“The greatness of the human personality begins at the hour of birth.” – The Absorbent Mind, Page 4
When comparing the offspring of mammals and the offspring of the human we can see some striking difference. The offspring of mammals have a very fixed development. They’re perfectly adapted to their one location and really cannot thrive anywhere else. Within hours after birth, many of them can be on their feet, they can vocalize in similar manner as their parents. This is all for survival. So, mammals have these gifts.
What does the human have? Because when we’re born, we are immobile with no voluntary control over our muscles, we cannot vocalize in the same manner as our parents. What is our gift? Our gift is the intelligence because with this intelligence we can create language, we can create movement, we can adapt to anywhere in the world, we can critically think, and we can imagine.
The absorbent mind is active only in the first plane of development. The absorbent mind is creative because it’s taking from the external environment and is creating the child’s personality, it is creating all the foundation for knowledge for life. It is active because it does require energy and later requires the child to actively engage with their environment.
The absorbent mind facilitates the process of adaptation to time, to place, and to society. The absorbent mind absorbs knowledge into its very essence, providing the foundations for growth and learning for the rest of a person’s life. The power to construct is inside of the child from everything in the world that surrounds it.
The first characteristic is that it is unconscious, it operates in this unconscious way for the first three years of life. From the ages of about three to six, it transitions into a more conscious manner, but it needs to be unconscious because it’s taking the burden off the child to determine what it is they need to absorb from the environment to lay those foundations for the future.
The child simply can’t do that. The next characteristic is this effortless absorption. It will take in anything with ease, it does not take any effort on the part of the child to be taking in these quantities of information. Next, it’s non-discriminatory. It cannot determine what is good information and what is bad information, it takes everything in and often it is compared like a sponge.
A sponge will soak up whatever liquid it’s placed onto. Doesn’t matter if it’s clean or not it’s going to be taken in. This absorbent mind is operating in the very same fashion. It cannot determine what is good quality information and what might not be the best quality information to be taking in.
It’s also global. Now, this means that it is taking in everything. Dr. Montessori used the analogy of a camera to describe how this works. The adult’s mind is much like, let’s say, a painter. A painter chooses a subject and puts very intentional effort on the details of that subject and the background generally isn’t as clear or detailed. For the child their mind is much like a camera.
Everything that is in front of that lens is absorbed with perfection, perfect clarity. Just like when you take a picture, everything is going to be in focus.
“The child has a mind able to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself.” – The Absorbent Mind, Page 5
This absorbent mind is self-creative. Everything that is taken in is allowing the child to take that information to create the person that they’re going to be. It is also universal. Every child regardless of race, gender, or where they live has this gift. Every human being has this gift of the absorbent mind for those first six years of life. So, we can see just by looking at these characteristics how powerful this is for every child and how it can affect their self-construction in very profound ways.
The absorbent mind has two phases. There is the unconscious phase and then there’s the conscious phase. The unconscious phase is from the age of birth to around three. This is also the time of that first sub-plane of the first plane of development. This is a time of tremendous physical growth and tremendous cognitive growth. Now, this absorbent mind is operating in this unconscious way because it needs to take in a large amount of stimulus, impressions, and information. So, what is it taking in? It’s taking in and collecting input for language acquisition and development, movement, culture, religion, and attitudes.
The child will absorb everything that surrounds it, the good and the bad. The child is absorbing sights and smells and textures and tastes. All this information must be absorbed because it’s being used to construct this child into a person that is perfectly adapted to their time, to their place, and to their culture. The infant is also a very powerful observer and when we think about it our children are immobile for quite a long time. Why is this? Dr. Montessori thought it’s because that the child must observe, they must be still to really take in everything in their environment before they start moving about within it.
The child is essentially born twice. We begin life within the womb of our mother as an embryo and upon birth we become an embryo again, only this time it’s said that we are a spiritual embryo and that we are born with nothing but a nebulae, or potential. The term nebulae it comes from an astronomy term for the dust cloud that creates stars. The term spiritual embryo refers to the psychic potentialities of the child. They have these potentialities, but they require stimulation from the world to develop. Dr. Montessori considered this to be a formative time for the child’s psychology to develop. Every child has this gift of the potential to develop that’s not solely based on genetics, but also has this energy called the horme and the horme is this energy that’s driving the child to develop and to meet these predictable milestones that every child meets.
As the child is moving through this first phase of the absorbent mind, this unconscious phase, they’re not just building synaptic connections and taking in information, but they’re going through this process called incarnation. An incarnation is where the information that is coming into the child is creating who this child is going to be.
This child is creating their mother tongue, their first language, the language that holds dear to who they are, that is part of their own personality. This process of incarnation is so important because truly all the information that’s being absorbed is being transformed into the creation of this individual. The child of birth to three truly has a gift.
Human beings would not be what we are if we were not able to take in these vast quantities of information. This child is taking in information and creating language, creating movement, order, culture and adapting themselves perfectly to where they are.
In the unconscious phase of the absorbent mind, memories are stored, and they aren’t really brought forward again, but it’s when we are in the consciously operating phase of that absorbent mind that we can begin to recall memories. This shift to the conscious absorbent mind happens around the age of three and it operates until around the age of six. This is a very gradual shift that is facilitated by both the will and the hands of the child. And what we’ll see is that now we have a child that is showing interest in some things or preference in experiences in some things and then not in others. Their learning becomes very intentional. Before everything was just simply absorbed. That is not the case anymore with this consciously operating absorbent mind, the learning is very selective and very intentional.
Dr. Montessori called the hand “the instrument of the intelligence” and therefore because our learning is happening through our hands. Our hands are allowing us to manipulate, explore, and engage in our environment and through that we’re not only coming to a better understanding of our environment, but we’re coming to a better understanding of ourselves. The hands and the will are the most powerful tools that a child has in their learning. Where they were once a very passive learner, now they are a very active learner and the child’s will is driving them forward, craving these new experiences. Using the hands, these previously absorbed impressions from the first three years of life begin this intricate process of organization and classification. Absorbent mind is not strictly operating in just a conscious fashion.
There still is an element to this unconscious operation that remains until around the age of six. Dr. Montessori knew that the child in the first three years of life really needed to be in the home. This was the best prepared environment for this child. Now the child of three to six required something different. This is what helped her to design the very first Children’s House. She realized that a child was going to need to use the hands to manipulate and to explore, so this environment was filled with materials that were going to engage the senses, that was going to stimulate language acquisition and development and language use, there were opportunities for the refinement of large and small motor movement. There was also a social community in the Children’s House and the environment was filled with the culture of the children that lived within it.
This is a huge support to that important process of adaptation that this child is progressing through. The absorbent mind is hallmarked by a child making choices about their experiences and then staying with those experiences long enough for sufficient information to be received. Now while in the first phase of the absorbent mind the child was quite active, there was no discrimination in the information that was being taken in. In the second phase of the absorbent mind, the learning is very intentional. The child is seeking experiences that interest them.
Language is of paramount importance socially and as the basic structure of thought. It enables the child to integrate into society and to deal with abstract concepts. The Absorbent Mind is the child’s tool for learning the language. All the while, the child is experimenting with words he has heard within his environment. Dr Montessori said, “By merely living and without any conscious effort the individual abstracts from the environment even a complex cultural achievement like language”. From birth, the child is absorbing his whole environment. He is absorbing the sounds of a language that are then fixed into his subconscious where they will become manifest.
“Not only does he create his language, but he shapes the organs that enable him to frame the words. He has to make the physical basis of every moment, all the elements of our intellect, everything the human being is blessed with.” – The Absorbent Mind, Page 22
The adult has a very critical role in the development of the child. It is our duty to create an environment that is optimal for development, that is also rich with experiences. The child in the first phase of the absorbent mind needs to be with adults. This child needs to see the work that’s going on in the home, to go out into the town, to be a part of cultural celebrations. This is a child that is immobile. They can’t get around on their own and they rely on adults to take them places. This is what we need to do for the child is to bring them out into the world, so they are gaining those impressions and sensory input to aid in that self construction. Our children need to be surrounded by not only adults, but other children. This is important because they are learning their language, they’re learning their mother tongue, and absorbing all those fine nuance that comprise it.
“It follows that the child can only develop fully by means of experience on his environment. We call such experience “work”.” – The Absorbent Mind, Page 80
When the child becomes mobile, we need to make sure that our homes are thoughtfully arranged, so that this child can start to gain some independence in their mobility, so that it is safe for them to explore and to move about in the environment. We know exploration is such an important part of building intelligence, but without the opportunity to freely move in an environment there’s no way for us to begin to refine and coordinate our movements. This is very, very important. Children also need an opportunity to be helpers in the home and they love to mimic what we do.
This action of mimicking what adults are doing is very self-constructive for them and the jobs that they’re helping us with, this isn’t an expectation that the work is going to be perfect because they are not engaging in this helping work for our utilitarian purpose like the adult does. The child is engaging in work for a self-constructive purpose. Every action that the child engages in is serving something developmental, something very important that they are constructing within themselves. The child around the age of three requires a different environment than the home and we have the Children’s House available for this child that is rich in opportunities for them to refine motor movement, to gain independence, and to start building a social life and build social relations.
The trained adult has prepared him or herself to serve the child’s need for exploration, for independence, and for self-construction. The Children’s House is a place where the child can be successful every day and to start to gain confidence in the world around them. Too often, well-meaning adults can become an obstacle to the child. Children are driven to gain independence and quite often when adults jump in, we are robbing the child of that moment of powerful learning where they can truly start to become independent.
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