This is an academic essay I wrote on the absorbent mind in Montessori education. I hope it is helpful in gaining a clearer understanding of the incredible abilities of the first plane (0-6 years) child.
The absorbent mind, a creative and yet unconscious mental state of the first plane child, is the essential tool utilized by the child in order to adapt to their environment. From birth to around six years of age, the child absorbs everything around them, from the language to the relationships between people, in order to understand their culture and become a part of it. The mind of a child is unlike the mind of an adult, it is capable of absorbing an unlimited amount of detail and complexity without apparent effort. Dr. Montessori compared the absorbent mind to a camera, giving this explanation:
“Let us compare a camera with an artist, a painter. If someone stands in front of the camera, someone has only to click the camera to get a picture of the person. If twenty people stand in front of the camera it takes the same amount of work, just clicking the camera brings everything into focus, no matter how complicated the view may be. It is quite different for a painter. It is not the same thing at all for him whether he paints one individual or twenty individuals, whether there are only a few things in the environment to be painted or a great many objects. The camera takes each picture with equal ease but it can mean a great deal of work for the painter” (London Lectures, 50-51).
Not only is the mind of a child able to capture and internalize the complex world around them with ease, it also is able to do so with exactness. Dr. Montessori goes on to say that if someone wants an exact replica of something, they will take a photograph of it instead of painting it. The child’s mind is that of the camera type, and the adult’s mind is that of a painter type. Learning as an adult is a labor-filled process, but learning as a child is energizing instead of exhausting. Dr. Montessori writes, “…this absorbent mind never feels fatigue. It is just like a camera: it clicks, and everything is there all of a sudden, whereas the painter may say, ‘Oh, my hand is tired’” (52).
Dr. Montessori was interested in the science behind a child’s development as well. During her time, research in embryology was just beginning and many parallels were drawn between it and her work. The connection was made between the germinal cell of the embryo, which multiplies, seemingly of its own accord, into uncountable variations in order to create a living being. This germinal cell holds an unseen power to construct the being and fulfill its potential. The child too, upon being born, is full of potential. Montessori writes, “He comes from nothing, in the sense that he has no psychic qualities, nor pre-established powers of movement, but he has in himself potentialities, which determine his development, and this will take its characteristics from the world about him. This ‘nothingness’ of the newborn babe is comparable with the apparent ‘nothingness’ of the germinal cell” (Absorbent Mind, 50). Although the baby comes from essentially “nothing”, they immediately begin absorbing everything. Impressions of things, people, and the relationships between them imprint on their mind. The language of those around them is absorbed as well, no matter how complex or varied. Even the attitudes and prejudices of their caretakers are absorbed, a fact that we should constantly remind ourselves of. The understanding of the world taken in during this first plane of development remains for the rest of the child’s life and is difficult, if not impossible, to rewrite.
0-3 Years of Age – Unconscious Absorbent Mind
- The adult cannot exert much influence with their opinions/prejudices.
- Period of creation of mental faculties.
- Follows the inner teacher.
3-6 Years of Age – Conscious Absorbent Mind
- Development of what has already been created (memory, understanding, reasoning).
- Connected to the development of the will.
- Needs order and continuity, tries to organize life/routines.
- More susceptible to adult influence and tends to imitate their behavior (positive and negative).
One idea Dr. Montessori returns to time and time again in her writings is the extent to which the child adapts to the time and culture they are born into. She writes in The Absorbent Mind, “It is the child’s special adaptability that makes the land into which he is born the only one in which he will ever want to live, just as the only language he can speak to perfection will be his mother tongue. A grown up, who lives abroad, never adapts his life in the same way and to the same degree” (55). Although some modern thinkers may disagree somewhat here, particularly that the only place someone would want to live is where they were born, I do think it is worthwhile to note the truth in the second part of this quote. Humans never adapt as well to another place as the place in which they were born. Personally, I find this to be true as someone who lives abroad. The people around me in Japan speak a different language that I did not grow up speaking, there are countless cultural differences that I find difficult to understand, and I know I will never be considered Japanese as long as I live here. Despite being married to a Japanese person and having three children who are biracial, I will never be Japanese. Perhaps this distinction can be different for someone who grows up in America but comes to live in Canada as an adult for instance, however I still think they will find differences even in two similar cultures.
Contrary to Dr. Montessori’s belief, and perhaps it comes out because of the internationalization of our modern time, I don’t think you need to be one with the culture you live in to be able to enjoy it and find happiness in it. This portion of her work also makes me curious about how children who grow up moving from place to place and needing to adapt to new cultures, come to perceive their identity. If you don’t have a specific physical place to call “home”, have you been able to build a secure sense of who you are as a person? I would like to read more research on “third culture kids” and Montessori to answer this question.
The Absorbent Mind and Language Acquisition
One key way the absorbent mind is used by the child is for language acquisition. From the moment they are born, and even while in the womb, the child is listening to the language spoken around them. The rhythm, pitch, and sounds unique to each language imprint on the child’s brain. The language(s) learned as a child is/are their “mother tongue(s)” and the only language(s) to be able to be spoken perfectly and completely. If a mother brings her child to a new country to live there, the child will learn the language of the country perfectly if given the chance, but the mother will not. Therefore, it is not the mother who teaches the language but the environment surrounding the child (London Lectures, 50).
The parent’s role is, of course, incredibly important in the context of language learning however. Dr. Montessori goes on to write, “Although women may get chided for talking too much, this talkativeness is perhaps one of the special gifts which nature has bestowed on them for the benefit of their children. It is evident that in order for children to develop language, the little child must be brought into a society of adults who talk among themselves…perhaps this is the reason why small children start out in life without the ability to move; they will always need to be carried around by their mothers and therefore they are brought into the environment” (52). The modern day family structure is admittedly more diverse now than in Montessori’s day, but I still think parents in general find talking to their children quite natural and do so constantly. In Japan, and particularly in urban settings where people live in close proximity to one another, children hear conversations and adult interactions nearly nonstop. In a small Tokyo apartment, there’s no way to keep adults and children separate, which is to the benefit of the children’s language ability. Dr. Montessori writes, “The greatest mistake ever made is to isolate the child from the society of the adult, as has happened in modern times” (53). When we separate the child and ask him to learn only from their peers, who can they have to model after? Particularly in this first plane of development, when they are adapting and understanding the culture around them, we must keep them close so they may observe and learn from us.
By the age of two, the child has absorbed all the elements of the language spoken around them. Although they may not have all the vocabulary, they have internalized the sounds, pitch, and rhythm. This potential for constructing a language with the tools afforded by the absorbent mind, is called the nebulae of language. Although the child does not know the language prior to being born, they contain all the necessary abilities to acquire it without apparent effort. Their speech and auditory organs form around the language they hear, allowing them to physically and mentally grow around the language and culture they are born into.
The Role of the Adult in Aiding the Absorbent Mind
- Give the child freedom to develop in accordance with the direction of their inner teacher.
- Provide an attractive, stimulating, and enriching environment for the child to grow in.
- Understand that the education of the absorbent mind begins at birth (and even before) and the adult holds a special responsibility for the child’s development.
Montessori, Maria. The 1946 London Lectures. Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Montessori-Pierson Publishing, 2012.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2007.