The Four Planes of Human Development

A fascinating essay on a key concept in Montessori pedagogy. Written by our new Elementary Guide, Peter Friend.

It only takes a superficial rummage into the history of humanity to realise that the child’s well being has never been a priority to civilisation. Furthermore, an awareness to consider the potential of a child’s imagination seems to have been an estranged quality from the start. From ancient Greece to the Renaissance the child was looked upon as a creature deficient of what it is to be a man or woman. A human being in lack. In the late 15th and early 16th century a glimmer of hope was offered via a scholar who had turned his back on monastic life to search for and spread humanist philosophy. Desiderius Erasmus famously believed that the child had the power, via an internal nature, to love and to be moral, but this among many other of his humanist ideas were lost as his works were exploited to fuel the bloody battles of the reformation. And so on until as late as the 19th century where through Dickens’ Victorian realism the child is depicted as morally stunted, incapable of adapting to the adult world and therefore mischievous and immature. But then came 1870, the year of Forster’s Education Act in England. Finally education of the child was not only available to the elite of society but to all 5-12 year olds. A landmark of great progress one would have to say. Only it’s not this Act which was the landmark event of the year for the future well being of children across the world. Instead this year can be remembered for having spawned a baby girl who would grow up to be Italy’s first female physician and would pioneer new ideas about the wonder of the child. Her name was Maria Montessori.

 The following paper is a presentation and discussion of Maria Montessori’s ‘Planes of Development’. These make up Montessori’s classification of the first twenty four years of a human beings life. The paper will first present a high level overview of the four planes. This will be followed by a detailed examination of the first three planes using the four categories of development introduced by Haines (2000), Baker (2001) and Kahn (2003). These are social, moral, cognitive and emotional development. This process of examination will draw on empirical research where relevant and will be immediately followed by a description of the fourth plane. The paper concludes with a final summary identifying key differences between the planes as well as a look at common themes throughout the continuum.


Montessori believed the child from the first hour of birth had traces of the existence of psychic life (Montessori, 1961). In other words she believed there was evidence of the functioning of the mind in those hours, and from there she observed a plot of development influenced by sensitive periods and driven by miraculous forces to eventually create man. The purpose of the child she believed ‘is the construction of the man in the fullness of his strength and in the fullness of his life’. (pp 26 Montessori, 1949). The four planes she observed are natures blueprint to this construction.

Montessori defines the four planes of development in part by the physical characteristics of the child. At around 6 years old the child’s milk teeth are replaced. At 12 years old the child begins puberty, and at 18 years wisdom teeth appear signalling the physical maturation of the man.

The first plane goes from birth to six years old, Montessori gave it the name, Infancy. Montessori delineates two subdivisions in this plane, 0-3 where the adult can exercise no influence and 3-6 when what she calls the psychic entity becomes approachable albeit only in a special way (Montessori, 1946).

Where as the first plane is characterised by great transformations that take the inert baby to a conscious intelligent child, the second plane six to twelve years is usually marked by serenity and docility. It is however a period of growth, physically and intellectually and also serves as a period of consolidation of all the information he/she absorbed in the previous six years. Montessori called this plane, Childhood.

The third plane, Adolescence, is again one of great transformations, psychic and physical. Montessori (1946) remarks this period as unsteady at times, characterised by some indiscipline via an inclination to rebel. The fourth and final plane Montessori (Montessori, 1946) recognised as university time. A period when study becomes intensified, physical maturity has been attained but the will and judgement of the individual is continuing the develop. Montessori called this period Maturity. With all of these pinpoint demarcations of age Montessori is quick to highlight there will always be exceptions. The ages are defined as an average only, and she also points out noticeable gender differences on occasion too.

