Seeing the child through a Montessori lens: 9 Takeaways


Framing early childhood development and education through a Montessori lens is not only fascinating, but makes sense.


Montessori is a worldwide approach that says education should work “with the nature of the child, not against it” and focuses on individuals not groups, according the Montessori Institute.

Executive Officer of Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand, Cathy Wilson, presented an Educa webinar called Montessori – Absorbent Mind & Sensitive Periods. She has embraced the Montessori approach throughout her nearly three decades as an educator in the field.

“Montessori was a scientist who observed, observed and observed children before trialling anything,” says Cathy, who advocates early childhood educators do the same to ensure they are able to ‘follow the child’.



Here are 9 Takeaways from Cathy Wilson’s Webinar: Montessori – Absorbent Mind & Sensitive Periods


Bedrock theories


“The Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods are two bedrock theoretical elements of Montessori practice. Knowing and being aware of these elements will better help you in following each child in their early developmental progress,” she says.


These elements are “amazing gifts” helping children form their character and personality. They both occur during what Montessori referred to as the ‘First Plane of Development’, zero up to six years.


“During the Absorbent Mind period, the child’s mind absorbs everything without effort whether it’s good or bad, they are unable to discriminate. This is a huge responsibility for us as teachers to ensure we are exposing children to a wide variety of positive experiences,” says Cathy.


Child’s brain v adult’s brain


She compares the way a child’s brain works to a camera taking a photograph – “a perfect record is fixed forever” – with an adult’s mind being like a painter that elaborates with effort, never to achieve perfection.”


By the time a child reaches about six, everything they’ve absorbed from the culture, in which they were raised, will always be a part of them.


“Will and memory are established in the first three years and will happen regardless of what adults do. Children need order, stimulation, beauty, security, consistency and where they’re able to move freely.”


‘Let me do it myself’


Montessori has a different bent on the ‘terrible twos’ which usually involve toddlers having regular tantrums.


“Montessori looked at it as the mandate of the child saying, ‘let me do it myself”. We don’t want to break, but guide the will, helping children make choices, good choices,” says Cathy.


“We don’t need to tell a child why they’re learning. They’re just doing it and should be having fun along the way.”


A sensorial explorer


“The Absorbent Mind gathers raw data and the Sensitive Periods hones in on something that can be created from it. Children go through several Sensitive Periods at the same time with each period having a gradual beginning, a period of growth, a climax and a finish,” says Cathy.


“Sensitive Periods are transitory in their own place or time. Each child has a special attraction to certain things at a specific time. You’ll see them passionately involved in one aspect of the environment, drawn to what they need to construct themselves. We need to recognise when Sensitive Periods occur so we can take advantage of when the child is able to learn tirelessly,” says Cathy.


There are six Sensitive Periods and ages are indicative only:

  1. Language: from birth to six years of age
  2. Order: one to three years of age
  3. Small objects: one to two years of age
  4. Refinement of the senses: zero to five
  5. Social: 2.5 to five years
  6. Movement: one to four years of age


Let’s unpack some of those elements of the Sensitive Periods (for more details on the periods that focus on small objects, refinement of the senses and social, visit Educa’s webinar replay page here).


From babbling to language


The Sensitive Period for Language is the longest and takes the child from not being able to speak or understand at birth to having full comprehension, syntax and speech.


Need for order


Cathy unpacks the second Sensitive Period – Order – as a time when disorder can creates logical order problems for the child.


Order doesn’t mean the same thing for all children. They can react in very different ways. Some children react if they get the wrong cup, wrong fork or the chair is in the wrong place. They can become very upset or sad if routines are out of order. They want everything to be in the same order all the time if possible. So we need to follow the child as best as we can.


Movement a focus


This is also the time when children’s movement further develops and a key concept for Montessori comes into play: the hand.


Cathy says: “The hand becomes all important. Children develop consciousness by the hand – it is the instrument of the mind. Structural neurology can only be developed when the hand is allowed to act by handling materials.”


She says movement involves the brain, senses, muscles all working together.  A young child needs to practice this continuously, so educators should encourage repeat activities. Whereas animals move distinctively and predictably, humans need effort, concentration and much practice over a long time for the movements to become perfect.

“Walking erect actually frees the hands – it allows the hands to become instruments of the brain. A child of one and a half to two and a half years can actually walk for miles.

“When a child is aged from a year and a half to two and a half, they can walk for miles if time permits – it is the actual aim of walking that is the goal. Because a child wants to walk, they keep practicing and get better and better,” says Cathy.


The pincer grip


A refinement of hand movement is when the child uses a three-finger pincer grip, a key developmental goal. Montessori sees this as part of the Sensitive Period for Movement, by the way.


“Provide children with the right environment, giving them sensorial experiences and the space and freedom to move safely. Let them explore puzzle maps,  the Geometric Trays, , the Pink Tower, and the Fabric Box for examples” she says.




Educators can help young learners in this Sensitive Period by introducing the Practical Life exercises. These day-to-day life activities such as pouring, dusting, food preparation, and so on promote social interactions and help the child to learn how to respond in certain social interactions, says Cathy.

Grace and Courtesy Lessons are introduced as well. These simple lessons cover how to greet people, how to walk, carry a chair and so on – whatever is appropriate in different countries and cultures.

“Grace and Courtesy lessons are so important if you want to have good classroom management in your service,” says Cathy.


Watch a replay of the webinar here!