The Sensitive Periods

In a recent post I explained the term Absorbent Mind. In this week’s post we will explore another common phrase that is heard in relation to Montessori education: the sensitive periods

Hugo de Vries (Dutch botanist and geneticist) detected the sensitive periods through his research with animals, but Montessori declared that she and her fellow educators discovered it to be true of children as well, utilising it for improving teaching (M. Montessori, 1966).  The sensitive periods in a child’s development establish and control each developmental plane, and are inextricably linked to all other aspects of the child’s development, including internal and external growth (Grazzini, 1979; M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008; Zener, 2003). Furthermore, the importance of early learning experiences is recognised in brain research due to the neural connections made during the sensitive periods (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). Montessori (1966) described the concept thus:

A sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in a process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait, or characteristic, has been acquired, the special sensibility disappears. Every specific characteristic of a living creature is thus attained through the help of a passing impulse or potency. (M. Montessori, 1966, p. 38)

Thus, in connection to the development of a child, they have an innate impulse that drives them to carry out certain acts at certain developmental times (M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008; Zener, 2003). However, Montessori (1966) noted that if a child is unable to act on the impulses of that sensitive period the chance for a “natural conquest” (p.39) will be gone forever. Obstacles to learning or stressful experiences during these times can create a strong negative reaction, as can sometimes be seen in tantrums in the very young child (M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008).

Source: My own image.

The learning experiences during these sensitive periods play a vital role in a person’s neural development (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). During the sensitive periods, the child is able to accomplish and absorb great learning feats with an ease and passion that are unavailable later in life (M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). As one conquest is completed, the child moves onto the next one, creating a constant pattern of learning and enjoyment (M. Montessori, 1966; Zener, 2003). The child’s sensitivities result in strong interests for some things and a great indifference to others (Zener, 2003): “When a particular sensitiveness is aroused in a child, it is like a light that shines on some objects but not on others, making of them his whole world” (M. Montessori, 1966, p. 42). Joy and excitement in learning become manifest during these times, fuelled by the child’s surroundings and the adults that encourage and assist in this learning. These sensitive periods prepare the child’s mind to absorb and process the world surrounding them, complementing the ‘absorbent mind’ (Zener, 2003).

Strong correlations have been drawn between Montessori’s sensitive periods and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. In both approaches, the teacher observes the child to provide learning experiences that meet the needs and learning requirements of the child at that point in time (Mooney, 2013; Vettiveloo, 2008). However, Vygotsky believed that this support to a child’s learning does not just come from a teacher, but also from peers (Mooney, 2013). Such learning can be seen in Montessori classrooms with the combined age groups (and now in mainstream early education centres as well).

If you have any questions or comments about any of my blog posts, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Reference List

Grazzini, C. (1979). Characteristics of the child in the elementary school. AMI Communications, 29–40.

Montessori, M. (1966). The Secret of Childhood. (M. J. Costelloe, Ed.). New York: Ballantine Books.

Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2008). The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture.

Vettiveloo, R. (2008). A critical enquiry into the implementation of the Montessori Teaching Method as a first step towards inclusive practice in early childhood settings specifically in developing countries. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 9(2), 178–181.

Zener, R. S. (2003). How sensitively timed are sensitive periods? The NAMTA Journal, 28(1), 20–40.

Theories of developmental stages

Several educational theorists believe that there are different stages of development over the course of a human’s life. Some of these theorists include Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Rudolf Steiner. In this section, Montessori’s theory about the developmental stages will be compared to those of the other three theorists mentioned above.

Erik Erikson

Erikson’s theory focuses on the psychosocial development of humanity (Mooney, 2013). He believed that there are eight ‘ages’ of humanity that cover the whole life span (Mooney, 2013). The age brackets seen in Erikson’s theory (refer to Table 1) are similar to those seen in Montessori’s planes and sub-planes, with some comparable terminology as well. Just as with Montessori’s planes of development, as the person passes through each of Erikson’s ages they adopt certain characteristics before passing on to the next age (Mooney, 2013). For each age of Erikson’s theory, Mooney (2013) specified a developmental stage and strength, similar to Montessori’s sensitive periods. However, Erikson also identified ‘weaknesses’ of each stage (Mooney, 2013).

Erikson believed that patterns were developed in the earliest years of life from the strengths and weaknesses acquired during that time (Mooney, 2013). These patterns would “… regulate, or at least influence, a person’s actions and interactions for the rest of his or her life” (Mooney, 2013, p. 55). This is comparable to the significance of Montessori’s ‘sensitive periods’ for a human’s development in the early years. Similarly, Erikson and Montessori both understood the importance of the early years for children’s development. However, Erikson thought that it was possible for a person to go back and ‘renegotiate’ any difficulties encountered in the first three stages.

Erik Erikson (
Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
AgeStageStrength Developed
Birth to 12 monthsTrust vs. MistrustHope
1-3 yearsAutonomy vs. Shame and DoubtWillpower
3-6 yearsInitiative vs. GuiltPurpose
6-11 yearsIndustry vs. InferiorityCompetence
AdolescenceIdentity vs. Role ConfusionFidelity
Young adulthoodIntimacy vs. IsolationLove
Middle ageGenerativity vs. Self-AbsorptionCare
Old ageIntegrity vs. DespairWisdom

Source: Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.