The First Three Planes

A useful way to define and explore the similarities and differences of the four planes of development is to examine some of the optimal outcomes for children and adolescents at the end of each plane as suggested by Haines (2000), Baker (2001) and Kahn (2003). A summary of these outcomes has been collated in a table below (Appendix 1) and offers a useful reference point to the following discussion. The outcomes in themselves represent a good overview of the first three planes of development and highlight some of the key characteristics of Montessori’s planes. However for a deeper understanding of these characteristics this essay offers an expose of Montessori’s philosophies, focusing on how her ideas and theories contribute to achieving these outcomes.


Montessori likened the new born child to a spiritual embryo. The appearance of the baby is inert but hidden from view are the psychical powers building the organs (Montessori, 1955). When the child arrives it’s new world is unrecognisable compared to it’s previous address. Despite this, it’s psychic life begins and the process of forming the individual is undertaken by the child. After one year he/she knows how to walk, talk, think and recognise objects. In the second year the child builds himself up further, increasing his understanding of his environment and around eighteen months uses language to form is personality (Montessori, 1961). The third year is one of consolidation of these conquests, and this has all been achieved using a creative inner impulse.

These energies of infancy have been described as having nebulae qualities (Grazzini, 2004). Grazzini (2004) suggests the nebulae represents all of the creative energies which drive the new-born child to actively absorb it’s environment. Montessori observed this to be achieved through sensitive periods in the child which will be described in more detail shortly, but one example relating to the formation of the child’s organs behind the scene is the hearing sense. The ear of the baby seems to discriminate sounds of human speech from it’s environment to help build up the understanding of language. So the organ is not just picking up sounds, it has a special sensitivity to peoples voices and is able to order these sounds using it’s eyes on the mouth as well to form the first syllables it produces via another organ, the tongue and voice box.

Montessori’s other key observation of the child in the first plane is the absorbent mind. Again this will be expanded upon below through various descriptions of unconscious adaptations which build the child’s personality, but the primary example to give here is the unconscious acquisition of language. In a radio interview given in 1950 Montessori discussed the then popular notion of maturity theory which suggested educating children under six years old was abusive because their minds could not handle abstract ideas. She emphatically argued the mistake people were making with this notion was to pay attention only to the conscious mind. She then cited the acquisition of language as achieved completely by the unconscious mind of a zero to six child. Nothing she said can be more abstract than language (Montessori, 1979).

Birth to three – “The unconscious creator”

0-3 Social Development

Haines (2000) highlights individuation or the birth of the ego as one optimal outcome for a 0-3 year olds social development. Montessori postulates this personality formation can only be developed through social relationship and experience. The new-born baby’s first social environment is the Mother. This relationship, if allowed to flourish, is feedback to the baby that life is warm, the environment is responsive and it can be trusted. The Mother’s loving embrace fosters the vital energy in the child needed to adapt to the alien environment to which he/she has arrived.

Informing this process of individuation and personality formation is social adaptation including acquisition of language and cultural aspects of the child’s particular environment. To facilitate this Montessori explains that the child needs to be brought by the mother into an environment where he/she can be exposed to spoken language, modes of behaviour and patterns of culture. The infants mind then takes in impressions of the surroundings like a sponge. Montessori actually uses a different analogy to help  visualise the functioning of the brain in this period. She describes the child’s mind as a camera film absorbing the scenes around it via it’s highly sensitive film. If the film is obstructed and the light is unable to make it’s precise impressions on the film it will give a distorted picture. Even after the film has absorbed the light perfectly it still must be kept in a calm stable environment for the crystals to inscribe every detail of it’s image, this could be termed it’s consolidation period likened to the development of the film cared for by a meticulous photographer in the dark room (Montessori, 1961).

The apparent physical inertia of the baby acts as a decoy to an uninformed adult when by three years old the foundations of the personality of the child are clear to see and incorporate the culture in which he/she is being raised.

0-3 Moral Development

Among the attributes Haines (2000) assign to the successful moral development of a zero to three year old are nourishment of human spirit and internalization of ethical behaviour. To achieve these outcomes Montessori stresses the importance of the infant being in the arms of the Mother. Taking the child wherever she goes is the best way for the child to be exposed to the sounds, smells and imagery that make up the values and moral sentiments of the environment. Montessori identifies the small child as having no sense of right or wrong, he/she is operating on a completely different level but for a child to be connected to his world and therefore attain a moral sense which exist within themselves, the child must be sensorially nourished. Montessori argued that lack of activity and mental starvation causes naughtiness (Haines, 2000). If the environment is safe and the adults behaviour is sweet and gentle then even the youngest child can get in touch with a feeling of what is good.

0-3 Cognitive Development

Creation of the mind, the home of every form of intelligence can been described as the most phenomenal undertaking in human nature (Montessori, 1949). Even more compelling is that the majority of the process goes unnoticed to the individual in whom the creation is taking place. It is a period without conscious memory, conscious will or conscious reason. So how is this remarkable endeavour achieved? Montessori highlights two contributing phenomena: sensitive periods and the actions of the hand.

Montessori believed sensitive periods occur in creatures in their infantile state in the form of special sensibilities which drive the evolution and growth of that organism (Montessori, 1936). The sensitivity is transient and becomes redundant once the specific characteristic has been attained. This Montessori (1936) believed explains growth not as a vague inherited predetermination but as something carefully guided by episodic or transitory instincts. More recently developmental neuropsychologists have recognised the same phenomena. Banich (1997) describes the sensitive period as one where an organism is particularly sensitive to an external stimuli during a specific developmental period. Such time periods she says allow the brain to incorporate information from the environment and then lock that information in (Banich, 1997). As Montessori had highlighted herself, Banich (1997) pronounces these periods to have a specific onset and offset. The evidence she provides for this is the successful correction of walleye or crossed eyes in the sensitive period of development of the visual cortex (Banich, 1997). If intervention doesn’t occur within the sensitive period then Banich (1997) observed irreversible difficulties in depth perception for those individuals.

Banich (1997) like Montessori also applies the phenomenon of the sensitive period to the cognitive development of the child. Both Banich (1997) and Montessori identify the greatest example of this as being the predisposition of the child to acquire language. The soul Montessori (1936) says, hears a kind of music in the language of adults which vibrates fibres which were previously dormant. Slowly these sounds are ordered inspiring the tongue to move in new and subtle ways. Another example of a sensitive period Montessori observed is that of order. A child in this period is interested in objects but far more concerned with whether the object is found in it’s correct place. Any disturbance to this order she proclaimed results in distress in the child, mistaken often she believed with a child’s desire to possess a toy, be fed that minute or general tiredness and grumpiness (Montessori, 1936).

The infants memory is particularly tenacious according to Montessori (1936) and the hunger to form oneself using the environment is insatiable. To develop optimally therefore all five senses have to be aroused, taste, sight, smell, feeling and hearing, and this introduces the hand as an organ of intelligence vital to the formation of the mind. Montessori believed man takes possession of his environment with his hands (Montessori, 1936). The first tiny movements of the hand signify the self or ego as trying to penetrate the world, and this being the case Montessori emphasised the importance of removing all obstructions to the hand. This way the child can properly explore it’s environment as a way to develop mentally. Elementary actions Montessori (1936) believed were vital for the child as he/she masters the movement which is not a random impulse but an imitation of what he/she sees in adults just like the imitation of language. All of these impulses and developments Montessori believed are unconscious during this age period, but she stresses that the unconscious mind is unerringly and reliably intelligent.

0-3 Emotional Development

For a child of three years old to be optimally developed emotionally there must be a sense of security and safety within the family as well as a feeling of gratitude, trust and respect for significant adults. How can this be achieved? The answer is again partly in the baby’s unconscious. The new-born baby’s predominant expressions are emotional. This Haines (2003) argues is a deliberate design realised to provide a powerful control over the Mother’s behaviour. As in all the areas of development discussed here an affectionate and loving atmosphere is critical to the young baby, and it’s fascinating to consider one of natures ways of fostering this is through innate emotional expressions from the child.

Montessori affirms these emotional sensitivities in both mother and child arise from the subconscious. If this sensitivity is absent from the Mother for some reason then as part of the child’s environment the Mother becomes an obstruction to the fully subconscious baby in search of psychic nourishment. This search goes unabated in this period, so the result of the obstruction is a child in a screaming fit or rage because it’s mental and emotional hunger is not being quashed. Montessori called this behavioural anomalies ‘deviations’. Deviations she believed cannot be attributed to the personality of the child, but instead need to be understood as a failure to organise the personality (Montessori, 1949).

Three to Six  “The conscious worker”

3-6 Social Development

The optimal outcome of social development of a child nearing the end of the first plane is a kind of social intelligence. This is made up of self-discipline, increased independence, patience, ability to share and a respect for others and the rules of social order. All of these components Montessori believed, could be attained through the society of her Casa dei Bambini. A two and half to three year old, she said, needs an environment filled with other children. An essential feature of this environment is that it be filled with children of different ages up to the age of six or seven. Montessori believed this kind of interaction inspired self-discipline, independence and responsibility towards the space and those within it.

The next requirement of this environment is to be filled with activities which Montessori referred to as purposive. In other words designed to meet the specific needs of a child of this age. The two tendencies at work in the older infant according to Grazzini (2004) are: the extension of consciousness by activities performed on the environment and the perfecting of those powers already formed in the last sub-plane. Montessori also called this the consolidation period of the absorbent mind through the hand.

In a Casa dei Bambini it’s evident to see the children working side by side rather than together, and a freedom to choose from the scientifically designed materials gives the consolidating mind what it needs to concentrate on. It is this concentrated work which Montessori observed delivered the outcomes to optimal social development. Plus given there is only one of each material the child becomes practised at waiting to use the material and is guided to replace the object(s) back in their correct place.

In addition to these conditions Montessori insisted there be no rewards and no punishments. Montessori believed human progress and achievement came from an inner impulse not from rewards or fear of reprimand. A non-competitive atmosphere also helps the group dynamic by what Montessori called a cementing of the class by affection (Montessori, 1949)

Montessori also observed something else spontaneous about children of this age group. They began to take an interest in the community and work on it. This might be an older child helping a younger child on a material or just the insistence of putting a material back where it belongs so the next person can find it where they expect to. The result of this Montessori called ‘cohesion in the social unit’.

3-6 Moral Development

At then end of this sub-plane Haines (2000) suggests there is an awakening of conscience and conscious awareness of an inner voice which drives a moral intelligence. As part of that comes the ability to choose, persevere, and respect. And if optimally realised Montessori observed self-discipline, independence and a mental balance in the child at the end of the second plane. How these eventualities are reached is through what Montessori called Normalization. This phenomenon impressed Montessori so much she described it as the single most important result of her work (Montessori, 1949).

Normalization refers to the process of development if undertaken normally. If a child is free to choose their own activities: activities which are specifically designed to adhere to their particular stage of development or sensitive period then the child would display a level of self-discipline, enthusiasm and concentration she felt had been unrecognised in the history of the child. Montessori saw what she called a conversion in the child which returned them she believed to a state of preconscious intelligence (Montessori, 1936). She also placed importance on the child having time to repeat and perfect the activity, as well as a period of consolidation afterwards as the final bend of the learning cycle. Liberty in choice might include selecting a particular material; working at a table or on a mat on the floor; skipping to music or creating a silence. This freedom Montessori believed gave the child the mechanism of habit of decision and reciprocally gives the child a sense of freedom.

Materials in the Montessori’s environment give the opportunity for real work, which she suggested needs to be performed each day. Knowledge gained through the hand brings confidence and a sense of being independence from the suggestions of others. In here lies the key to a sense of personal morality, one aligned with nature and the unconscious desire to love, not as Montessori points out as a result of moral exhortations or sermons on duty honour and righteousness. Morality at this age is not an abstraction but a practical technique used to live together in a community harmoniously, and as described above an absence of competition helps facilitate that harmony.

Returning momentarily to Montessori’s notion of ‘normalization’ it is useful to bring in some recent empirical research into this phenomena. Firstly Khan (2003b) proposes normalization as a first plane phenomenon only, because for the other planes the word normality can be used, providing the child has experienced unimpeded education up to that age. Kahn (2003b) also offers a concise analysis of the cross over discovered between Montessori’s hypothetical ideas about the natural inner guide of the child and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s empirical work on ‘flow’ and ‘optimal experience theory’.

A striking quote from Dr Csikszentmihalyi came when he discovered Maria Montessori’s idea of normalization: “My goodness, this is fascinating, Dr Montessori regarded normalization or flow as the norm of the species”. Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow is described as “the quality of experience as a function of the relationship between skills and challenges”. If an activity is too easy, worry, apathy or boredom can reign, but if it’s too difficult relative to the individuals skills then anxiety and worry are apt. Finding a synergy between a challenging activity relative to a level of skill equates to the phenomenon of ‘Flow’. Using this term in Montessori education has reaped some rewards according to Khan (2003b), as opposed to using the term normalization, but he’s quick to point out that flow is not in fact normalization. The reason for this of course, is that the empirical research on flow was not collated in the main from the study of children, Montessori or otherwise. This points to a gap and an opportunity to explore this apparent cross over further, something Khan (2003b) briefly talks to via a field study by Rathunde and Haines. Here he identified the cross over applying the empirical evidence to the third and fourth plane where flow theory has been adapted to adolescents and some definite measures of normalization and normality were discovered (Khan, 2003b). One example is Rathunde’s measure of ‘undivided interest’ which Kahn (2003b) suggests is useful in third plane teaching practise but hypothetically it is relevant from the first plane onwards.

While it’s evident there remains gaps in modern empirical evidence for Montessori’s philosophies, it’s clear there is a cross over. Moral development is arguably quite subjective anyway but for the purposes of harmony in the children’s house it appears Montessori’s scientific eye observed the evidence before she knew the hypothesis.

3-6 Cognitive Development

This category of development gives a very definite explanation of why Montessori describes two sub-planes in the first plane. By six or seven years old the child unimpeded, has bought order to the chaos which was the cognitive impressions he/she received in the first three years of life. This three years between ages three to six can be broadly seen to as a period of consolidation. Haines (2000) describes some of the results of this in terms of clarification and classification of absorbed impressions; increased knowledge and vocabulary; logical/linear thinking and internalization of symbol systems i.e. language and mathematics.

At three years old the child still has the absorbent mind, but because there is such a host of sensations being imprinted, the child needs a guide to lead them to the goal of order. This again comes in the form of the materials in the Casa dei Bambini. The child is particularly interested in things that are familiar, having being absorbed, from the previous period, and when these are made available to them they begin the process of internally organising these stimuli. The children are again asked to make choices, comparisons and judgements and by doing so the mental acquisitions fall into place logically with one another. The activities need to be practical and broken down from complex to small simple actions so as to facilitate a comfortable acquisition of  the information. Movement is key to developing the mind as Montessori argues they are of the same entity (Montessori, 1949). An internal maturation takes place after every cycle of activity ends with consolidation and by six years old the process of bringing order to the chaos is often complete.

3-6 Emotional Development

Emotional wellness and a love for people and things sounds like it should be the desired state of a human being at any stage of life. And yes it could be argued that the three year old can posses these characteristics too, but for the six year old this is a new and fantastic phenomena because they are now at a stage where they can be conscious of these feelings. This state is attained again through the active experiences of the prepared environment Montessori sets out in the Casa dei Bambini. As was touched upon in the section on moral development, if the child’s energies are restricted, naughtiness, tantrums and protest can ensue, all off which would upset the emotional balance of any human being. So if free to act within their environment through constructive activities the child can enjoy their own inner rhythm and tempo for building their character in accordance with their unconscious intelligence.

While there is an obvious connection between emotional and moral development, Haines (2000) proposes the most significant relationship is with the cognitive development of the child. This affirms what Burns (1981) found as a psychotherapy practitioner. He advocated that emotions are created by thoughts conscious and unconscious, and subsequently the emotions are the bodies reaction to an individuals thoughts. Ellis (1962) had earlier proposed this too and pioneered the cognitive behavioural therapy movement. Ellis (1962) believed emotional problems are caused by crooked thinking arising from viewing the world in terms of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’.

Consequently for the child in the first plane the opening of the mind, the ordering of the chaos of impressions and the exercise the mind has taken part in reaps the most glorious reward through the affective realization for the child of his own development. This is really a love inspired by knowledge, social interactions and morality, thus defining the perfect summary of this period. The ‘normailized’ six or seven year child is optimistic, outgoing, warm, expressive, uses his emotions to inform his behaviour and most importantly, he is ready for the next plane.


If in the first plane human functions were created and integrated, enriched and perfected, then during the second plane they can expand both psychologically and physically. Grazzini (2004) observed the child of six or seven’s mental powers are such that they can not only expand, but soar to new heights as the abstract plane of the human mind is organised.

Through the observation of three primary characteristics Montessori proposed nature had made the second plane conducive to the acquisition of culture, just as the absorption of the environment was the observed natural tendency of the first plane child.

Firstly, she recognised a considerable development of consciousness had taken place between the ages of three and six but now the consciousness turned itself outwards. The intelligence she observed had been extroverted, producing an unusual demand on the part of the child to know the reason for the things they encounter (Montessori, 1948b). As a bi-product of this she observed a tendency for the child to need to escape it’s environment and also a fostering of the mind to the abstract (Montessori 1948a).

Secondly Montessori distinguished the exploration of the moral field, i.e. the discrimination between good and evil as a primary second plane characteristic (Montessori, 1948b). And thirdly Montessori observed a need in the child of six to associate himself with others, not merely for the sake of company, but in some sort of organized activity (Montessori, 1948b).

Each of these characteristics can be seen to apply to a blend of the four categories of development being discussed. The need to know the reason for things certainly makes up part of the child’s cognitive development, but also also contributes to his/her moral, social and emotional development. The birth of the moral sense clearly has a significant impact on the child’s moral development but could arguably be seen to inform his cognitive, social and emotional development too. Finally the the need to associate with others drives the child’s social development but again also plays a role in the other three areas as well.

A discussion of the different parts of development of the second plane child will now be presented in an attempt to illuminate Montessori’s ideas about the characteristics of this plane.

6-12 Social Development

This period of serenity and calm could accurately be described as being devoted to a love of humanity. If this is achieved, Baker (2001) gives an account of a child who is willing to sublimate the will in the interests of their society; is ready to socially interact; is enabled to render service to civilisation and is morally attuned. How then is this passion for humanity ignited? Montessori believed this could be facilitated through knowledge of the men and women who make up the history of humanity. This knowledge changes focus from being wholly functional to becoming predominantly abstract. Montessori’s solution to delivering these abstractions was to provide sensorial objects, opportunities to choose and the offer of an enlarged field of action.

Sensorial objects of the prepared environment include cleaning supplies, books, clocks, calendars and scientific apparatus. Montessori also assigns materialized abstractions like three dimensional sensorial materials to represent algorithmic procedures, or posters with abstract representations of photosynthesis and rainfall.

Opportunities to choose, as already experienced in the first plan are equally as important. Baker (2001) argues the more freely chosen activities there are the more the social personality develops.

By enlarging the field of action via trips outside of the prepared environment and into the child’s local community and beyond the child’s appetite for acquiring culture is further fulfilled. Storytelling also plays a fundamental role at this age as a way to spark the interest of the child, or as Montessori puts it, to sow seeds in the fertile soil of the mind in this particular sensitive period. As a consequence of this sensitivity of the mind there is a lot of cross over between the social and cognitive development, both equally contributing to the acquisition of culture.

6-12 Moral Development

The birth of the moral sense or exploration of the moral field are key characteristics for Montessori in this plane. The choice moral outcomes of the second plane are that the child becomes a moral person along with the incarnation of the concept of justice. Key conditions to facilitate this once again are connected to the child’s environment. The teacher or guide as in the second part of the first plane is a significant influence in this environment and Montessori has a clear vision for the preparation of teachers using her method. She believed the teacher must begin by studying his own defects. As she quotes from the Bible, “first remove the beam from your eye then you can deal with the spec in the others”. She also claimed this preparation was different to perfection asked of in religion, instead she believed one must be willing to be guided rather than get lost on perfecting the interior life (Montessori, 1936).

Second plane children have sometimes been described as philosophers given their curious minds. Maybe philosophers don’t do them justice, and polymaths like Leonardo famed for his curiosita, would be the more accurate comparison, but it is the philosopher part of them who find the question of good and evil interesting.

Presenting the child with experiences to actualise the theory of these discussions is the most productive way to imprint the moral sense. Can it ever be right to steal, for instance, if your younger sibling is suffering from malnutrition? The “Going out program” can actualise many of these questions as well as build up a picture of mechanisms of wider society (Baker, 2001).

Support for the child here is essential, and a discussion of this shall be extended in the section below on cognitive development, but Montessori is keen to assert the teacher must be as passive as they can on these organised adventures. One of the key realisations for the child of this age range is independence, and a moral sensibility demands this freedom from co-dependence. Also key is an understanding of the planet and the relationships therein. Without this the moral responsibility has no material or visible role. A question of ‘what if the rain forest is all destroyed”, can only have a moral value if the consequences are understood. This of course connects to the cognitive development of the child which shall now be discussed.

6-12 Cognitive Development

With a propensity to know the reason for things and make sense of the external world it is easy to see why the cognitive development of the second plane child is so crucial. While the small child accepts facts as they are, the second plane child seeks the reason behind the fact (Ramachandran, 1998).

Interestingly Baker (2001) finds it difficult to be any more particular about the optimal outcome of this category than to say the child needs as much knowledge about the culture as is practically possible and that these subjects should be delivered in as grand and elevated a way as possible. An important distinction in comparison to the previous plane is the child’s desire to understand for themselves, rather than just accepting the information they’ve been told.

In a similar vein Piaget (1923) had recognised a difference between the two age planes when he became interested in classifying the ‘whys’ of childhood. Piaget (1923) noted a difference in whys from the three year old and whys of the six or seven year old. The difference he found was the three year olds whys were more affective than intellectual. So rather than verbal curiosity to quench the thirst of wanting to understand his surroundings the why was a response to disappointment produced by the absence of a desired object or the non arrival of an unexpected event.

Montessori suggests the desire of the child to understand for themselves is facilitated by two special qualities born in this plane of development. One is the power of imagination and the second is the capability for the first time of reflection.

“Imagination is the great power of this age” (pp20 Montessori, 1948a) Montessori claimed and the way for the acquisition of culture to be fulfilled was to capture the imagination of the second plane child. Sir Francis Bacon (1561- 1626) too is claimed to have believed the child was possessed by imagination and in some way this gave them a special connection to the divine. However Montessori is careful to promote the right use of imagination. The secret of successful teaching in this plane she believed was to treat the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown (Montessori, 1948b). She warns the use of fairy tales as a method of cultivating imagination is limited and even destructive. Instead she prefers to inspire with stories from reality: those of the universe and history of mankind.

To move from mere understanding to imagination Montessori exclaimed the need for a concrete approach to abstract things. This Montessori proposed could be achieved through manual activity in the classroom and experiences outside the classroom which extend the knowledge but in unison with action. It is essential for the the child in any plane of life to have the opportunity to be engaged in action in order to preserve the equilibrium between acting and thinking (Montessori, 1948a). For Montessori the role of education for this plane is to interest the child profoundly in an external activity, then imagination becomes a departing of reality from consciousness (Montessori, 1948a).

