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What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
- By Lise Eliot, Ph.D

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The Montessori Classroom

By Mary Anne Winslow


It's undoubtedly true that man has all the qualities that are needed to develop himself from the very moment of birth. Each and every one of us possesses within ourselves a unique psyche. Unlike animals, we do not have hereditary instincts that are passed down through generations, such that a kitten, puppy or a tiger cub behaves similarly to its parents at birth. In contrary, an infant does not inherit styles of behavior from his parents, but develops an individual personality according to his will relating to his surroundings. This makes each child unique, like an uncut gem, different from one another despite coming from the same species.

The main objective of Montessori Method emphasizes on the development of each person as a complete human being from birth to maturity. A child constantly constructs his own understanding of the world through his own innate patterns or plans for development. Dr. Montessori believed these innate patterns, which are hidden are at birth, will gradually unfold in the child's characteristics as he grows and matures into adulthood. There is in the soul of a child an impenetrable secret that is gradually revealed as it develops it is the child alone that can reveal the plan that is natural to man. This, she referred as the ”spiritual embryo”.

A child, in the first period of his life requires consistent adult attention. Hence, it is the duty of the adult to serve and guide the child in a passive way according to his natural course of development. Two things are necessary for the full development of a child. First, a nourishing environment is compulsory and secondly providing freedom within limits. The child must be allow to select what attracts him, to relate to it without interruptions or limitations, to discover ideas and solutions of his own and to communicate with others at will. The child creates the person he will become and, if he is allowed to develop fully without any hindrance, he will not only bring happiness to himself but also will be a significant human being who will want serve mankind. The child is the spiritual builder of mankind, and obstacles to his free development are the stones in the wall by which the soul of man has become imprisoned.

Montessori regarded the first six years as the most important period of human development. A child contains special characteristics during this period that make the age different from any other time of their life. They are the “Absorbent Mind” and “Sensitive Periods”. The Absorbent Mind illustrates how a child gradually builds himself up and applies himself to the world. It is the state of a child's high mental absorption occurs, taking information indiscriminately like a dry sponge. For example, talcum powder scenting in the air or water running through the fingers stimulate the Absorbent Mind and produce reflexive responses in children. A child is very intent on using his senses for exploration through movement and manipulation of the environment during this stage. Subsequently, the child comes to make sense of the world around him. His mind categorizes the information, and this leads to knowledge. On the other hand, the Sensitive Periods are the stage where the child would show exceptional interest to certain aspects of the environment. For instance, if he is experiencing sensitivity to language, it is likely for him to listen, talk, sing or recite nursery rhymes over and over again. So, during this period, the child learns language in a focused and efficient manner by himself. This period is transitional and if the child is not exposed to the certain aspects in accordance to his sensitivity, he could suffer limitations to his mental growth, which cannot be recaptured. These two special characteristics thus, work hand in hand within the child's life building foundation for their adulthood.

A Montessori classroom contains within it a prepared environment, which is specifically created to address each of these needs. The prepared environment consists of the teacher, the premises, the materials, and the children community. It surrounds the children with all the necessary resources and conditions aiding to their own laws of development. The curriculums are prepared to cover every aspects of human nature, providing gradual guidance and supports for each child to develop physically, mentally and emotionally, which they will carry within themselves as they climb up the ladder of education all the way to university. The teacher works together with the children to build their physique and psyche, in preparation for their independent quests for success in life.

In a Montessori classroom, the focus is on the child's learning, not on the teacher's teaching. A child's learning process does not involve in a one-way flow of information from the teacher. Learning occurs on the input from the child, encouraging two-way interaction between himself and the teacher, and his environment. The classroom environment operates on the principles of freedom within limits. Unlike traditional classroom, whereby students are seated in rows of chairs facing the blackboard on the assumption that the teacher is the ultimate source of knowledge, a Montessori classroom shows in the structure of space and self-learning activity of each child. Children are allowed to work at their own pace with materials they have chosen, either alone or with others. They are free to move around and interact working on their sensitivities. In this way, it will increase the children desire to learn due to their own interest and assists process of growth. As Montessori stated, the objects in our system are instead, a help to the child himself he chooses what he wants for his own use, and works with it according to his own needs, tendencies and special interests. In this way, the objects become a means of growth.