Jean Piaget

Piaget followed Montessori’s work, using it as the foundation for his own educational theories (Mooney, 2013). He too believed that children need to do meaningful work for themselves and identified stages of cognitive development linked to age brackets (Mooney, 2013) (see Table 2). Contrary to Erikson’s ‘psychosocial’ stages, Piaget described his developmental theory as ‘stages of cognitive development’ (Mooney, 2013). He focused more on behaviours learned through these times, rather than ‘strengths’ or the broader characteristics identified by Montessori in her planes of development.

Piaget’s sensorimotor stage has strong correlations with Montessori’s first plane of development. They both believed that children first learn through absorbing information with unconscious thought, dubbed reflexive by Piaget (M. Montessori, 2012; Mooney, 2013). Both Montessori and Piaget understood that children process their environment through their senses in the first plane and the sensorimotor stage, and that this is where intelligence formed and cognitive development is started (M. Montessori, 2012; Mooney, 2013). Montessori and Piaget had differing views on the ages of the next developmental stage, with Piaget’s preoperational stage two to seven years of age, whilst Montessori considered this part of the sub-plane of the first plane, and considered the age bracket to be three to six years of age (M. Montessori, 2012; Mooney, 2013). They both viewed learning during these times as forming ideas from life experiences. Furthermore, Piaget recognised the importance of large blocks of time for ‘free play,’ based on Montessori’s theories about the uninterrupted work cycle (Mooney, 2013). Real life experiences were also considered vital by both theorists in children’s learning, providing opportunities for deeper construction of knowledge (Mooney, 2013).

Jean Piaget (
 For the final two stages of Piaget’s developmental theory, similarities are evident with Montessori’s works in that the child moves from concrete thought to abstract thought. Mooney (2013) describes a flexibility of thought, where the child moves towards logical and hypothetical thought, where richer questions can be considered, and several qualities can be held in the brain at one time (Grazzini, 1979; Haines et al., 2000). While Montessori described young adulthood age brackets in detail as part of her developmental planes, Piaget’s stages of development are much broader and end with “11 or 12 years of age and older” (Mooney, 2013, p. 81). 
Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Birth to 2 yearsSensorimotorLearn through the senses; learn through reflexes; manipulate materials.
2-7 yearsPreoperationalForm ideas based on their perceptions; can only focus on one variable at a time; overgeneralize based on limited experience.
7-11 or 12 yearsConcrete OperationalForm ideas based on reasoning; limit thinking to objects and familiar events.
11 or 12 yearsFormal OperationalThink conceptually; think hypothetically. 

Source: Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.

Rudolf Steiner

Steiner believed in three stages of learning, with unique requirements for learning in each (Edwards, 2002). Steiner, like Montessori, viewed the first stage of learning as a time where learning is done through ‘doing’ with hands-on experiences. However, while they both cited this stage as a time for physical, intellectual, and emotional growth, Steiner put a much greater emphasis on the term ‘imaginary play’ (Edwards, 2002).

While this terminology is not seen as frequently in Montessori’s works (and her views on it created controversy), the descriptions of activities and characteristics are similar to the work and qualities of children in Montessori programs. For example, children will “… become deeply and engaged and develop powers of concentration and motivation” (Edwards, 2002, p. 5) through “bodily exploration, constructive and creative play, and oral … language” (Edwards, 2002, p. 4) in both Steiner and Montessori education. Both theorists recognised the importance of an uninterrupted work cycle and a regular schedule (Edwards, 2002). Furthermore, they both emphasised the significant impacts science, literature, music, and education through nature have on children’s learning.

Rudolf Steiner (

However, a noteworthy difference between the two approaches was Steiner’s focus on learning through oral language rather than the concrete to abstract approach that Montessori employed (Edwards, 2002).

Steiner’s Cycles of Child Development
Birth to 7 yearsImitationLearn through imitation and doing; imaginary play the most important ‘work’; educational focus on bodily exploration, constructive and creative play, and oral language.
7-14 yearsImaginationExplore the world through conscious imagination; integrated, multisensorial approach to learning and expression.
High schoolIntellectRational, abstract power of intellect emerges; focus on ethics, social responsibility, and mastery of complex and rigorous subject matter.

Source: Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice4(1)


Montessori’s planes of development have clearly delineated age brackets and characteristics, each of which plays its own significant role in the development of the human. A variety of educational theorists believed in these stages, with connections between Montessori’s theories and those of some other theorists evident. There were, however, some differences in their understandings of where the age brackets started and stopped, and differences in terminology or developmental characteristics.

The sensitive periods of development are evident in brain research as well as educational theory. Educational experiences that are tailored to meet the needs of children in these periods will provide rich learning that will be carried throughout life. Furthermore, these sensitive periods are intrinsically linked to Montessori’s concept of the absorbent mind. The absorbent mind processes and utilises what is learnt during each plane of development so the information can be used appropriately by the person.

