Life is all about ages and stages, and most of us don’t know it. Oh, we get an inkling of it when we have a toddler and we know (s)he’s entered the “terrible twos,” and we hear about it at school meetings when teachers talk about grouping children of different ages together. But we don’t seem to understand the magnitude of this idea and its great importance to our children’s lives. Fortunately, Maria Montessori did, and we can learn from her and others who followed her.
Dr. Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was really the first physician and educator to create the notion of psychological stages of growth and development. Of course prior to her work in the early 1900s, few had given serious thought to children’s mental health or well being. Children, after all, were necessary workers for the families, not viewed as the cherubs we know them to be. But Maria Montessori, with her strong religious roots, felt a Biblical love and respect for young children, which led her to observe and study them very carefully. As a result of this study she identified and developed an understanding of the developmental stages of children. She created an entire curriculum around these stages which also embodied something she called “sensitive periods” for learning, times when children are most able to learn certain concepts.
While her work may have gone quietly unnoticed by some, others substantiated her work. One famous one was Erik Erikson, who lived from 1902-1994. He identified the same stages that Dr. Montessori had identified years earlier. Briefly, here are Erikson’s stages which validate and support the work of Maria Montessori and the task of each stage followed by Montessori’s plan for that age:
Infancy: Birth to 18 months
During this time the child struggles with trust and mistrust. The major emphasis is the mother’s positive and loving care for the child. This tells the child that she is in a trusting home. Both visual contact and touch are important for the child to pass successfully through this stage. Maria Montessori believed at this age the child’s growth was best fostered by being in her own home.
Early childhood: 18 months to 3 years (the Toddler Class):
During this stage the child masters skills for himself: walking, talking, and feeding himself. Fine motor skills are also learned as the child becomes toilet trained. This time is where the child begins to build self-esteem and autonomy. It is also a very vulnerable stage, for if the child is shamed in the process of learning these skills he may feel great shame and doubt about himself and suffer from low self-esteem as a result. The child’s most significant relationships at this time are with his parents.
Toddler Class: Great importance is placed on reassuring the small child that the parent, when gone, will return. Attention is given to toilet training in a relaxed manner where the environment, with its tiny toilet and sink, accommodate this skill.
Play age: 3 to 6 years (The Primary Class):
During this period the child wants to copy the adults around her. She takes initiative in creating play situations which mimic adult actions. Here she experiments with what she believes it means to be an adult. Now the child also begins asking “why” questions as she explores the world around her. Still vulnerable, she may experience guilt if she is frustrated over her natural desires and goals. She is struggling with her own initiative versus guilt. She benefits from being given the opportunity to do it by herself. Her most significant relationships are with her basic family.
Primary Class: The room is filled with real-life activities for the child, activities whose actions are similar to the actions she sees the adults doing around her. She is permitted to show her own initiative in choosing her own work throughout the day. She is given lessons on how to care for the indoor and outdoor environments so that she may feel like she is capable and become confident.
… to be continued
Ages and Stages – part two
School age: 6 to 12 years (The Elementary 1 and 2 Classes):
During this stage the child is quite capable of gaining many new skills and of learning a lot. He frequently develops a sense of industry during this time and we adults can be impressed by his work. This is a very social time of his life and he is sensitive to how he is perceived by his peers. Relationships among his peers at school and in his neighborhood become his most significant relationships. While parents are still important, they no longer are the complete authorities they once were.
Elementary 1 and 2 Classes: Here great lessons with wide visions are presented to the child. The universe, the chemical elements, the history of the world and its people, the political geography of the planet, and classifications and life cycles of plants and animals are subjects the child studies in addition to gaining skills in language, reading, and mathematics. Peer relationships are fostered and effort is given to helping the child solve his problems with his peers using strategies that promote mutual respect.
Adolescence: 12 to 18 years (Middle and High School)
Prior to this time of life a child’s development depends mostly upon what was done to her. But from here onward, development depends primarily upon what she does. Life is becoming more complex for her; neither a child nor an adult, she struggles to find her own identity. She puzzles over social interactions and moral issues. The child is now interested in herself as an individual, apart from her family of origin, and rather as a part of the wider society. This is a vulnerable time, especially during the first few years of this stage when the child is truly totally engrossed in herself and lacks experience to deal with complicated social issues which may confront her.
Middle School: In this class, the child is mentored by adults who not only understand the conflicts of this age, but who also enjoy being with this aged child. Care is given to make this environment emotionally secure for her as well as academically sound. Opportunities for going out from the classroom in many ways (overnight field trips, working for a few days in a career of her choice, community service projects, running small businesses) support her need to know the larger society.
Not only can we educate ourselves about these stages of growth and development, but we can also find comfort in this knowledge. So often I hear a parent (usually of a first-born child and hence the parent’s first time with the issue) voice concerns about her child doing or not doing something and wondering whether she should worry about this. After 40 years of being a teacher, I can usually assure the parent that this behavior is typical of her aged child. Other children in the same stage of development exhibit similar behaviors, and better yet these behaviors disappear as the child enters a new developmental stage and others appear!
In a time when we’re too often worried whether our child will get into the college or university of our choice, we loving parents must stop and think about our child and her current stage of development. Helping her work on the tasks of each stage gives her a better chance of becoming all she can be. Remember, the child is the mother or father of the woman or man!
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher