Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Absorbent Mind: Chapter 16: From Unconscious to Conscious Worker

“Hence there are two tendencies: one is the extension of consciousness by activities performed on the environment, the other is for perfecting and enrichment of those powers already formed. These show us that the period from three to six is one of ‘constructive perfectionment’ by means of activity.” – Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 167

namc studying montessori absorbent mind ch 16 conscious worker


Studying the Works of Montessori - The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 16: From Unconscious to Conscious Worker

Up until now, we have looked at the child as a keen but passive observer of her environment. Absorbing all that she can through her senses, the infant obtains knowledge of her environment through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. While toddlers gain mobility, they are still largely dependent on adults to satisfy their needs. It is also a time of unconscious growth. The child learns to walk and talk without thought. He doesn't wake one day and say, “I think I’ll try to roll over today.” It is something that just happens, often to the surprise of the infant!

Around the age of three, the child undergoes a major shift from unconscious to conscious development. He moves from being dependent on adults to wanting to be independent. The young child who just yesterday allowed us to choose his clothes and dress him, now boldly states, “I can do it myself.” Montessori says that “there is much danger of the adult destroying what nature is trying to do.” (Montessori, p. 166) When faced with the developing will of the child, adults often try to assert the same control they had previously, often with surprising results. “If he feels oppressed by the adult, he can protest in words, he can run away, or play pranks. … What he wants to do is master his environment, finding therein the means for his development.” (Montessori, p. 166–7)

namc studying montessori absorbent mind ch 16 conscious to unconscious worker "I can do it myself"


This need to “do it myself” marks a time of great activity. There is a shift from observer to participant and from passive to active learning. “Whereas the child used to absorb by gazing at the world while people carried him about, now he shows an irresistible tendency to touch everything … He is continuously busy, happy, always doing something with his hands.” (Montessori, p. 168) The hands, Montessori says, become a “prehensile organ of the mind.” (Montessori, p. 168)

So, how do we meet the changing developmental needs of the 3–6 year old child? Montessori tells us that the “child needs to do these things to serve ends of his own, interior ends connected with self-development.” (Montessori, p. 169) In short, he needs to “imitate the actions he sees in his home.” These imitative, real-life practical lessons help the child construct the adult he is to become.

namc studying montessori absorbent mind ch 16 conscious to unconscious worker practical life skills

So often, we furnish rooms full of toys and are frustrated when they end up broken or abandoned. This happens, Montessori says, because we fail to recognize the child’s deep seated need to actively participate in the activities around him rather than being left alone with toys that serve no purpose. With toys, the child calls to the adult to “come play with me.” With real, child-size apparatus, the adult is reduced to the role of observer, while the child explores his own self-sufficiency and asserts his independence. “It is as though he were saying: ‘I want to do everything myself. Now, please don’t help me.’” (Montessori, p. 170)

At birth, the child seems to be an extension of the adult, passively along for the ride. During the latter half of the first plane of development, the ages of 3–6, the personality of the child asserts itself. The need to be independent and self-sufficient grows. Tantrums arise when there is a clash between the child’s need for independence and the adult’s need for control. I often hear adults speak as if our role is to make children happy. Montessori tells us that “Happiness is not the whole aim of education. A man must be independent in his powers and character, able to work and assert his mastery over all that depends on him.” (Montessori, p. 170)


Work Cited
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.


As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Thursday, June 5, 2014.

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