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Dr. Maria Montessori's Planes (Stages) of Development

"Peace is what every human being is craving for, and it can be brought about by humanity through the child." ~ Dr. Maria Montessori.

Dr. Maria Montessori observed human beings going through what she called the four distinct "planes" or stages of development, where each plane has its own unique and distinct fundamental characteristics of "normalization" offering unique opportunities for learning.  During the childhood (which lasts through age 12), the child goes through two planes of development: First Plane of the development of self as an individual (Birth to 6 yrs) as an Absorbent Mind (unconscious absorbent mind till 3 yrs and conscious from 3-6 yrs); and Second Plane of development of the social being (6-12 yrs) as a Social Explorer. Adolescence encompasses the Third Plane (12-18 yrs) where the construction of Social Self transpires. Adulthood completes the Fourth Plane (18-24 yrs), where mature personality becomes a Specialized ExplorerThe complete development of the adult human being requires that the specific needs of each of these planes are satisfied.

Each plane has specific sensitivities or "windows of opportunities" that facilitate the acquisition of a particular human trait, for example, a sensitivity to the acquisition of language in the first plane (0-6 yrs), or the development of a moral self in the second plane (6-12 yrs). In addition to these age-specific sensitivities, humans have behavioral tendencies, such as to explore, create, manipulate, repeat, and communicate, that have been crucial to human evolution and are active within the child. 

“Only through freedom and environmental experience it is practically possible for human development to occur.” ~  Maria Montessori. 

Dr. Montessori introduced several concepts to explain her work, including the absorbent mind, sensitive periods, normalization, and others. She also referred child’s experience at times of intense concentration as “flow” or "child’s work".

The book Montessori From the Start has a wealth of pertinent information on planes of development from birth to age three. I have used many sources to compile this summary, including the above-mentioned book, and I hope you find it informative and easy to follow. 


CHILDHOOD (1 -12 yrs) encompasses first two planes of development, where, by the age of 12, a human being develops into a completely formed child.

