I have worked with children professionally since 2007, both in a traditional preschool/day care setting and in Montessori schools. My Montessori teacher training is for the primary age group (3 to 6), but I have always preferred the loving nature and wonderment of infants and toddlers. After two years of working with older children, this year marks my return to the fascinating world of toddlerhood.
Dr. Maria Montessori developed the notion of “the absorbent mind.” This simply means that information is taken in much in the way a sponge takes in water. It is not merely a mental process but also a physical one. Take for example an infant, the infant is not placed in a lecture hall and taught to speak. The infant learns to speak by taking in the language of those around him.
Dr. Montessori elaborates on this by dividing the absorbent mind into two categories; The Unconscious and the Conscious Absorbent Mind. The unconscious absorbent mind is what we see from birth to around three years of age. Think about all of the things children learn in the first three years of their lives; walking, talking, toilet learning, to feed, and care for themselves. Toddlers do not just wake up one morning and decide “today I am going to get rid of all my diapers.” They accomplish these things by taking in the world around them and mimicking what they see. This will take time, patients, and development of motor skills necessary to master these tasks. Even temper tantrums and “melt downs” are merely glorious, exaggerated, recreations of how they think emotions should be expressed. All of these things are absorbed unintentionally or unconsciously.
Around age three the conscious absorbent mind begins to emerge. Parents and teachers will recognize the ‘Why” phase. At this point the learning becomes intentional. If a child asks why or how 50 times, I can promise it is not to annoy you, they legitimately want to know. As adults we have had many years to take in our surroundings and discover how things work. Children have not had this chance. When the conscious absorbent mind awakes children seek out answers, discover cause and effect, and become more aware of the world around them.
The Montessori environment fully supports both the unconscious and conscious absorbent mind. At the toddler level the children are given freedom to explore and absorb information while becoming independent learners. Toddlers have specific lessons to develop fine and gross motor skills. The great thing about these lessons is that they usually always give toddlers a better understanding of how to do things for themselves. Toddlers practice spooning, pouring, and cleaning up spills along with traditional lessons. At the primary level children expand upon these skills. They are also taught to seek answers for themselves. Most primary works are equipped with a control of error that allows children to check their own work.
After working with both age groups it is very clear, Dr. Montessori was way ahead of her time. Her observations of children are still true more than a century later.