Social Development and Learning in the Montessori Environment

My strongest impression of this [lower elementary] classroom is the purposefulness of the children in their collaborative efforts.
—Paula Polk Lillard, Montessori Today, Chapter 8, page 116

When I did my upper elementary training, my cohort of upper elementary teachers were always the ones getting in trouble. We were fine in our UE classes, but any time we got together as a whole group, the Infant/Toddler (ages 0-2), Children’s House (ages 3-6), and lower elementary teachers (ages 6-9) wanted nothing to do with us.

Instead of sitting quietly, we asked each other questions and looked at our partner’s notes. We shared materials and experiences and talked during the presentations as if we couldn’t wait to implement these new ideas ourselves.

The Children’s House teachers, on the other hand, sat quietly, had every possible material they could need neatly laid out in front of them with their hands folded in their laps in rapt attention, their eyes never leaving the speaker, completely absorbed in the wisdom being shared with the group. They wanted to know why we could not be quiet and work independently. We wanted to know why the Children’s House teachers didn’t seem interested in their peers. In short, we as teachers were acting exactly like the age group we were supposed to be teaching.

How Social Dynamics Impact Learning in the Classroom

Lilllard observed this critical change in social dynamics when she observed a lower elementary Montessori environment:
“As I settle in to observe for the morning, I begin to sense that, for these children, relating to each other and working are a unified experience. The thought occurs to me that my primary children develop concentration through their work; these elementary children are developing themselves socially through their work.” (Lillard, 1996)
What Lillard observed is the social progression from the first plane to the second plane of development, which has the following three stages:
  • Between 18 months and 2 years children are interested in having other children around them but are more likely to engage in parallel play (playing alongside but separately from each other) than cooperative play (playing with each other). They defend their possessions and do not understand how to share.
  • Between 3 and 4 years, children begin to play together. Around age 4 they begin to cooperate with other children.
  • At ages 5-6 years, children enjoy play and conversing with other children, possibly preferring those of the same gender (Morin)

When you look at Montessori’s four planes of development as a whole, you can see the stages of social development quite clearly. Infants are completely dependent, yet they use their absorbent minds to learn about the world around them. In the first plane of development, children ages 0-6 work to develop their individual personalities. In the second plane, ages 6-12, children develop more abstract thinking, creating their own intelligence and developing a conscience. In order to have a conscience, one must have an understanding of others. Elementary children become more social as they learn about justice, fairness, and moral order.

If the child in the first plane of development has an absorbent mind, the child in the second plane has a reasoning mind. Learning in the Montessori early childhood environment is orderly and often individual, but elementary-age children are no longer in their sensitive period for order. The early childhood environment focuses almost completely on concrete learning; however, elementary-age children are developing their imaginations, and as such, have grand, abstract thoughts that lead to bigger, messier work. Their work is often ongoing, unable to be finished during a single work cycle. Children at this stage are confident in their ability to solve problems, and they encourage their peers to collaborate with them. Peer collaboration is important as children in the second plane are extremely sensitive and aware of what others think of them.

With all of this big, messy work and collaboration, you might think the elementary classroom is noisier than the early childhood environment. In fact, Lillard states that “…the modulation of the children’s voices is one factor that contributes to the atmosphere of respect and purposefulness…It is not the quiet like a library. There is an industrious hum of conversation going on, but it is primarily serious in tone and directed to the work the children are doing together.” (Lillard, 1996) This is after all the plane of fairness and social justice. It would not be fair for one group or person to be distracting to others.

All of this leads to the question “How do the children know what to do?” Lillard herself asks the very same question. We will explore this question in our next blog on the elementary environment.

Works Cited
Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996.

Morin, Amanda. "Social and emotional skills: What to expect at different ages."

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate


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