Another factor that contributes to a child's independence is in the process of using the materials. The materials are instructional, didactic and posses an internal control of error. This built-in-error prevents the materials from functioning when children use them in the wrong way. Therefore, through several trials, the child will pursue in the activity until he discovers the solution. It is through this self-correction process, in the absence of adult intervention that fosters confidence and independence in the child. In addition, since a Montessori classroom is made up of children of mixed ages, they learn from each other. Younger children learn by watching the older ones, while the older children reinforce their knowledge by sharing and guiding with the younger ones. This enhances their self-esteem, building social skills and emotional well-being. That is why the teacher's presentations are limited in number and times. She relies on her observations to determine which new materials or activities may be introduced to facilitate every child discovery of knowledge. Her role is not to consistently force-feed the children with information or interfere in correcting their mistakes, instead act as a guide to maximize their potentials in every area of development either individually or in a group. Failing to do so may worsen their performance and hamper future growth.

In conjunction with independence and responsibility acquired in a Montessori classroom, working with the materials also promote the attainment of concentration. A child goes through an activity he chose over and over again, mastering the solution he discovers through his mistakes until he feel contented. Only then, he will proceed to another activity. Dr. Montessori regarded concentration as the prerequisite skills for all areas of child development. She also associates concentration with discipline, Discipline is born when the child concentrates his attention on some objects that attracts him and provides him not only with useful exercise but with a control of error. This is because, when a child spots the error while working on the set of materials, it motivates him to find the solution. Thus, it is through this precise action that disciplines his mind and body to become focused, towards achieving his goals.

The process of concentration begins through the curriculums introduced in a Montessori classroom, where children first explore with the materials. The curriculums engage both the child's mental and physical energies thus, contributing to intellectual growth since the performance of any new activity works on the mind as well as the body. Among the curriculums, the practical life section is first being introduce to a child that step into the Montessori classroom, regardless of age. Practical life helps children to orient and adapt himself to his environment, refines motor coordination and gain independence, dignity and confidence. These are the desirable traits as mentioned in the earlier part of this essay. An area for practical life contains many attractive displayed objects familiar to every child, including variety of items commonly seen outside the classroom, that make up the tasks of everyday living such as buttoning a shirt, tying shoelaces, carrying plates from kitchen counter to the table and pouring water from a pitcher to a glass. These activities inspire children to act and develop concentration, work habits, social skills and control that laid the foundation for work in other areas of activities in the classroom.

Practical life exercises in the classroom are designed in such a way that the child focuses on the exactness of the action, and does so with great fascination, in immense and unceasing concentration.

For example, tying shoelaces for the first time requires intense concentration to recall and integrate the various steps previously practiced; either in isolation or presented in a group. It also involves in the coordination of the hand and eye movement in acting out the steps in sequence. Hence, normally regarded as a simple task by adults, shoelace tying exercise actually requires the power of the mind to focus, especially for children.

Another way in which the practical life exercises work the mind is in exposing children to new experiences that build their knowledge base. In the above shoelace example, where the child is given the possibility to do by himself, the concrete experience for the first time registers in the child's mental map and gradually programmes itself into the brain after repeated attempts. Eventually, he masters the process and the task becomes easy enough to perform without exhausting concentration and effort as before. This process is what describes a child's law of work. The child is motivated from an inner drive to again, satisfy his sensitive period. He works for perfection, in repetition cycles to internalize his process of efforts rather than the outcome. Like Montessori says, An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has a virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child's energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery.

Finally, to conclude, practical life serves as a doorway to other curriculums in the classroom. Once children completed this stage, intellectually and physically trained, they become an integrated being, which is a normalized child. This is when a child at about age of six, find their true natural form and attain an intrinsic love for peace and harmony. They are able to sustain their attention and discipline. Also, being fully developed with independence and intelligence in making judgment and decision, grounded in reality and willing to share keeping respect of others in mind, they are able to contribute to the society and participate in larger scheme of things continuously.

Hence, man actually begins his mental growth at birth given the opportunities and ideal education approach, to bring out the excellent traits in them. If this is achieved, they will carry this virtuous circle within them through generations, having passion and capacity for lifelong learning up to university eventually securing a profession. Montessori believed that it is within the formative years of children lays the answers to humanity's ability to renew itself in each succeeding generation.



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