Maria Montessori’s approach to early childhood education is underpinned by a stage-based constructivist method.
Montessori, like other constructivists like Piaget and Froebel, developed a series of developmental stages that children should move through one after the other.
She called her stages the “four planes of development”.
The four planes are:
- Infancy (0 – 6 years)
- Childhood (6 – 12 years)
- Adolescence (12 – 18 years)
- Maturity (18 – 24 years)
The ‘Planes of Development’ Graph!
Montessori believes that the infancy and adolescence phases are turbulent times with rapid change, while childhood and maturity are times of smooth, calm change.
Furthermore, the first half of each stage involves most of the development while the second half of each stage involves consolidation of knowledge.
She shows this in the following graph:
The planes of development are the theoretical underpinning for Montessori’s approach. If you need a general overview of other aspects of the Montessori method, see here.
The Planes of Development
1. Infancy (0 – 6 years)
The “infancy” period spans from 0 to 6 years, but so much happens that Montessori splits it into two sub-categories: the unconscious absorbent mind (0 – 3) and the conscious absorbent mind (3 – 6).
The Unconscious Absorbent Mind
During this phase (0 – 3 years), children develop basic sensory powers, such as:
- Ability to control the limbs
- Basic language
- Attachment to family
Montessori believed humans to be born as basically blank slates, somewhat similar to John Locke. She says: “Every baby has the same appearance; he is motionless, empty, insignificant.”
In the 0 to 3 year range, the baby is incomplete and needs to finish the development toward full humanness that began in the womb.
The ‘unconsciousness’ of this period is attributed to the fact that we are not yet developed into what we will become. Montessori reflects: “it is not surprising that we cannot remember this period, for there is still no unity in the personality – the unity can only come when the parts are completed.”
The Conscious Absorbent Mind
At the age of 3, the child enters the second sub-category within the infancy plane. From 3 to 6, the child is considered to have a conscious absorbent mind. Montessori reflects: “life seems to begin again; consciousness appears fully and clearly.”
Now, the child is no longer a blank slate or passive learner. Montessori views the child from 3 to 6 years old to be free willed, conscious and eager to explore their environment.
During these years, the child explores and plays. Montessori calls this “the blessed age of play”.
It is the job of the educator between 3 and 6 years to provide:
- A resource rich environment.
- Freedom to explore.
- Chances to improve language, physical and cognitive skills through play.
2. Childhood (6 – 12 years)
During the childhood plane (6 to 12 years), growth slows to become smoother and calmer, but does not pause. Montessori calls it a “calm phase of uniform growth”.
In childhood, children move out of their cosseted and safe environment. They have an interest in exploring the wider world around them.
The Montessori approach places a strong emphasis during this stage on culture. Children want to learn about both their own cultures and those of others.
Another key characteristic of this plane of development is emerging moral reasoning. Children are encouraged to reflect on how society needs rules.
3. Adolescence (12 – 18 years)
After the smooth, calm years of growth during childhood come the turbulent years of adolescence.
Montessori believes that these years are years of creation, much like infancy. But they are not building up to be children. They are building up to adulthood.
The most important traits during these years, according to Montessori, are traits that help children become full and independent members of society.
Two key learning developments that occur in these years are: “a sense of justice and a sense of personal dignity.”
A challenge of this period is potential psychological weaknesses that may occur. Montessori states: “From the psychological point of view this is also a critical age. There are doubts and hesitations, violent emotions, discouragement and unexpected decrease in intellectual capacity.”
To teach children in this stage, an approach called Erdkinder or “Landchildren” is proposed. This approach involves getting adolescents to do productive work they makes them feel valued and as if they have meaningful roles. This will help the adolescent develop confidence and faith in their own abilities.
4. Maturity (18 to 24 years)
The stage of maturity more or less corresponds with years studying at university. Montessori argues that these years are the years in which a person will develop to be less individualistic and more socially conscious.
The well-rounded Montessori student should develop in these years to have a personal life mission that is about giving back to humanity and improving the world for everyone.
Montessori also believes that the young adult in this stage should be working while studying to ensure they have a balanced life that involves industry, hard work and contribution to society.
The planes of development are linear developmental stages based on the constructivist learning theory.
According to constructivism, children learn through thinking through or ‘mulling over’ ideas in their minds until they make sense.
When a new idea enters a child’s mind, they think about whether it makes sense or not. If it doesn’t make sense, the child has reached ‘cognitive disequilibrium’. This disequilibrium is only overcome when a child either fixes old knowledge or rejects the new knowledge.
Because constructivism places emphasis on thinking things through, it is often seen as the opposite of behaviorism. Behaviorism involves children being ‘told facts’ rather than letting them discover those facts for themselves. Constructivism is an active learning approach, while behaviorism is a passive learning approach.
Constructivists generally approve of 21st Century teaching strategies like:
- Play based learning
- Phenomenon based learning
- Inquiry based learning
- Problem posing education
- Situated learning
Most constructivists believe in stages of development which we could define as different times in life when different things are learned. Piaget and Froebel each proposed their own stages of development. Similarly, Montessori proposed the four planes of development.
Strengths and Weaknesses
- Helps educators and parents to know what children need at different ages.
- Provides a theoretical framework to underpin the play-based Montessori method.
- Explains how the mind builds on simple skills to develop complex understandings of the world.
- Not empirically proven.
- Assumes all children, around the world, develop in a similar way at a similar rate. Other theories, like the sociocultural theory, dispute this. They argue instead that children from different cultures and background develop in different ways at different times.
A Quick Overview of Montessori’s Approach
Montessori education is characterized by:
- Play based learning. Children learn best through play and personal discovery.
- Multi-age classrooms. Her classrooms are usually linked to the stages outlined above.
- Teacher observation of free play. Educators should watch children play and use their observations to create developmentally appropriate learning environments.
- Resource rich and developmentally appropriate classrooms. A classroom should be full of many resources that can help a child learn and discover.
The planes of development help us understand why Montessori advocates multi-age classrooms (linked to the stages) and reveals much about her thinking. They show how a child develops from a passive to active learner and help us see how a child develops moral reasoning as they move toward adulthood.
Grazzini, C. (2004). The four planes of development. NAMTA Journal, 29(1): 27-62.
Lillard, A. (2018). Rethinking education: Montessori’s approach. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(6): 395–400. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418769878
Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind. Madras India: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Montessori, M. (2012). The 1946 London lectures (The Montessori Series Vol. 17). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson.