Theories of Children's Development and Learning

Dr Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

Name of Related Theory

Dr Maria Montessori theory is based on a scientific theory of pedagogy. This science of pedagogy was achieved through the close observation of the unfolding development of the child's mind. Montessori used her medical background as well as applying her knowledge in psychology, anthropology and philosophy to develop a new model in child development (Seldin & Epstein, 2006; Kamer, 1976).

Main Points of the Theory

Through Montessori's scientific observations of children she developed her own theory that child's developmental growth is divided into four planes. While developing this theory Montessori drew on the conclusion "that a child's growth is more like that of a butterfly, with a number of critical transformations" (Casadimir). These growth transformations take place in six year cycles ranging from birth to twenty four years of age, the cycles make up the four planes of development. Each plane of development relates to a specific period of growth within each six year cycle. Each plane has its own unique characteristics and provides the foundation for the next plane of development. These plains are described as the sensitive periods within which a child's development progress is quick and naturally occurring.

Age of prudence naught to six years as referred to is the first plain. Montessori believed that by nature all children were born with an innate ability to learn. Her theory was to first educate the senses and then the intellect of the child. Developing a scientific method that nurtured the whole child, developing a child’s personality at their “own natural rate of progress, and thus free his potential for self-development within a prepared environment” (Hainstock, 1997 p. 46). Her belief was that this was the “key to individual development and the progress of civilization” (Kamer, 1976 p. 63). This method looked at children’s play as child’s work performed within the prepared environment. Children through the experiences of concrete and abstract experiences, systematically work with these to master their environment, with the direction of an adult. During this first plane of learning children would develop independence, co-ordination, concentration and order.


Montessori perception was that from a very early age a child should be given the opportunity to become a free and an independent person. She considered the adult to hinder a child’s spontaneous and free development, through the child’s dependence on them. Therefore an adult’s must endeavour to give the child every opportunity to learn do things on their own, thus creating a guide so the child can become truly independent and free (Hainstock, 1997; Kamer, 1976). Her approach was that a child should be allowed to develop in accordance with their own individual needs in a spontaneous, natural way, teaching themselves through using together their minds, hands and eyes (Hainstock, 1997).


Learns with Absorbent Mind (0-3y unconscious learning, 3-6y conscious learning)

Sensitive periods where learning is easier/faster

Basis for other virtues helps us to accomplish good in the practical order. Peace education.

Montessori theory of scientific pedagogy grew in momentum by 1914 with schools opening across the world following her methods. Criticism began to be voiced by many in America on her methods. Prominent educator and lecturer William Heard Kilpatrick was highly critical of the Montessori method, publishing his opinions in a book called The Montessori System Examined (1914) after visiting the Cassa in Italy. He called her method out dated “unduly mechanical, formal and restricting” (Kramer, 1976. p. 228) furthermore expressing that children were deprived of imaginative and social play and restrictive in activities, Montessori sense training based on psychological theory was outdated and the “didactic apparatus devised to carry this theory into effect is in so far worthless” (p. 228). These criticisms were further followed by National Kindergarten Association echoing the same sentiments (Kramer, 1976). These critiques were damaging with Montessori falling out of favour with the public her methods becoming politically unfashionable. Furthermore with the outbreak of world war, saw the demise of her method in America closely followed in other countries (Brendtro, 1999). Montessori method experienced resurgence in popularity in the 1950’s and is considered to be a viable approach in early childhood education today (Hainstock, 1997).