Montessori Theory

Four Planes of Development

Historically, development was seen on a linear timeline and the assumption was that children were like adults, only smaller. Dr. Montessori’s developed a stage theory of development in an attempt to describe the entirety of human development.  She believed that development is a series of rebirths. Her work was influenced by Jean Piaget, Sigmond Freud, Erik Erikson, Jane Loveinger and Laurence Kohlberg, many of whom also have developed stage theories of development. Maria Montessori differs from her contemporaries in that she believes that human development goes from birth until about age 24. Modern research supports this belief showing new cell growth still occurs in adults.

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Looking for universal characteristics of human beings that transcend cultural and socioeconomic factors, her perspective is holistic and encompasses body, mind and spirit, and how they work together. The goal of growth and development is independence. The Four Planes of Development are interdependent and successful work in one plane is dependent upon success of work in prior planes.

  • First Plane: 0-6 years of age: Formation of the Individual. During these 6 years, the creation of the physic being is coming together as an individual personality through the process of self construction. The radical notion in Dr. Montessori’s stage theory is that the child is the one doing the construction. “No one can grow for the child. Only the child can do this growing.” – Maria Montessori
  • Second Plane: 6-12 years of age: Development of an individual. The child takes what they absorbed in the first plane and uses it to further develop themselves as part of the society around them and the world as a whole.
  • Third Plane: 12-18 years of age: Formation of a socially conscious individual. During this 6 years, the individual is searching for their place in society. It can be a time of mood swings, depression and issues with identity as they are  focused on fitting in.
  • Fourth Plane; 18-24 years of age: Development of the socially conscious individual. This stage is concerned with fulfilling one’s place and role in society. This phase can continue throughout life until the individual figures out what they are here to do.

Characteristics of the Four Planes

Characteristics are behaviors functioning unconsciously to motivate children to seek out the experiences that will support and further their growth and development and help them to meet the needs of the plane they are in. Children are very different depending on which plane they are in, they truly experience the world in different ways. Montessori is asking us to observe and understand these characteristics and respond to them. Different characteristics lead to different needs from the environment as individuals at different stages of development need different experiences, therefore each stage requires a different environment. By identifying the common universal characteristics of a particular age range we can provide appropriate  conditions in the environment to satisfy specific needs. Each plane is gifted with unique developmental powers motivating the individual to action which ensures that the goals of that plane are fulfilled. These motivating powers are internal and invisible.

First Plane:

  • Really busy, fully engaged in the world.
  • Internally driven by the Sensitive Periods.
  • “Unconscious absorption”, also known as the “absorbent mind” is how they learn in this plane.
  • Concrete manipulation. The child wraps their hand around the world. Physically in touch and interacting with their environment as their primary means to understand and comprehend the world.
  • Maximum effort. The child is more concerned with repetition and doing this with the utmost effort than in being efficient. They want the opportunity and space to do it on their own, in their own way. Concentration, repetition and self perfection are all lived out through maximum effort. For example, putting on a jacket to a child in the First Plane is not about putting on the jacket. It is about coordinating movements, getting their body under control and gaining confidence in doing things for themselves and meeting their own needs.
  • Sensorial exploration: The fives senses and the hands work together to experience and comprehend their environment.
  • Parallel Learning. They are not focused on collaboration with others but working in conjunction with others. Parallel learning is a protection from the interference of others.

Second Plane:

  • A felt need to escape closed environments.
  • The use of reason and imagination to explore the world.
  • Interest in justice. “It’s not fair” is a favored mantra as the child is trying to learn what is good and what is bad.
  • Conservation of energy. Now is the time to be concerned with getting things done efficiently and effectively.
  • Collaborative learning. Children in the second plane of development have a strong desire to work in groups. The parallel characteristic of interest in justice helps collaborative work function to occur in a balanced way or for children to be able to see when it is unbalanced.
  • Social organization. The creation of rules, clubs, teams and leaders by the children.
  • Intellectual Exploration: wraps mind around the world. Can explore with mind and imagination and can learn through others experiences or by reading about something. She can see what is not in front of her. In this way, they are building capacity for abstract thought.
  • Very strong admiration for identified leaders and role models. In two words, hero worship. They seek out those worthy of admiration and following.
  • Birth of a Moral Sense. Internal sense of right and wrong is being established.

Third Plane:

  • Physical and psychological aspects of puberty: effect is physical and mental instability and apparently diminished intellectual capacity. Going back to hands on, as this age need to interact with the world directly. They learn by doing – not just listening and reading. They need an experiential environment.
  • “Social Newborn”; an individual that has just been birthed into society. End of childhood, the formation of the adult begins. They are in flux, they are no longer children and not yet adults.
  • Exploring human social life: explore all aspects of how society is organized, including interpersonal relationships.

Fourth Plane:

  • Strong interest in what humans do as work.
  • Physical and mental stability return.
  • Desire to take their place in human society through the pursuit of specialized knowledge and experience.