The concepts discussed in this paper are evident in early childhood education today. The way children are observed, curriculum planned, and our understandings of child development owe a lot to the theories and research mentioned here. The work of theorists such as Montessori, Erikson, Piaget, and Steiner paved the way for quality, tailored education in modern society.

Reference List

Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1).

Grazzini, C. (1979). Characteristics of the child in the elementary school. AMI Communications, 29–40.

Haines, A., Baker, K., & Kahn, D. (2000). Optimal Developmental Outcomes: The social, moral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions of a Montessori education.

Montessori, M. (1966). The Secret of Childhood. (M. J. Costelloe, Ed.). New York: Ballantine Books.

Montessori, M. (2012). The Absorbent Mind. California: BN Publishing.

Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.

The Absorbent Mind

The term absorbent mind is one that is often mentioned in relation to Maria Montessori. This post gives you a quick idea of the context to the term.

My own image of my Parts of the Fish Three Part Card packs.

Stephenson (1991) declared that each child has the capacity to think, act and live as a human being, with the absorbent mind utilising the characteristics of humanity and the relevant plane of development (Montessori’s planes of development will be explained further in next week’s post) to mould that potential into reality through action. This is first done without consciousness, where the child needs assistance in interpreting the environment and creating knowledge (M. Montessori, 2012; Stephenson, 1991). In the next sub-plane, conscious intelligence in the absorbent mind begins as choices are made, still directed by the psychological features of the first plane of development (M. Montessori, 2012; Stephenson, 1991).  The unconscious absorbent mind categorises and differentiates everything within its environment, focusing on what is relevant in the development of its individual personality (Stephenson, 1991). The conscious absorbent mind builds on the experiences of the first sub-plane, applying the “actualised potentials” of that time (Stephenson, 1991, p. 17).

Montessori (2012) described the discovery of the absorbent mind as a ‘revolution’ in education. She said that understanding this phenomenon enabled educators to understand why the first plane of development is the most important: “the creation of human character takes place within this span” (M. Montessori, 2012, p. 24). It created a new path for education in how to assist the developing mind in its progression.

Reference List

Montessori, M. (2012). The Absorbent Mind. California: BN Publishing.

Stephenson, M. E. (1991). The first plane of development. AMI Communications, 14–22.

Montessori and Imagination

I’ve had many discussions with people over the years regarding Montessori’s views on imagination. These views (and various interpretations or misinterpretations of her views) have been controversial for some years. Grazzini (1979) declared that to understand her position, first one must ascertain the age of the child. Consequently, the developmental needs and sensitive periods of the child at different ages will alter how imagination is used:

The young child or infant of the first stage of development must build reproductive imagination, as part of his creation of the self, through the experience of his immediate environment; whilst the older child of the second stage of development uses a creative imagination, which is based on reality, in order to psychologically conquer the world. (Grazzini, 1979, p. 33)

Source: My own photo.

In the past, Montessori criticised some uses of imagination because they drew people further and further from reality in a way that caused negative effects on the person’s life. Montessori was critical of the reliance on imagination in the sense of fantasy, where the person becomes completely lost in the fantasy and disconnected from reality (Grazzini, 1979). She was concerned that society was becoming too dependent on imagination as a way of escaping from reality. That because of this, children would limit their creative imagination from all its possible uses, to the detriment of learning and knowledge (Grazzini, 1979). It could be said that her concerns are evident in our current society’s reliance on computer games and escapist fantasies. However, as long as the child is able to differentiate fantasy from reality, there are no limits to what their creative imagination can accomplish. Furthermore, this is the understanding of imagination that is linked to Montessori most frequently, as a blanket view without considering her other statements or discussions on the topic. 

 Below is an excerpt from Montessori’s book The Absorbent Mind:

The mind of the child between 3 and 6 years fixes not only the functions of the intelligence in relation with objects, but also those of imagination and intuition. This means that the intelligence must not have a great and vivid power at this age beyond that of merely absorbing through the senses. It has a higher, power, that of imagination, which enables the individual to ‘see’ things he cannot see. This may seem an exaggeration in relation to children of this age, but if we think about it, we realise it is not such an exaggeration, since psychology has always said that this is a period of imagination. Even the most ignorant people tell their children fairy tales, and they love them immensely, as if they were anxious to use this great power of imagination. They call a table a house, a chair a horse, etc. Everyone realises that the child likes to imagine, but he is given toys as the only help. If the child can realise a fairy and visualise fairyland, it is not difficult for him to visualise America, etc. Instead of only hearing vaguely about America, a globe with the general shape of America is a concrete help to his imagination. Imagination is endeavouring to find the truth of things, a fact which is often forgotten. If in the child’s environment the word ‘America’ or ‘World’ had never been mentioned by anyone, then it might be difficult for him to show interest in it, but since he hears the word so often, it enters his mind and he clothes it with imagination. The mind is not the passive entity one imagines, the mind of man is a flame, an all-devouring flame, it is never still, but always active.

Source: My own photo.
Source: My own photo.

So, with this in mind, let us consider that one of the ways that children learn is through imitation. You may have seen a quote floating around the internet from Montessori about it:

Imitation is the first instinct of the awakening mind. 