  1. First Plane (Birth to 6 yrs) is a period of the Absorbent Mind which is characterized by "young child's behavior of quickly and effortlessly assimilating the sensorial stimuli of his or her environment, including information from the senses, language, culture, and the development of concepts." The child is self-observed, has a self-centered viewpoint, is focused primarily on the sensorial exploration of a factual world.  The child is seen as a concrete, sensorial explorer and learner engaged in the developmental work of psychological self-construction and of building functional independence.  Materials are prepared mainly for individual use by a child; children work near each other, spontaneously helping younger ones, and learning how to behave respectfully in a group. Dr. Montessori believed that this power is unique to the first plane and that it fades as the child approached the age of 6.
    1. 0 – 3 yrs   “psychic embryonic period,” the 1,000 days that count, is the period of the “unconscious creator”. Paralleling the physical embryonic period in the uterus during pregnancy, the child is forming into what will later be developed. The child is constructing the "self" by using the senses (hands, eyes, ears, and nose) to soak in everything that surrounds him. The child learns naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly and without conscious awareness (without thought or choice), and as such is said to functions with the "unconscious" absorbent mind. "The child's mind is like a sponge, soaking up and absorbing everything in their environment, and using all that is absorbed unconsciously during this time to construct their knowledge of how the world works." Also, the process of Myelination is crucial at this period, where a protective myelin sheath of insulation (soft white fatty coating) is formed around the nerve fibers, allowing electrochemical messages to travel from the brain to the mussels. Without the development of the myelin sheath (a gradual process that takes place on a different timetable for different parts of the body) infant cannot activate his muscles. Notably, myelinization creates movement and movement creates the formation of myelin, so the more movement the infant is afforded, the faster is the process of myelination. 
      • 2-18 monthsNido (or 'Nest' in Italian) is a Montessori warm, caring environment for infants from 2-18 months.
      • Child's Development (please note that children might achieve certain developmental milestones earlier or later and still be considered within the normal range since “the child’s progress does not depend only on his age, but also on being free to look around him." So, as parents, "to assist a child, we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely ... Plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his mission " Maria Montessori.  
        •  1st month: an infant cannot hold his head yet;
        • at 3 months: can raise his head and chest when on a stomach; can grab objects and shake toys;
        • at 4 months: purposeful hand; can roll from back to front and from front to back; possibly scooting;
        • at 7 months: can sit up and/or push up to sitting;
        • at 8 months: maintains sitting without support; also at this point, the child will be either be (a) a "sitter" and thus talk earlier, Or (b) a "crawler"
        • at 9 months: install an infant bar/handrail (1.5-2” in diameter and 14” from the floor) & low shelving to facilitate pulling to standing;
        • at 12 months: can crawl and pull to standing, can cruise, stand alone, walk by hand (after several months of pulling up, a child will find Walker Wagon useful).
      • Hand Development
        • 0-2 months: reflexive grasp – can bring objects to his body, but not intentionally; cannot bend the wrist as “arm-hand” sweeps and scoops as one;
        • 2 months: reflexive grasp diminishes, but intentional grasp is not yet fully developed (the myelination of nerve fibers controlling the arm and hand is still incomplete, making an intentional grasp neurologically impossible);
        • 3-5 months: infant’s prehension becomes purposeful; can intentionally reach and grasp; might even accidentally interlock his hands and then jerk them apart; can purposefully close his hand around an object to gain information about it for his brain, so installing tactile mobiles for grasping, batting and holding should prove beneficial;
        • 6 months: infant is capable of (a) hand-to-hand transfer: purposefully moving an item from right to left hand; (b) flat pincer grip while using 4 straight fingers with the opposite thumb (Note: it is neurologically possible to have full pincer grasp, but infant needs to refine the movement via repetition and practice); there is not much wrist development yet – baby is still using the whole arm movement with an arm and hand acting as one, so the child can shake and bang objects, but without the wrist movement;
        • 7-8 months: myelination makes it possible for the baby to control his fingers;
        • 9-10 months:  child achieves the finger-thumb position that is capable of precise movements;
        • at 15 months: hand and brain development is complete;  Practical Life Activities like washing a carrot can be introduced;
        • at 18 months: a child should be able to peel a carrot.
    2. 3– 6 yrs: conscious absorbent mind” -  "conscious worker”- while the child from 0-3 yo has absorbed his environment, the child from 3-6 wants to make sense of it. Having done the work of self-construction, the child now wants to master his environment. The child begins to intentionally direct and focus his attention on experiences that have been created during the first three years of life. “It is as if the child, having absorbed the world by an unconscious kind of intelligence, now ‘lays his hands’ to it.”   Now it is the hand as a ‘prehensile organ of the mind,’ not just the senses, which move the child through a period of constructive ‘perfectionment’ – refining the acquisitions already made. Dr. Montessori also defined a psychological state she termed  "normalization" (in children from 3 to 6 years old) which arises from concentration and focus on activity which serves the child’s developmental needs, and is characterized by the ability to concentrate as well as "spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others.")
