The crucial importance that Dr. Montessori gave to the first few years of life, a century ago is resurfacing in today’s neuroscience. Dr. Montessori said that it was in these early years that the nervous pathways are established and the basic associative structures of the brain are completed. This will then serve as a foundation for how each experience for the rest of our life is processed, registered and recalled. The latest findings in neuroscience reiterates the same and that 85% of brain development happens in the first three years of life.
Dr. Montessori said that the significance of the first three years lies in the fact that child has an “unconscious absorbent mind”, which means that everything that is received from the environment is processed and stored in the brain cells with no effort. Neuroscience calls this “tacit (non-conscious) time frame”, where child absorbs how the social world works and this gets wired into how the brain works.
Since these first years are so crucial, here are some ways teachers and whanau can support the child during this period:
1. Pregnancy/ prenatal life- Dr. Montessori recognized these nine months as crucial for a child’s brain and emotional development. She said mother’s attitude and acceptance towards the baby played a vital role in babies development.
“It is very important to talk to the fetus and it is equally important to sing to him; this stimulation is like a massage for the brain and body.”- Understanding the Human Being.
Today, neuroscience confirms that a positive environment, mind set and experiences for a mother during pregnancy will have lifelong consequences for the child. Moreover sensory stimulation like talking and singing to the fetus aids in development.
2. Prepared Environment- Dr. Montessori emphasised that one of the key roles of an adult was to give the child a “prepared environment”. In the first year, this environment includes an area for rest (floor bed), area for change (change mat with supplies), area for feeding (comfortable chair) and an area for movement (horizontal mirror and a shelf with developmentally appropriate material).
“The most important way to achieve a better use of brain is to give it information of better quality and quantity in the first years of life. It is especially in this period that the brain shows a great capacity for developing very specialised functional circuits.”- Understanding the Human Being.
Today, neuroscience confirms that an important factor in stimulating the nervous system to develop and help human beings to progress and evolve is the kind of environment offered to them.
3. Responsive care and communication- Dr. Montessori famously said…
“Of all things love is the most potent.”
Research in neuroscience has proven that a child’s relationship with the adults in their life is the most important influence on their brain development. With responsive care, the brain’s systems learn to work well and keep the person healthy and socially engaged. What is learned in the early life will be applied ever after to relationships.
“Human relationships are NO 1 ingredient of child’s future success”- Theodre Roosevelt.
Talking to your baby not only helps in brain development through language information it has received but also helps in building neural networks as baby starts to make sense of the world around her. A child also absorbs the “emotional environment” of the home, so positive attitudes and emotions of the family members are crucial.
4. Observing and Responding to the child– Dr. Montessori emphasised that when a young child is observed and then responded to at the earliest, it helps them build trust in the world that their cries are heard. This also shapes their perception of the world, whether they will view the world in positive light and become optimistic or not.
Today, neuroscience agrees with this and further states that ‘when young babies cry they are not having tantrums or being emperors. They have needs and communicate them the only way that they can.’
5. Play/ work time- Dr. Montessori stated “Play is a child’s work” and the Montessori Method is based on this. Today, neuroscience emphasis on the same. While baby plays, the sensory information she receives establishes important neural connections. These experiences provide a critical foundation for future development.
Neuroscience agrees with Dr. Montessori that babies are ready to play from birth and it is their method of learning self-control, social skills and building intelligence.
6. Providing opportunities for development- Montessori emphasized on the importance of ‘freedom of movement’ for a child’s growth, which meant maximum awake time on tummy/ floor and no use of containers (walkers, swings, bouncers etc).
Neuroscience confirms the above and today more and more pediatricians all over the world recommend using minimum contraptions and giving babies freedom to move, which is essential for their growth.
7. Outdoor time– Dr. Montessori emphasized on the importance of nature for a child’s development and said…
“The best way of invigorating a child is to immerse him in nature.”
There is so much research in neuroscience that shows the connection between physical exercise/ movement and mental acuity. The brain loves exercise and research has shown it increases brains executive function anywhere from 50%-100%. Once a baby is comfortable with bright day light, letting her spend some time regularly outdoors is great for her sensory development and for gaining an understanding of the world. As it is rightly said, trees make the best mobiles.
8. Face to face conversations rather than screen time– Dr. Montessori said that children in the first plane of development (birth to 6 years) are sensorial learners. They need to touch, feel, taste, smell, move and experience the real world. And no screen can provide this information in a natural or full-sensory way.
“There are many who hold as I do, that the most important period of life is not the age of University studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed….The child has an intelligence of this unconscious type, and that is what brings about his marvellous progress. It begins with a knowledge of his surroundings.” – Maria Montessori
CDs and TV programs promoted as “educational” and aiding development have now taken away those phrases because they don’t. Neuroscience says that screen with animated characters teaching them colours and numbers is a means of passive absorption and can never replace a face to face real life interaction for learning and brain development. Although screen time is a very sensitive topic and for many families it can’t be eliminated altogether. Preferably no screen time or very minimum supervised time is recommended specially in the first 3 years.
9. Follow the child– Dr. Montessori always emphasized on “following the child”. She said every child has their own innate nature and it is part of education to recognize and utilize these predispositions, because education can aid and direct nature but can never transform it.
Every child has their own innate timetable and latest research in neuroscience shows that comparison or pressure could actually be a roadblock to their natural brain development. Observing, following and supporting a child through their personal and unique needs is optimum for their development.
10. Hold them- Dr. Montessori time and again recognised a baby’s need to be physically close to their whanau and stated…
“One observes, too, that the little one, going about with his mother, never cries unless he is ill or hurt in some way. Sometimes he may fall asleep, but he does not cry.”
Today, neuroscience reiterates that babies are meant to be held. There has been a lot of recent research which show that daily separation/ isolation for extended period causes enough stress in babies to induce epigenetic effects that heighten stress reactivity, causes deficits ion memory function in adulthood, causes underdeveloped serotonin receptors, endogenous opioids and oxytocin (happiness hormones) and influences the presence of various hormones and neuropeptides right when systems are being established.
Montessori philosophy is based on the child reaching their highest human potential. We have one hundred billion cerebral cells and we use only 2-4% of them. And a better educational environment, from the very beginning, is the only way to realise this potential. Neuroscience has established that the experiences that a child has in their environment determines the connections that are made in their brain. The richer the experiences and the more she experiences the more the connections are made. Within our brain, we have synapses which connect neurons together and allow signals to travel. In the first 2-3 years of life there are an immense number of these connections being made, a process known as synaptogenesis, which aids the child to adapt to their time and place. In conclusion, it is safe to say that much before neuroscience proved the above, Dr. Montessori made the above known through her extensive work and scientific observation with children.