As children grow and develop, role playing or dramatic play is often based around children imitating the adults they have seen around them. This helps them to process and interpret interactions and actions that they have seen. For example, in my class at the moment, everyone is fascinated with doctor and nurse role playing, as last term we were learning a lot about the human body. They are now transferring that knowledge about the body to their role play. You will see the children that are the medical professionals asking questions and checking those that are the patients, describing symptoms and cures of certain body parts, and standing on either side of a ‘counter’ to make the payments. From these questions and actions we can clearly see that the children are imitating what they have seen done at the doctor’s surgery. Therefore, these children are using their imaginations and creativity in their role playing to utilise their knowledge and extend their learning in constructive ways. If I ask them if they are actually a doctor in real life they are able to tell me that ‘no, we’re just pretending!’ Clearly, these children are not relying on their imaginations or convincing themselves that these imaginary lives are better than their real ones. They are using their imaginations as a learning tool. By visualising the symptoms and parts of the body in connection with their stethoscopes, prescription pads, and so on, my students are deepening their learning, and understandings of these roles in society. 

So, what do you think? I hope this quick discussion has given you some food for thought. I would love to hear back from you your thoughts on imagination in play, and how it is utilised at home or in the classroom, whether you follow the Montessori method or not. 

Montessori 101

I thought I’d use a different approach for this blog post and write something a bit more laid-back by giving you a quick summary of the main points of Montessori education.

Source: My own photo.

Basic facts of the Montessori approach

  • Maria Montessori – The Montessori approach is an educational method originally designed by Maria Montessori, the first female surgeon in Italy. You can read more about Maria Montessori and the beginnings of her educational method in my earlier blog posts (Maria MontessoriInfluences on Montessori 1Influences on Montessori 2);
  • Child-centred & individuality – Montessori education is centred around the child’s interests and individual development, and the child’s natural developmental progression. Children are able to learn at their own pace and are recognised as individuals that learn differently to their peers;
  • Specialist materials & children’s development – It is based on the developmental stages all children go through, and the didactic materials are designed to meet the needs of the children as they progress through each stage. The materials also have in-built controls of error that allow the child to self-correct and learn to look critically at their own work. This encourages self-assessment and how to learn from their errors;
  • Coordination, concentration, & order – The design of the materials, daily routines, classroom order, and classroom preparation/ setup support the child’s developing ‘self-regulation’;
  • Prepared environment – The Montessori environment is designed and prepared to meet the needs of the children academically, socially, and emotionally. Children have a natural passion for learning that the prepared environment provides for and encourages by meeting the children’s needs and providing opportunities for spontaneous engagement;
  • Independence & freedom – It has a focus on encouraging children’s independence through the concept of freedom within limits. That is, that the children are provided with opportunities to choose for herself/ himself through a prepared environment and the didactic materials;
  • Community – Montessori classrooms are generally multi-age (typically spanning 3 years) which imitates a family structure. This encourages the older students to be role models and mentors to the younger children, and younger children have greater support with the combined wisdom of the directress and their peers;
  • Preparation for life – Montessori education aims to prepare the child for life, and for becoming a contributing member of society. They are not only prepared academically but socially and with the skills for everyday living that are part of the practical life curriculum. 

The role of the teacher in the Montessori classroom

Montessori viewed the teacher as a directress or facilitator of learning. The Montessori teacher provides an environment that is prepared to meet the needs and interests of the children. They observe the children regularly to assess their progression, development, and interests, and use these observations to inform how to guide the children through their next learning steps. 

The relationship between educator, classroom, and the materials

There are really two ‘teachers’ in a Montessori classroom – the directress and the prepared environment. These two teachers work together with the didactic materials to guide and teach the child through their educational journey. Each one is connected to the other, and supports each other. 
Fun fact: This concept was one of the inspirations for the logo of The Montessorian. The three points of the triangle represent the three teachers in the Montessori classroom. The short bead stair was also an inspiration for The Montessorian logo. 

If you want to read about Maria Montessori and her educational methods, please read my previous blog posts! Or if you want to ask something directly, email me at

The Concrete Materials Part 2: The ‘pink tower’ and current research on brain development

Experiences in the early years have significant impacts on brain architecture (Rushton, 2011; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008; Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2008). Consequently, quality learning experiences during these years are vital for optimal brain development (Rushton, 2011; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008; Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2008). The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2008) described three influential factors for brain development: genetics, environment, and experience. A person’s genetics provide a foundational blueprint with rudimentary characteristics of nerve cells, and elementary systems for connections (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). The environment has a significant influence on the brain’s architecture, with a healthy environment from the prenatal period onwards resulting in the manifestation of its greatest potential (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). Montessori believed that environmental order assisted the child’s brain to maintain its equilibrium, which in turn resulted in beneficial interactions with the environment (Haines et al., 2000). The interactions of the person with their environment is their experience, which starts in the womb. A person’s experiences modify the aforementioned genetic plan based on their needs and the unique environment(s) they come into contact with (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008).

