Unlocking Montessori – Key #5: Learning From Peers & the Unconscious Absorbent Mind

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This fifth principle of Montessori education is one intuitive to most parents – especially in the preschool years. It is the understanding that children will learn from their peers and their surroundings continually, not just in lesson times. 

Maria Montessori used the term “unconscious absorbent mind” to describe the concept of the child taking in their surroundings and learning from the environment without having to be taught. This sponge-like capacity absorbs every detail (the good and the bad) of their surroundings and the actions of those around them. This is particularly true before the age of 6. Most Montessori classrooms are age-mixed to take advantage of this aspect of child learning. 

Before the modern, age-segregated classrooms, public schools functioned off of the one-room-schoolhouse model. Turns out, this actually is very beneficial. In Free to Learn, Peter Gray talks about age-mixed groups and brings up an excellent point about the type of games it allows. For example, the game of catch. With a group of children the same age and skill level, this game isn’t much fun. They can either all catch easily (making the game less fun) or they have so much trouble catching and throwing the ball that the game generates frustration and is abandoned. Try that same game in an age-mixed group and suddenly you have a wonderful game where the older children practice their catching with the errant less-skilled throws of the younger, while the younger children practice their catching with the gentle tosses of the older children who adjust their pitches to the skill level of the catcher. 

The benefits of age mixed groups are many and one of the reasons I am so excited about homeschooling. For my boys (who are two years apart), I already see this at play. The younger mimics his brother in both skills and language acquisition. This week, the 16-month-old learned how to say “yellow” and “purple” from his brother, as well as the different waves of side-to-side “hello” and flapped open-closed “goodbye”. He also mimics his potty-trained brother in taking a turn sitting on the potty before bath-time which I am hopeful will translate to smoother potty-training in the near future. 

In families of two or more children, learning from peers happens daily, but single children may also benefit if parents are open to age-mixed playgroups. The idea of age segregation is so ingrained in our culture that many of us grow wary if there isn’t a separate group for each stage. I remember recently seeing a church nursery set up the following way: 

  • 0-1yr (non-walkers) 
  • 0-1yr (walkers) 
  • 1yr-18mon (walkers) 
  • 18 mon-2 yrs (walkers) 
  • 2 yrs-3 yrs (not potty-trained) 
  • 2 yrs-3 yrs (potty trained) 

And that was just the under-preschool section! While that particular design was to aide the nursery workers in what to expect from their charges, I was struck by how often this is the norm. Of course, in some cases it is helpful to separate by age, but let’s not turn too quickly from age-mixed playgroups. Children are fascinated by each other and learn rapidly from copying their older peers. Older children also benefit from interactions with younger children as it teaches valuable social skills like inclusion, gentleness, empathy, and responsibility.  

“You cannot imagine how well a young child learns from an older child; how patient the older child is with the difficulties of the younger.” 

Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World

As we navigate the raising and educating of young children, Montessori’s coined phrase, “unconscious absorbent mind” – if nothing else – is a great reminder to see the whole world as your children’s classroom, to be aware of the influences surrounding them, and to not stress unnecessarily over “enough time” spent “doing school”. It is all school. Maria Montessori believed education should prepare children for life, and thus the child learns from real life, real peers, in real time. 

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