Constructive Rhythm of Life

There is a rhythm to development within each plane, each stage is subdivided in two three year groupings. First comes creation which is followed by crystallization/consolidation (latter three years of a plane). Observable signs of transition are apparent between planes, these signs can be physical, emotional or social.

Parallels Between Planes

First and Third Planes have several characteristics in common. They are unstable times of development (physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually). So much new work is going on that the body becomes vulnerable. This time is also marked by an increase in sensorial discovery whereas individuals going through these stages directly experience the world through the five senses. The Second and Fourth Planes share the commonalities of these stages being a time of development and they are generally seen as stable.

Independence in Planes of Development

The goal of growth and development is independence. Independence, like development, comes in layers. Each plane has a type of independence associated with it. An independence may be conquered within a specific Plane but the mastering of that independence continues and expands over the entirety of one’s life.

  • First Plane: Functional Independence. Learning to take care of one’s own needs in their immediate surroundings.
  • Second Plane: Intellectual Independence. Thinking for one’s self. Having opinions, making up their own mind and learning to think critically are all aspects of achieving this independence.
  • Third Plane: Emotional Independence. Learning to separate one’s emotional wellbeing from that of others.
  • Fourth Plane: Economic Independence. Finding one’s place in society where one can fully support one’s self which is grounded in individual’s contribution to the world.

Implications for the Adults in Children’s Lives

As stated before, the motivators for development are internal and invisible and happen organically. They can be supported or thwarted by external forces, such as the adults in the child’s life, but they can not stopped. The Montessori trained adult operates under the assumption that the children are born in touch with what they need to know to become a fully realized adult and so they are our guides in knowing, through observation, what conditions and activities to expose them to. Similarly, anytime the environment does not provide what the children need, there is trouble. “Anytime we need to coerce young children to do something that is proof that we are not aligned with their needs and interests.” – Maria Montessori. Children are very different depending on which Plane they are in, they are truly experiencing the world in different ways. Dr. Montessori observed that different characteristics lead to different needs from the environment as individuals at different stages of development need different experiences that they find in the prepared environment. This is why the prepared environment for each stage differs in content and experiences. For optimal development to occur during any Plane of Development, three conditions are necessary.

  1. An environment which is adapted to the needs and tasks of that Plane.
  2. Liberty to act in that environment toward self construction.
  3. A linking adult who prepares the environment, understands the developmental stage, and guides and facilitates activity within the environment.


Sensitive Periods

“The young in the course of development have special sensitivities, special impulses which impel them to carry out certain actions which help them in their life. When the aim or purpose of this sensitivity is served, it disappears and another one takes its place.” – Maria Montessori from Creative Development in the Child, Volume 1

As the story in the Montessori world goes, the term, Sensitive Period, was coined by Dutch biologist who specialized in entomology. Hugo de Veris (1848-1935) studied the Porthesia Butterfly. The butterflies lay their eggs in the most protected part of the tree, near the trunk where it also happens to be pretty dark. Hugo discovered that when the caterpillars hatch, they instinctively crawl towards the light, which is where their first food is. He also discovered  that at this stage, the caterpillars are attracted to the light but as the caterpillars grow older and they eat different food, that attraction to the light disappears. Hugo coined the term Sensitive Period to describe his observation. Hugo de Veris heard Dr. Maria Montessori present her findings at a conference and came up to her afterwards and said, “I know what you are describing.” And then he said something to the effect of, “I study butterflies and observed the same phenomenon. I refer to it as a Sensitive Period.” While this is a good story, there is nothing in the historical record that shows any work done by Hugo de Vries involving butterflies. He was a biologist and worked with plants. Maybe someday we will know the real story.

Sensitive Periods are also referred to as Critical Periods and Windows of Opportunity. Sensitive periods in human are another fundamental and unique discovery made by Maria Montessori through the practice of observation. Sensitive Periods occur within the First Plane of Development and they work in conjunction with the Absorbent Mind. Sensitive Periods is the way in which the fundamental characteristics of being human are developed. They are something the child is born with that guides, controls and motivates their behavior from within. Sensitive Periods are universal and transient, they last only a short time in an individual’s life.