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) (Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), 2009) and the National Quality Standard (NQS) (Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA), 2017) recognise that the experiences of each child will be diversely different based on a variety of influential factors, inclusive of family, culture, and the ever-changing learning environments children are exposed to. Consequently, curriculum should recognise the unique experiences each child has as the foundation for learning and include opportunities for learning that encompass these (ACECQA, 2017). The Montessori method can be customised to the needs of the child, merging well with the requirements and expectations of the NQS and the EYLF. The EYLF describes children’s learning as “… dynamic, complex and holistic. Physical, social, emotional, personal, spiritual, creative, cognitive and linguistic aspects of learning are all intricately interwoven and interrelated” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 9). This holistic concept of education is also evident in Montessori’s works. She viewed growth and development in a way that encompassed emotional, moral and physical aspects, as well as cognitive development (Haines et al., 2000). Consequently, the early influences of environment (including the people the child comes into contact with) and the quality of early experiences will affect all aspects of the child’s personality, especially during the periods of development when they are most sensitive (DEEWR, 2009; Haines et al., 2000).

The brain experiences stages of “… exceptional sensitivity to the effects of environment and experience …”, which are termed sensitive periods (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008, p. 2). This concept can be seen in much of Montessori’s works, with her understanding of it being a natural drive that stimulates the child to perform particular actions and obtain particular experiences as each stage is reached (Haines et al., 2000; M. Montessori, 1912, 2012). Quality and relevant experiences during these sensitive periods are vital for healthy brain development because it is incredibly challenging to change neural circuits after their sensitive periods have finished (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). These sensitive periods can include language, vision, responding to social cues, and hearing, among others (Haines et al., 2000; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). Furthermore, diverse mental capabilities progress and mature at different points in a child’s developmental timeline. Consequently, each child will have different emotional and cognitive experiences in an environment, dependent on his or her age, and individual development (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). A child’s ability to observe and understand their surroundings and experiences alters over time as their neural connections are developed, moving from simpler to more complex assessments (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). Moreover, quality and motivating early experiences lay the foundations for learning later in life, with brain plasticity continuing throughout one’s life (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). Quality educational experiences in early life followed by more complex experiences in later years is essential for the brain to reach its full potential (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). The experiences of the early years provide the foundation that is built upon and extended later in life, just as the Montessori materials build upon and extend one another.

The Pink Tower. Source: My own photo

The materials in Montessori education assist the child to restructure and understand their knowledge, building on what they have learnt previously (Haines et al., 2000; M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). As the child moves through each plane of development and sensitive period, the materials provided meet the development needs that are experienced. The iconic ‘pink tower’, for example, is aesthetically pleasing to entice the young child, but actually has significant developmental purpose. It develops the child’s visual and muscular perception, which later leads to an abstract comprehension of size in three dimensions (Montessori World Education Institute (MWEI) (Australia) Inc., 2012). Furthermore, it assists in the development of the child’s fine motor coordination, and prepares the mind for mathematics (MWEI (Australia) Inc., 2012). For the child of three to six years of age, they have “… natural tendencies to explore, orient, and order [that] assist them in sequencing, classifying, and organizing …” (Haines et al., 2000, p. 11). As the child works with the pink tower, they must use their developing perceptive skills to compare and analyse each block, and orient it in relation to the rest of the blocks. They must organise them in the correct size order, judging them within the concept of the whole group, or the tower will look wrong or topple over (MWEI (Australia) Inc., 2012). With the pink tower, as with the other sensorial materials, the child must concentrate, observe, and classify (Haines et al., 2000). It utilises the child’s developing skills of this period (such as visual and observational abilities) to extend the child’s knowledge in a simple way, to be expanded upon later with increasing complexity.

Summary of Parts 1 and 2

The Montessori materials meet the developmental needs of the child at each developmental plane. They teach abstract concepts in concrete ways, utilising the young child’s sensory interests and skills. They extend the brain in each sensitive period of its development, using simple characteristics to assist the child to access their own knowledge. The experiences of the child with the manipulative materials in the Montessori environment provide quality early learning that build on the child’s existing genetic foundation. Furthermore, they form an integral part of an education system that recognises and values each child’s unique qualities, capabilities, and experiences.

Reference List

Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2017). Guide to the National Quality Standard.

Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early years Learning Framework for Australia (Vol. 1). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Haines, A., Baker, K., & Kahn, D. (2000). Optimal Developmental Outcomes: The social, moral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions of a Montessori education.

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori MethodEnglish (Second). New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.

Montessori, M. (2012). The Absorbent Mind. California: BN Publishing.

Montessori, M. M. J. (1976). Education for Human Development: Understanding Montessori. New York.

Montessori World Education Institute (Australia) Inc. (2012). Sensorial Education. Ellenbrook.

Rushton, S. (2011). Neuroscience, Early Childhood Education and Play: We are Doing it Right! Early Childhood Education Journal39(2), 89–94.

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2008). The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. (2008). Analysis of Curriculum/Learning Frameworks for the Early Years (Birth to Age 8).

