Learning and Development

Montessori through the early years: Part 1

Barbara Isaacs begins a new mini-series on Montessori practice throughout the early years by focusing on children in their first year of life…

In her book Secret of Childhood Montessori writes with great passion about the care and nurture which should be afforded to children in their first year of life. She ponders the trauma of birth with reference to Freud’s writing, but she is clear in her view that how the newborn is received into the world and treated during these early days will make significant impact on how the child thrives. She urges parents not to keep their children isolated in their beautifully prepared nurseries. She wants them to be part of daily life and to absorb the rich sensory impressions of the world from the safety of their mother’s arms.

Montessori acknowledged the genetic make up of all humans in her reference to the human tendencies with which we are born. These unfold and become visible in the first year of life and, subsequently, in our sensitive periods, defined as the time of heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli. For Montessori nature and nurture are inseparable, and she recognises adults’ responsibility in facilitating learning and development from the moment of birth, encouraging parents to trust in children’s natural, spontaneous ability to develop. However, for this unfolding of the child to take place, the environment around the child has to offer love, care, trust and an understanding of developmental needs.

In her writing she anticipates Bowlby’s research on attachment by identifying the role of the prime carer, usually the mother, as a vital link between the child and the world around him/her. Her views were further endorsed by Sue Gerhardt in her research of the brain as described in Why Love Matters. Both of these pieces of research have contributed significantly to current daycare practice, where practitioners take on the role of the key person. The key person ‘holds the child in mind’ in order to facilitate smooth transitions between home and the setting, and provide caring, loving experiences whilst the baby is at nursery. Today’s ‘outstanding’ practitioners work closely with parents to maintain the natural rhythms of infants, following the individual routines of each child in respect of feeding, sleeping and changing times. They also recognise the need for regular access to fresh air and appropriate exercise – in line with the child’s capabilities.

Favourable environments

In a Montessori context the prime carer, usually the mother, is the child’s first ‘favourable environment’. Through close proximity, the baby comes to know his/her prime carer by their voice, smell, taste and touch. The intimacy which develops between the newborn and the prime carer promotes the strong bond which later evolves into attachment behaviour. Montessori’s view is that this early bond and closeness evolve as the infant grows in his/her own needs to move and explore the world through his/her senses – starting with learning about the world ‘by tasting it’. As the child becomes more mobile, Montessori believes that he/she needs as much freedom as possible to perfect emerging mobility skills. This will involve the adult in close monitoring of the child’s movements, ensuring safety without limiting the child’s freedom. She advocated letting children lie and roll on the floor, giving them opportunities to sit unaided and to pull themselves up as they are struggling to make the first steps. Sally Goddard Blythe endorses these views in her recent publications The Well Balanced Child and The Genius of Natural Childhood.

Young children also need to be able to hear spoken language and have time to tune into the rhythm and patterns of the language spoken at home. The art of conversation begins from the moment of birth as the infant responds to touch, songs and the spoken word. It is a common misunderstanding that babies, because they are not ready to speak, do not need to be spoken to. Montessori’s description of the sensitive period of language urges adults to model grammatically correct, vocabulary-rich language to children from the moment of birth.

She also encourages independence of action, such a giving children opportunities to get in and out of a low chair on their own, feed themselves and use a glass for their drink. This can be a very messy business in the initial stages – however, nurturing this natural urge to do things by themselves boosts babies’ sense of self and supports their capacity for competence and selfreliance – qualities which will be very helpful to their later learning.