent and almost miraculous faculty of taking from the environment external ideas and impressions, incarnating these into his being.” Dr. Montessori wrote.
In these early years, the brain functions at an ultra-high capacity unique to human development. Never again in all of life will a person have the capacity to absorb massive amounts of knowledge from one's environment and use it to construct himself. Dr. Montessori called this “The Absorbent Mind.” From the moment a child is born until about six years of age, every sound, image, taste, touch, odor, and emotion in the child’s environment becomes the lens through which he will interpret the world for the rest of his life. The child has no judgments of the world. To him, it is all good. The child does not have to think about or consciously consider anything. Enormous amounts of data are simply absorbed into his being becoming incarnate within him. In other words, if a child is surrounded by peace, joy, and beauty, he grows to interpret his adult world through a lens that is peaceful, joyful, and beautiful. He takes in and literally becomes peaceful, joyful, and beautiful.
Little children have superpowers that adults can’t fully appreciate because our brains no longer work in the same way. The child does not need to look at an adult while spoken to. (We teach them to look at adults when spoken to out of grace and courtesy. But the child does not need to look in order to understand.) I recall one Montessori teacher telling about a little boy in her class who seemed chronically distracted and refused to ever engage in any work. He wandered the room through the day watching friends trace circles or build a pink tower, but he himself would not attempt the work. At circle time, he would lay on the carpet away from the other children and seem to not pay any attention to the story being read. At the end of his second year in this class, the teacher, feeling discouraged with her progress in teaching this little guy, sat beside him and pulled out every work in the class. One by one she showed it to him and asked if he knew what it was. The little guy then proceeded to demonstrate that he not only knew what each exercise was but had mastered the concepts of everything in the room. Despite his apparent inattention, this little guy, thanks to his powerful absorbent mind, was taking in everything in his environment. Because he was given the freedom to roam and learn according to his brain type, he had absorbed all the rich concepts hoped for of a six-year-old child.
What adult does not know the child who formed him? We must approach the children among us with reverent awe knowing that these little beings are busy constructing themselves. That absorbent
mind is not simply absorbing knowledge and skills. They are taking in all aspects of their environment to construct the adults they will become. This is what Dr. Montessori called, "the work of the child." She noticed that children are naturally quite industrious. They seem busily engaged in activities of great importance. If we slow down enough to observe their business, we can discover just how important their work truly is. For these children are constructing adults.
“The child has been the constructor of every one of us," Dr. Montessori wrote in her paper, Citizen of the World. "Before we became an important adult, a respected person, a person who takes his part in society, we have been another personality, a personality very mysterious, not considered in this world, not respected, a person that has no importance, no choice. Yet he is capable of something we cannot do – he is capable of constructing an immense world in a way we cannot even imagine of doing.”
This is why toddlers do not like to share their toys. Before any of us can look outward with a charitable frame of mind, we must first be inwardly charitable. Said differently, we can’t give what we do not have. When a child is playing with a toy (or hoarding toys, as they tend to do) these toys become tools with which he is constructing himself. When another child approaches and takes one of these toys, the first child cry’s out. Adults tend to see this as innate selfishness and we misguidedly instruct the first child to share. But toddlers are incapable of sharing much like a surgeon in the middle of open-heart surgery is incapable of sharing his surgical tools. Despite how it may appear, the child is using everything in his environment to construct himself and cannot allow his sense of order to be disrupted.
The parent should instead model grace and courtesy by saying to the other child, "These are Matthew’s toys. Please leave them alone. Here is something you can work with.” Both children then receive and witness respect and learn how to defend their own possessions.
“But how will a child learn to share?” You ask. When children have been allowed to construct themselves and have been treated with respect through the process, and have seen adults around them share with others and with them, they will want to imitate the adults around them as they mature. Especially as the child reaches the second plane of development. Between the ages of 6 and 12, social justice becomes of preeminent importance to children. Sharing becomes a critical skill they learn and demand from others. It is vital to keep in mind that when the child then moves into adolescence an apparent selfishness will return. This is because the child is once again entering a period of intense self-construction. It is a plane parallel to the toddler days.
When we understand the important work the child is about, we begin to enter the secrets of childhood. We see how desperately important it is to aid him in his work of self-construction. Sadly, our well-meaning efforts often interfere with what is most important.
Why does every baby put things in their mouth? Why does every teenager argue and oversleep? Why can’t they sit still? If every child does it, there must be a reason.
What if the child’s skull were transparent and we could see the mechanics of learning and development? Would our teaching approach change if we started with this question: “How is the brain designed to learn?” Before we talk about who we want our children to become or what they should know, let’s take some time to examine exactly who they ARE. The child is best served and education is most successful when in cooperation with God’s natural design.
Simply taking the time to observe God’s magnificent plan for childhood will forever transform your homeschool.
By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.
Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at Sophiahomeschool.com
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