Four Sensitive Periods

  • Sensitive Period for Order: Birth to about 4.5 years of age. Takes all of the stimuli coming in and organizes it into some order for the child which then allows them to understand the world around.
    • Birth to 18 months: For the first year of life, there are two simultaneous and parallel aspects to order; internal order and external order. Internal order relates to the body, body perceptions and the internal structures of intelligence. External order relates to the external environment that the child has direct contact with. Establishing and maintaining routines are extremely important at this age. Around 12 – 18 months, internal and external order merge though the emergent internal order is dependent upon the external order.
    • 1.5 – 3 years: This is the height of the sensitivity for order. The child is irresistibly motivated to harmonize internal and external order. During this time, it is very common for a child to act to re-establish any perceived order that has been disturbed such as closing drawers that are open, returning furniture to its original position or insisting on wearing a hat even when it is warm outside because it is part of their routine.
    • 3 – 4.5 years: During this year and a half, external order functions as a foundation for internal order and mental organization. As the love of order slowly fades, there is an emergence of a well oriented child with and orderly mind. The hand now takes over as the purposeful instrument of the mind.
  • Sensitive Period for Controlled Movement: Birth to about 4.5 years of age.
    • Birth to 2 months: During this time, the individual is attempting to bring their sporadic movements under control so that they become voluntary instead of reflexive.
    • 2 months – 18 months: The majority of the development here is around large motor muscle control. During this time, the child learns to control their arms, legs and head and to coordinate movement with the various body parts to achieve physical feats such as rolling over, grasping, sitting up, crawling, pointing, standing, walking and carrying large and heavy objects.
    • 1.5 – 2.5+ years: In this span of time, the focus is on endurance and stamina. The coordination of movement is a foundation for functional independence since the child who is able to move independently can begin to do things for themselves.
    • 2.5 – 4.5 years: Refining and perfecting basic coordination of the body through locomotion, equilibrium, fine motor skills, manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. As the child is able to master control of their body’s movement, they are in a unique position to work on self control and self discipline as they realize that movement is a choice.
  • Sensitive Period for Sensory Perception: Birth to about 4.5 years of age.
    • Birth – 12 months: There is an ongoing development of the five senses which is enhanced through exploration of the environment with all senses engaged.
    • 1 – 2 years: During this year, there is a heightened sensitivity to detailed sensory impressions and a new interest in tiny objects.
    • 2 – 4.5 years: Throughout this period of time, there is an ongoing internal classification of perceptions taking place as well as interest and refinement of detailed perception. The development of language and conscious relative memory both lead to the development of absolute memory.
  • Sensitive Period for Language: Birth to about 6 years of age.
    • In utero – 9+ months: Pre:Linguistic Period. Through the use of the Absorbment Mind, all language heard is absorbed and filed away for future use. During this time, there is an irresistible attraction towards the sound of a human voice. Throughout this period, the individual begins to mimic the language that surrounds them in the ways that their body is capable of communicating.
    • 12 months – 2 years: There is now evidence that what is being heard is being understood. The production of meaningful words and phrases begins around this age though the capacity for receptive language still exceeds the capacity for expressive language.
    • 2 – 3 years: This span of time is sometimes referred to as an explosion of language. The child displays an impressive expansion of their basic vocabulary and begins to utilize parts of speech, such as adjectives and prepositions, to convey meaning. The interest in grammar and syntax also begin to emerge around this time.
    • 3 – 6 years: The rapid expansion of vocabulary continues as does the refinement and perfection of articulation, pronunciation, syntax and grammar through spontaneous experimentation. Language is now being explored as a way of communicating one’s needs, wants and ideas as well as its power to affect others.

Built in Second Chance

All of the Sensitive Periods, listed above, start at birth and go beyond age 3. These windows of opportunity open and close in a very observable sequence throughout the timeframe of the First Plane. By stretching beyond the age of three, there is a built in “Second Chance” – allowing children another opportunity to develop skills later on in the First Plant if they did not successfully complete them earlier in their life.

Components of a Sensitive Period Moment

Maria Montessori described children finding an opportunity in the environment to aid in their self construction as “Irresistible Activities”. She called it irresistible because the child is being guided by internal forces to choose a specific activity that will aid in the development of a specific skill. Children show self discipline during these moments, obeying their inner guide, and can be observed to be in sudden and complete concentration. The activity they chose is specific and identifiable such as climbing stairs, closing the door repeatedly or carrying a heavy object. Once the activity is selected, you will see a repetition of the activity with full engagement of all five senses. The passionate interest the child displays in the activity is all consuming and if the child is distracted they will go right back to what they were doing once the distraction is removed. There is no way of predicting how many times an activity needs to be repeated in order to reach a satisfactory level of completeness for the child. The child knows and when they have achieved mastery of the activity, they will come out of the episode naturally and feeling refreshed. They may also show signs of calm, serenity and joy.

Motives of Activities

Children need concrete manipulation of an object to perfect fine motor movement. Through motives of activities, the child receives feedback from the environment that is essential in their process of development. They may even use many types of objects to perfect coordination and movement. If there is nothing in the environment that can be used as a motive of activity for a particular developmental goal, it will not be achieved and the window of opportunity will close early.

Implications for the Adults in Children’s Lives

There are many ways for a child to meet mastery of a certain activity, such as vertical climbing, but it seems that once they find one way of accomplishing it, they will stick to that and typically seek it out only that one way. Sometimes if you are really quick, you can substitute one thing for another such as substituting a door knob for a stereo volume knob to fulfill a child’s desire to turn a knob. If we do not provide a substitute and just take the activity away from the child, we are thwarting the development of that skill. By identifying when this moment of irresistible attraction is occurring we also acknowledge its importance on the child’s development and help to support the child in fulfilling this irresistible activity. It is not necessary for us to understand what or why, but to trust the child and the mysterious forces at work within them. Many of these motives of activities are provided by the natural environment as this is how early humans development so it is not necessary to purchase a bunch of man-made materials, simply provide the child access to the outdoors.