  2. Second Plane: from 6 - 12 yrs children become Social Explorers, having an intense interest in issues of good and evil; justice and injustice; loyalty and disloyalty; rules and ritual of the group. This stage is characterized by a shift from the sensorial to the abstract, with an increased interest in and capacity for intellectual pursuits,  and a desire for sociability and the moral aspects of life.  Dr. Montessori called this period an “Intellectual Period” where the child is capable of abstract and imaginative thoughts. Also, the child becomes fascinated with his “cosmic task” and the role s/he plays in continuing story of human understanding and transformation of the universe. The child now becomes interested in others - the peers, and s/he develops the ability to work constructively with several classmates at a time. The child exhibits genuine curiosity and the desire to understand on a deeper level the thoughts and activities of others. There is a strong desire to get along with others and do things together, but children still work primarily in small groups. During this plane, Dr. Montessori observed changes in a child: (a) physically:  the loss of baby teeth and the lengthening of the legs and torso at the beginning of the plane, and a period of uniform growth following; (b) psychologically, she observed the "herd instinct", or the tendency to work and socialize in groups, as well as the powers of reason and imagination; (c) developmentally, she believed the work of the second plane child is the formation of intellectual independence, of moral sense, and of social organization. Montessori wrote, "Education must take advantage of the value of the hidden instincts that guide the man as he builds his own life. Powerful among these instincts is the social drive. It has been our experience that if the child and the adolesce, do not have a chance to engage in a true social life, they do not develop a sense of discipline and morality." Elementary aged children have a keen interest in their own lives as well as the lives of others. They now embrace a large community of people and become interested in the morality of actions as evidenced by a growing interest in rules and the notion of "fairness." Children, at this stage of development, continually question what is right and what is wrong. They possess a desire to use their developing powers of reason to formulate their own ideas about right and wrong. As a result, children look to the adult in their lives for validation and verification of the boundaries of behaviors to confirm/reaffirm that which is acceptable. Their interest in judging behaviors and ideals then extends to an interest in justice and compassion for others. They also learn the difference between equality (giving everyone a shoe) and equity (giving everyone a shoe that fits). 
    • at 6-9 yrs Cosmic Education is introduced -  a holistic education about the universe and how all parts of the cosmos are interconnected and interdependent. The children learn a series of Five Great Stories about the universe, its galaxies, the solar system, Earth and the evolution of man. They begin to see themselves as a part of a global community and learn about the responsibilities that come with that. 
  3.  ADOLESCENCE: Third Plane (12 - 18 yrs) is characterized by a construction of the Social Self. Psychological characteristics are geared to helping adolescents determine how the members of other global societies live and fulfill their human needs. Also, at this point, the desire to have mentors outside one's immediate family would emerge. Dr. Montessori characterized the third plane by the physical changes of puberty and adolescence, and psychological instability and difficulties in the concentration of this age, as well as the creative tendencies and the development of "a sense of justice and a sense of personal dignity." She used the term "valorization" to describe the adolescents' drive for an externally derived evaluation of their worth. Developmentally, Dr. Montessori believed that the work of the third plane child is the construction of the adult self in society.
    • YOUNG ADOLESCENTS (12-15 yrs) are very self-centered and self-absorbed once again. They think everyone is noticing each small details about them and that whatever happens (right or wrong) is because of their action or lack of them. Dr. Montessori pointed out to the importance of close one-to-one adult attention, just as in the first three years of life during the unconscious absorbent mind.
      • Known in German as 'child of the earth' the Erdkinder is a Montessori learning environment for the adolescents (12-15 years old), which is often in a farm-like or agricultural setting where adolescents learn to contribute through life-based education and have the opportunity to explore how society really works. It is centered on real economic participation in the society. Mental and physical work are linked and the areas of cultural knowledge, which is traditionally separated into abstract subjects - are all integrated and linked to real-world experiences. 
  4. ADULTHOOD:  Fourth Plane (18 - 24 yrs) is characterized by the construction of self-understanding while becoming a Specialized Explorer. Our most advanced reasoning and knowledge, including wisdom, resides in the frontal lobes of a human brain. And, since the foundational neural structures of the frontal lobes are not completed until the age of 24, it only at 24, we consider the adult to be fully formed. Dr. Montessori wrote comparatively little about this period and did not develop an educational program for this age. She envisioned young adults prepared by their experiences in Montessori education at the lower levels ready to fully embrace the study of culture and the sciences in order to influence and lead the civilization. She believed that economic independence in the form of work for money was critical for this age, and felt that an arbitrary limit to the number of years in the university-level study was unnecessary, as the study of culture could go on throughout a person's life.

I hope you will enjoy the benefits of Montessori education at home and with your child. Please, see my blog for activities and areas of study to make your Montessori journey fun and rewarding. 

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