The foundations of Montessori pedagogy


Let us not raise our children for today’s world.
This world will have changed when they grow up.

Maria Montessori

According to Maria Montessori, when we free children from external obligations such as marks, tests, punishments and rewards, children can nourish their inner appetite by adopting better behaviour at work.

This way, without pressure, children can carry out their activities with joy and enthusiasm.

The foundations of Maria Montessori’s pedagogy are articulated around several concepts such as the self-construction of the human being, human trends, freedom and responsibility, the prepared environment, the polarization of attention, but not only.

There is also standardization, the ages mixed with an adapted environment through the 4 development plans, and the interest of working in a global way with what Maria Montessori called “Cosmic Education”.

First foundation of Montessori pedagogy: The child’s self-construction

But what does the self-construction of the human person consist of? Is it possible that a child may be the conscious or unconscious actor of his own construction?

For Maria Montessori, children work to build themselves, with their inner impulses.

Children cannot develop their minds in an empty environment, but only with an activity called work. To do this, we speak of a “prepared environment”, an environment in which they will find objects that will allow them to work with their hands: “help me to do it alone”.

Thus, through freely chosen activities, children develop their minds themselves.

The child must be free to choose his work, his partner, his place of work, the child must be free to carry out his spontaneous activities and all this without being disturbed.

In Volume I of her book The Scientific Pedagogy, Maria Montessori shares her observations with us. She found that when children performed an activity they had freely chosen, they were in a deep concentration, a total involvement in which they did not easily let themselves be disturbed.

Moreover, she observes that if no one disturbs these children in their concentration, they are calm, happy, cooperative, with inner harmony, respect for others, a great love for their work, they move towards “normalization”.

Maria Montessori observed the children and her teaching is based on scientific observation. This means that systematically, this observation is linked to a process of understanding.

Second foundation: standardization

Another concept of great importance is that of the child’s psychological development, in particular the fact that the child does not have abilities in a hereditary way, but rather has the potential to develop them.

According to Maria Montessori, the conception of the human mind is not linked to instincts but is constructed. For her, the mind grows with the child, this construction of the mind is the work of the child himself in active interdependence with the real world, including the hand, the senses and reason.

In Volume I of Science Pedagogy, Maria Montessori observed and described how a child used the equipment from the cylindrical blocks (equipment for 3/6 years old). The child would put the cylinders in the holes corresponding to their sizes, when she had finished, she would take them out and start again and again. The child repeated 43 times.

As part of her observation, Maria Montessori tried to interrupt the child, she went further and started again.

We are here in the presence of what Maria Montessori called the “normalisation” process.

According to her, this concept is found in so-called “normalized” children, i.e. children who:

  • Like order
  • Enjoy the work
  • Show a deep and spontaneous concentration
  • Like calm but not necessarily silence
  • Love and care for the environment
  • Demonstrate obedience, independence, initiative
  • Have spontaneous self-discipline
  • Are Co-operating

Third foundation: human trends

An axis of Montessori pedagogy that is just as important as that of standardization is based on supporting the natural development of the human being.

Highlighted by Maria Montessori and then taken up and deepened by her son Mario, human trends are one of the main principles of the foundations of pedagogy. According to Maria Montessori, what is often presented as an instinct or a need is in fact a “human tendency”.

Dr. Maria Montessori had the intuition that one of the first tendencies of the newborn is to build something in himself that not only allows him to relate to his environment, but that, for the rest of his life, acts as a kind of inner compass linked to all kinds of things, including this other tendency that embodies one of man’s most powerful impulses and helps him to find everything he needs to satisfy his needs: exploration.

Mario Montessori, The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education

Mario Montessori named the following human trends:

  • Mathematical mind (mathematics is an important part of our environment)
  • Exploration (in a Montessori class, books and experiments are made available to children)
  • Abstraction (this is typical in Montessori equipment and leads to the child being able to work without it in the long term)
  • Imagination (the power of imagination is more important for children aged 6 to 12. Children want to discover the whole cosmos and for that they must use their power of imagination, for example for what happened a very long time ago. As for children aged 3 to 6, their field of imagination comes directly from what they can perceive through their senses)
  • Adaptation (the child wants to appropriate the culture in which he or she is immersed)
  • Language (an important element of the prepared atmosphere, children speak in a low voice in a Montessori classroom)
  • Manipulation (Montessori equipment allows you to learn abstract notions by manipulating)
  • Repetition (children can repeat the same activity over and over again)
  • The need to live in a group (children naturally adopt a herding behaviour)
  • Spiritual needs and the tendency towards moral orientation (need for justice, to orient oneself towards what is right and know what is wrong).

Freedom and responsibility in the Montessori context

Freedom and responsibility according to Maria Montessori’s theory are based on three components:

  • The child in the process of self-construction
  • Adults (parents, teachers, other adults) who guide the child
  • The environment in which the child lives:
    • The physical environment (immediate, to the universe)
    • The human environment (the family, up to all human beings, in the past and present)

The child in the process of self-construction first learns to live in his own environment, then he learns to live in a so-called “prolonged” environment with other human beings, other people who interact with each other.

Freedom in Montessori theory

This brings us to the idea of freedom in Maria Montessori’s theory. For her, having a choice of actions means being free. In her book Peace and Education, the Theosophical Publishing House (1943), Maria Montessori talks about peace. For her, true peace suggests the triumph of justice and love among men, it indicates the existence of a better world where harmony reigns.

Later, in her collection, which includes a series of Education and Peace conferences, The clio Montessori Series (1992), Maria Montessori will speak in terms of an “external manifestation” of freedom, that is, the opportunity to act independently, free from any influence, control or determination of others.

The only true freedom for an individual is the opportunity to act independently. This is the sine qua none condition of individuality. Individuality is characterized by the power to act freely.

When the child is given the freedom to move around in a world of objects, he or she is naturally encouraged to develop himself or herself. As soon as the child begins to develop in an environment established for him and succeeds in acting on his own, independently of the adult, harmony is established by the child, not only between him and the environment, but also between him and the adult.

Moreover, it is not only the development of the individual that counts. The development of the individual is essential to be able to live in the company of other individuals.

In summary, the elements of the freedom that the adult gives to the developing child are:

  • To act yourself and for yourself
  • To act without assistance or interruption
  • To work and concentrate
  • To act within certain limits that are determined by the environment and the group
  • To build your potential through your own efforts.

The child’s responsibility at Montessori

For Maria Montessori, the development of responsibility must take place in relation to the child’s age and developmental phase.

The understanding of responsibility is different for each age. The development of responsibility must be practical, materialized and concrete. Responsibility must be placed in a social context.

In a 3-6 year old class, there are simple rules such as putting a piece of equipment back on a shelf always in the same place for the next child. The aim is to make them develop a respect for the equipment, but not only. The limitation of equipment in the prepared environment must develop respect for others.

At home, the child may be responsible for carrying the cutlery to set the table!

In a 6-12 year old class, giving freedom to follow means of interest also leads to an increase in responsibility. Each child works freely during the group work, gaining responsibility for himself and his group. Thus, children have the freedom to work with peers but with the responsibility to do so.

Each child is also responsible for keeping the classroom clean and beautiful, dusting shelves, rolling carpets, watering plants, feeding animals, setting the table, etc.

Also pay attention to others and work in cooperation, know the limits of the environment and act within these limits….

Freedom and responsibility in Montessori pedagogy are closely linked to the 4 child development planes.

Montessori’s four child development planes

In 1950 Maria Montessori showed a diagram at a conference in Perugia, which explains the stages of child development across different age groups.

This diagram reflects a thought that development is slowly changing in a natural and constant way. The duration of the phases is about 6 years with 3-year subphases.


General characteristics of the first development plan (from 0 to 6 years)

  • Development of the individual and individual personality
  • Time for intense creativity and transformation
  • Need for a protective and limited environment: in a Montessori classroom for 3/6 year olds, tables and chairs are adapted to their size, window sills are low so that they can look outside, shelves supporting the equipment are also adapted to their height
  • Intense desire to gain physical independence
  • Rapid growth
  • Taste for order
  • Coordinated physical conquest, motor skills and perception, balance
  • Refinement of the senses and intellectual development. According to Maria Montessori, children have a mind that involuntarily absorbs everything that goes through the senses. The absorbent mind is compared to a blotting paper.
  • Development of social relations and morals.

General characteristics of the second development plan (6-12 years)

  • It is a time of serenity and balance
  • It is a joyful and stable time for the child
  • Children have a great ability to work, a great power of work, a joy for work
  • The absorbent mind tends to disappear, it is replaced by the understanding mind
  • Children aged 6 to 12 want to know the world around them, they want to know why and how it works. They want to know the relationship between things, why it is so and how it is in detail, they want to understand.
  • In a class of 6/12 year olds, a set of experiments in geography and biology is made available to them, as well as nomenclatures of animals and plants, which will enable them to understand the world in a prepared environment.
  • Children will also be able to plan short outings to pursue their discoveries and deepen their knowledge.
  • Children have a strong sense of justice, they want to understand what is right and wrong. In a 6/12 year old class, children will be able to develop rules of life that will help them live in peace and harmony with each other…
  • They appreciate and respect heroes
  • Children have a sense of responsibility
  • The field of interest becomes the cosmos and the power of imagination is the tool
  • Children aged 6 to 12 have a love of work, family, friends, school, etc.

General characteristics of the third development plan (12-18 years old)

  • Teenagers are undergoing physical change
  • Teenagers doubt themselves
  • They are easily influenced by their surroundings and especially by their friends
  • They experience intense emotions
  • Interest in music, art, dance, etc.Caractéristiques générales du quatrième plan de développement

General characteristics of the fourth development plan

  • Philosophical and political discussions
  • Students continue their studies with intensity.

For Maria Montessori, the 4 phases of development are done by leaps and bounds.

Montessori and Cosmic Education

Human trends are also reflected in these development plans, and so is what Maria Montessori called “Cosmic Education”.

What is cosmic education?

The concept of the cosmic word has its roots in ancient Greece. The cosmos is the universe as a whole in harmony, it is the harmonious order of the universe.

According to Maria Montessori, all parts of the universe contribute to its harmony, in nature in an unconscious way, with man in a conscious way.

For children, it is interesting to understand laws where all realities are accomplished with relationships between things.

Cosmic tasks

According to Maria Montessori, all parts of the universe contribute to its harmony, in nature in an unconscious way, with man in a conscious way.

The cosmic task of plants

Maria Montessori points out that at the beginning there was no oxygen as we know it today but there were algae of different colours that took carbon dioxide with water, formed sugar, so there was a resulting product that is oxygen.

The plants thus made a photosynthesis, from there, the production of oxygen was their cosmic task.

After millions of years there has been so much oxygen that cells have been able to live and breathe.

Likewise, in her great stories, Maria Montessori explains that when the earth’s crust formed, when water came to earth, many storms and lightning strikes caused acid rain, this acid dissolved the limestone of the mountains that was transported in the water, the seas were formed, the small living beings whose cosmic task it was to filter the water used it to make their homes, like corals.

The corals had the cosmic task of cleaning the water!

The cosmic task of bees

The same goes for the cosmic task of the bees that go to see the flowers.

By doing this, the bees take the pollen on themselves, fly away for the next flower and deposit the pollen. In this way, reproduction takes place. This is an intelligent principle because the diversity of flowers increases.

The flowers that are on the pollen path reproduce in multiple ways, the bees also want to have the sweet nectar they remove and by doing so they have the cosmic spot of pollination of the flower.

These cosmic tasks are unconscious, so man is the first living being with a consciousness.

Cosmic Education

Cosmic Education is a valid principle for children aged 6 to 12 years old and this principle applies to all subjects. Cosmic Education is not studied in separate subjects but in connection with everything.

According to the principles of Montessori pedagogy, child labour is not subject-oriented and the relationships between subjects are carried out with great interest.

It is therefore important for Maria Montessori to answer the following 3 aspects:

  • Giving the universe to the child
  • Representing the cosmos in order and harmony
  • Considering the missions of cosmic tasks

Maria Montessori reminds us that the things of the world have their own rules but they are not distinguished by equipments; for example, the horse can be treated in biology, in the history of the earth, in history etc.

In a Montessori class, each domain begins by showing the cosmic horizon with the great stories.

These great stories will be linked to each other and the elements are not treated in isolation. All the details refer to the whole and to each other. Interest comes from the big picture. This is an aspect that must be given to the child as a whole. The key lessons that follow satisfy the interests raised by the great stories. Not all equipments are to be seen in isolation, they depend on each other.

Maria Montessori thought that if we understand how the world works and if we are all dependent and connected to each other, then we see our possibilities as human beings differently.

According to her, if we all know this, it should result in a common spirit.

If we give children the opportunity to understand the world and its interdependencies in this way, then children will act differently in the world; that is why we have cosmic education, to prepare children to take responsibility for this world.