History of Montessori’s influence in Australia Part 2: How Montessori’s educational ideas have impacted the wider educational context

At Montessori’s first international training course in 1913, she described the restricting social conditions for children at the time (Feez, 2013). She presented the attendees with the notion of freedom with limits, describing the materials and conditions of her methods, as well as the way a Montessori directress should interact with individual children and their needs (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). Twenty-first century Montessori student teachers still follow a very similar course of topics to that of the first lectures, and her material presentations are just as appealing to modern day children across the globe (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013, p. 108) declared that Montessori training has the same effect now as it did back then in that it “… has a lasting influence on the way people interact with children, and prepare learning environments for them, no matter the context and prevailing wisdom.”

Blackfriars Montessori school, 1913

Although Montessori’s influence was starting to decline in educational leadership circles in the late 1930s, there were some diligent believers who quietly continued their work, such as Norma Selfe (Feez, 2013). There were also still Australians travelling to Rome to learn from and participate in Montessori’s training courses (Feez, 2013). Aside from kindergarten and state infant school teachers, some of the teachers who worked alongside Lillian de Lissa and Martha Simpson were known to have continued their work in the Montessori education field (Feez, 2013). Furthermore, some Montessorians opened private schools across Australia, or were involved in the areas of child health or religious orders (Feez, 2013). Some of these known or significant contributors are described further by Feez (2013). Moreover, Feez (2013) declared the work of these dedicated Australian Montessorians made an impact internationally from the beginning.

Feez (2013, p. 14) marvelled that “… for over a century, and across the world, the Montessori approach has resisted obsolescence, making it an oddity among the educational choices available to parents and teachers today.” In the Montessori schools of the past and present, children are taught how to be independent contributors to society, where this independence is the foundation of their freedom (Feez & Sims, 2014; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984) and where children are “… free to follow their true nature and to learn through their own effort.” (Feez, 2013, p. 15). Children are considered active learners, understood to be developing in a series of stages, through use of a specially designed environment to assist their progression (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). Furthermore, that exploring a concept first in its concrete form is vital for foundational learning (Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). These ideas can still be seen in a variety of early childhood settings today, whether Montessorian or not (Simons & Simons, 1984). Children are being given more choice in their basic educational needs, and their development through learning stages recorded in detail. This idea of observing a child’s development stems from Montessori’s scientific observations she employed during her time as a medical student (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Simons & Simons, 1984).

It was Montessori’s belief that these observations were the basis of a Montessori teacher’s work (Feez, 2013; Montessori, 1912). Montessori thought that observing children in the strict, traditional settings of the past could not uncover the truth of each child (Feez, 2013; Montessori, 1912). However, some of the more detailed methods for observing children’s development from the original 1913 training course are no longer used (Feez, 2013). These incredibly precise analyses arose from Montessori’s medical experience at the University of Rome’s Psychiatric hospital (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). They were, however, ground-breaking at the time in that they focussed the educator’s attention on children’s developmental and social needs, presaging the way twenty-first century educators plan individualised learning programs across a diverse range of educational fields and age ranges (Feez, 2013; Simons & Simons, 1984).

Blackfriars Public School, c.1913

Possible reasons why the Montessori approach is not more widespread in Australia

Social conditions during the depression worsened, resulting in increases of infant and maternal mortality, poor health and sanitation, unemployment, homelessness, and overcrowding (Feez, 2013). Free kindergartens and infant schools became safe places where children received care as well as an education (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) noted that the disparity between infant schools and kindergartens became hard to differentiate between at this time as well, so phrases such as early childhood education and preschool became more evident. However, Feez (2013) also acknowledged that there was still a distinct separation between education and childcare. Due to the severity of social and financial conditions, these centres had to reduce staff and resources, which Feez (2013) posited could be a reason for the decline in the Montessori vs. Froebel debate, and the popularity of both.

When the 1937 international New Education Fellowship Conference was held in Australia, the most popular papers and presentations were by “… the new leaders of the progressive education movement, the educational psychologists and psychoanalysts promoting play as the basis of children’s intellectual and social development” (Feez, 2013, p. 107). Although the start of the New Education Fellowship in 1921 was originally inspired by Maria Montessori, and 1937 was the Froebel centenary, there was not much interest shown in either of these educational fields at the conference (Feez, 2013).

Feez (2013) also identified a shortage of trained Montessori teachers as a significant limiting aspect for Montessori education’s reach. She links this to “… the tyranny of distance …”, made worse by teachers leaving the unstable working conditions of small schools for greater security in their careers (Feez, 2013, p. 134). Moreover, Simons and Simons (1984) posited that Montessori teacher training is not up to modern standards of teacher education. This limitation could possibly deter people from undertaking the training. Additionally, Murray (2008) declared that access to Montessori teacher training is limited.

While access to pure Montessori education is still somewhat limited for families in twenty-first century Australia, there seems to be a resurgence in some of its principles, which Lillian de Lissa already remarked upon in 1955 (Feez, 2013). On reflection of the educational ideas of the past, she observed that rather than being outdated, they could have been understood as radical and enlightened thought if worded in more modern phraseology (Feez, 2013). However, it can still be difficult for parents to identify the degree to which a centre is Montessorian, adding to the confusion about what Montessori education actually is (Murray, 2008).

Lastly, limited or misinterpreted understanding of the true nature of Montessori education is another possible limitation (Murray, 2008). Analyses of Montessori education by Simons and Simons (1984) outlined many misunderstandings that are often stated in regard to the field. For example, they argued that the “… classroom environment is frequently impoverished, rigid, and rule-bound” and that “music, dance, drama, literature, and poetry are neglected” (Simons & Simons, 1984, p. 44). This narrow idea that Montessori education is too suffocating of children’s creative potential seems to be a common view in modern society.

Summary of Parts 1 and 2

Montessori’s ideas had a significant impact on Australian education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The concepts of liberty, freedom and independence appealed strongly to the post-invasion, democratic Commonwealth ideals of Australia’s past. The advocacy of a few sparked a tidal wave of educational reform that gradually diminished with the rise of progressive New Education after the war. However, her philosophies continue to influence early childhood education today, whether in Montessori classrooms or otherwise. While there is still limited access to pure Montessori primary and secondary schools, there appears to be increasing interest in Montessori early childhood education. Whether there is a resurgence or not, Dr Maria Montessori left a legacy that changed Australia’s educational history for good.

Reference List

  • Feez, S. (2013). Montessori: The Australian Story. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.
  • Feez, S., & Sims, M. (2014). The Maybanke Lecture 2014 (pp. 1–58). Sydney: Sydney Community Foundation.
  • Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.
  • Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori MethodEnglish (American E.). Radford: Wilder Publications.
  • Simons, J. A., & Simons, F. A. (1984). Montessori and Regular Preschools: A Comparison. Urbana.

History of Montessori’s influence in Australia Part 1: Beginnings of the Montessori movement in Australia

Montessori’s libertarian philosophies about education impacted significantly on nineteenth and twenty-first century Australian history, at a time of social reform and a desire for democracy. That impact has remained, even though the Australian educational field moved away from authentic Montessori methods in favour of the New Education Movement.

“Australia in the 1890s was in the midst of an economic depression” (Feez, 2013, p. 42). As such, educated women that were committed to social reform established free kindergartens for poor children, including training teachers (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). These women aimed to improve living conditions for the poor, alongside the government’s increasing reformation of primary school education to control child labour and care for neglected children (Feez, 2013). The kindergartens (based on Froebel’s theories of play-based learning) differed greatly from the teacher-directed rote-learning for the masses of infant classes originally established to relieve congestion in schools (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). Nevertheless, Feez (2013) stated that by the 1890s and beginning of the twentieth century, variations of Froebel’s pedagogy were evident in the infant school pedagogies.

Commonwealth Free Kindergarten in Bettington St, Millers Point, c.1910

Like Froebel, Rousseau and Pestalozzi, Montessori’s methods place high significance on the freedom of the child (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). However, many identify more similarities with the works of Itard and Séguin (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Simons & Simons, 1984). Understanding these approaches and their similarities with Montessori education assists in comprehending the appeal of liberty-based education in twentieth century Australia (Feez, 2013). Independence and freedom, as well as being fundamental philosophies of Montessori and Froebel education, are also significant ideologies of Anglo-Australian culture since European invasion and settlement with a focus on democracy and social reform (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). As such, these aspects of Montessori education appealed to the twentieth century educators and continue to motivate parents and teachers to this day (Feez, 2013; Simons & Simons, 1984). Educators discovered that the progress children made through the liberty they were given could easily be transferred to other contexts, providing a real channel for children’s independence (Feez, 2013).  “The Montessori system offered a program of reform to a reform-minded age …” (Kramer, 1988, p. 154).

Reverend Bertram Hawker of South Australia seems to have been the first Australian to see the Montessori system at work in a Casa dei Bambini in Rome (Feez, 2013). Hawker was a notable philanthropist and social reformer, helping the poor in Adelaide and London (Feez, 2013). Through his observations of children in kindergartens, he resolved that play was integral to children’s social, cultural and moral development (Feez, 2013). Consequently, Hawker invited Frances Newton (principal of the Sydney Kindergarten Training College at the time) to Adelaide to assist in starting the South Australian free kindergarten movement (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). Lillian de Lissa accompanied her mentor, Frances Newton, in delivering lectures and presentations on kindergarten methods at Hawker’s home and the Exhibition Building (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007).

In 1911, Hawker visited a Casa dei Bambini and met Dr Montessori (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). These experiences had such a strong impact on him that he remained in Italy before returning to England and founding their first Montessori classroom, in his own home (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). He then established the Montessori Society of the United Kingdom in 1912, with much of London’s early childhood sector later teaching or advocating Montessori’s methods (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). On Hawker’s return to Adelaide in March 1912, he imparted his new passion for Montessori’s methods to Lillian de Lissa, who subsequently returned to Sydney later that year to see the Blackfriars experiment, travelling on to to Rome for the 1914 Montessori course (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009).

Blackfriars Public School - staff (Margaret Simpson middle row, 3rd from left), 1919

Feez (2013) identified Martha Margaret Mildred Simpson as the educational leader who seems to be the earliest and most prominent advocate for Montessori education in Australia. She had opened an experimental classroom at Blackfriars School in New South Wales by mid-1912, influencing the spread of Montessori philosophies throughout Australia (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Feez (2013, p. 39) noted, however, that a possible contributing factor to the success of the Blackfriars experiment was that “the first Australian Montessorians were trained and experienced teachers …”

Simpson travelled to Rome during the first international Montessori training course in 1913 to meet and learn from Montessori herself, remaining there two months (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Four other experienced and trained Australian teachers also attended the course that year—Rhoda Selfe, Norma Selfe, Ruby Starling and Harriett Emily Barton (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Ruby Starling had been persuaded by Reverend Hawker to attend Montessori’s course after meeting him and visiting his school (Feez, 2013). In 1913, Montessori’s training course and methods were frequently featured in Australian newspapers, including mention of the four Australian women attending the course at the time (Feez, 2013; Feez & Sims, 2014).

Feez (2013) suggested that the students returning from Montessori’s 2013 course would have been filled with hope and passion for what they had learnt. However, she also stated that the epoch they were returning to was “… far less attuned to their enthusiasm for educational reform based on liberty” (Feez, 2013, p. 88). Upon their return to Australia, the Selfe sisters gained employment as Montessori early childhood teachers, with Rhoda at Blackfriars and Norma at North Newtown Public School (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). However, they did not approve of the way Martha Simpson had adapted Montessori’s methods, so chose to resign to open their own school rather than be moved to rural positions (Feez, 2013). They opened Warwick Montessori School in Ashfield, New South Wales in 1915, starting with 24 students and operating successfully for six years (Feez, 2013).

Ruby Starling, conversely, returned to the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales, opening their first experimental Montessori School in Pyrmont in 1915 with 12 students (Feez, 2013; Feez & Sims, 2014). Ruby’s school (dubbed ‘The Little Brown House’) was also a success, doubling in size over the next nine months, and requiring a waiting list (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013, p. 94) noted that with anti-German feelings raging due to the war, it was a “politically astute” move at the time by the Union to overshadow Froebel’s methods with those of Montessori. However, after family and societal tragedies during the war, Warwick Montessori School closed and The Little Brown House resumed its Frobel-inspired methods, later being renamed ‘Maybanke’ (Feez, 2013).

Montessori Teaching Staff (possibly from Blackfriars Montessori School)

Neither Rhoda Selfe nor Ruby Starling appear to have taught Montessori education after the closure of their schools (Feez, 2013). Norma Selfe, in contrast, started a Montessori class at the Havilah Church of England Children’s home where she and Rhoda had been volunteering after their school’s closure (Feez, 2013). Norma was employed as the Kindergarten Leader by 1924, and utilised Montessori’s methods there until 1948 (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) alleged that Norma’s Montessori Kindergarten class was possibly one of the most longstanding Montessori classes run by the same teacher in Australia’s centenary of Montessori Education.

After Lillian de Lissa’s introduction to Montessori education by Reverend Bertram Hawker, de Lissa explored the methods further through visiting various classes and schools across the globe and attending the second international training course in 1914 (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). On her way back to Adelaide from the training course, de Lissa visited Perth to present lectures on Montessori’s methods, which had a profound and immediate effect on their teacher training and kindergarten programmes (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). In 1915 de Lissa started trialling the Montessori method in the free kindergartens of Adelaide, and gave lectures for the training college (Feez, 2013). By 1916, the Franklin Street Free Kindergarten was a Montessori Children’s House (Feez, 2013). It was such a success, de Lissa subsequently implemented Montessori’s methods at the Bowden and Halifax Street kindergartens too (Feez, 2013). In 1917 de Lissa returned to England to accept the position of first principal at the Gipsy Hill Training College, where she remained for 30 years (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009).

Although de Lissa returned to England, her mark on Australian early childhood Montessori education would continue to grow (Prochner, 2009). After the great success of her experimental Montessori classrooms, the program was expanded until all of the Adelaide free kindergartens were Montessorian, and the training college had become the Kindergarten Montessori Training College by 1920 (Feez, 2013). College Montessori School was opened as a private school on the new premises of the training college in North Adelaide in 1918 (Feez, 2013). A graduate of the training college, Helen Jenkins, opened Sydney’s first private Montessori school in Croydon in 1920 (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) identified that the Montessori program of the Kindergarten Union of western Australia was also expanding during the early 1920s. In 1922 they transferred the training college to West Perth and started a model Montessori kindergarten for children of three to eight years of age (Feez, 2013).

Reference List

  • Feez, S. (2013). Montessori: The Australian Story. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.
  • Feez, S., & Sims, M. (2014). The Maybanke Lecture 2014 (pp. 1–58). Sydney: Sydney Community Foundation.
  • Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.
  • Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method. English (American E.). Radford: Wilder Publications.
  • O’Donnell, M. (2007). Maria Montessori. (R. Bailey, Ed.). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Prochner, L. (2009). A History of Early Childhood Education in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Vancouver.
  • Simons, J. A., & Simons, F. A. (1984). Montessori and Regular Preschools: A Comparison. Urbana.