With the child’s new capability of reflection he/she no longer needs sensory input to concentrate, but being given images and experiences of new knowledge and concepts is central to the facilitation of growth in this period (Montessori, 1948a).

Pioneering developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1962) was also interested in the way in which children become aware of their own thought processes. He posited like Montessori that children learn many things without really thinking about how they are learning. As already described above, Vygotsky (1962) highlights that language is a good example of this.

It is only as the child develops meta-cognitive strategies that they become able to reflect on their own mental strategies. Vygotsky (1962) argues meta-cognitive skills develop considerably later than cognitive abilities, for example it is relatively easy for a child to learn to speak his or her own language, it is much harder however for a child to write at the same level as they can speak. The reason for this he believed is that writing is much more abstract therefore the child has to deliberately think about the sound structure of each word, then reproduce it in alphabetical symbols (Vygotsky, 1962). It is the abstract nature of written language that tells us why children’s ability to write is less developed then their ability to speak and not their inability to hold a pencil or form letters. In other words their their meta-cognitive skills of thinking about and reflecting on spoken language is more difficult than simply using it.

Vygotsky (1962) coined the the phrase ‘zone of actual development’ to describe what a child can do on their own. This he believed does not show the true cognitive abilities of the child. Children also have what Vygotsky (1962) called a ‘zone of proximal development’, shown by giving tasks harder than they could achieve on their own but giving them with a little assistance. The important role of assistance from an adult was referred to above in the previous section on moral development, it’s worth now exploring this some using empirical evidence.

A study by Radziszewska and Rogoff (1988; cited in Legge and Harari, 2000), illustrates a more recent test of the assertion of assistance as important. The scientists asked a group of nine year olds to plan a shopping trip around a town. In one condition the group of nine year olds were paired with children of their own age and in the other condition the group was paired with a parent. The pairs had to plan the trip in order to buy certain things and also to make the most economical journey (by not retracing their route for example and by visiting certain shops and not others).

The results of the study showed the children planning with the parent made better and more efficient plans than the children paired with their peers. The child with the adult often planned out the whole route before they started and studied the whole map to do so. The children paired together did not plan like this and found it difficult to work co-operatively. Children who had worked with an adult were also able to use what they had learned and plan similar tasks in the future more effectively than the children who had worked with their peers. As Vygotsky (1962) suggested, children benefited from the assistance of an adult and the transmission of knowledge in this particular way.

One of the implications of these findings is that children need teaching that stretches them, and that is at a higher level than their own development. This is one of the guiding principles of Montessori’s method of education. As Ramachandran (1998) observed, children often go beyond the level of educational materials offered to them. If children are not taught in this way they cannot use their zone of proximal development and therefore are not able to reach their true cognitive potential. The children in this study of course were not in their second plane of a Montessori education. A replica of this study using Montessori children has as yet not been carried out and so offers an opportunity for an interesting cross-analysis as was referenced above with Kahn’s and Csikszentmihalyi’s study.

6-12 Emotional Development

What’s really beautiful, is to see such wonderful characteristics like calm, serenity, and sense of self-worth, outlined as a reality for a child’s emotional well being on the completion the first two planes. It seems a galaxy apart from the story of children from history whose overriding emotion can only have been that of utter fear when the alien world they arrived in was not equipped to foster the soft landing needed, and the common collective unconscious perception of the child was an adult in deficiency of adulthood. If one considers the role of the female in western cultures alone even until very, very recently it’s a frightening thought. Baker (2001) however lays out an emotional journey filled with love and tenderness, and by the second plane normality can be expected to include feelings of investment in one’s future, complimented by experience of balance as being calm and serene.

This inner state Montessori argues is the result of congenial and purposeful work. Work that forms the basis of mental growth and internal satisfaction. Doing chemistry and biology experiments, measuring substances from the earth and heating them to the desired state are good examples of manual activity bringing meaning to abstract knowledge. Baker (2001) even suggest experiments, where a hint of danger is present, fosters an awareness of care and attention, as well as of course a feeling of trust within the child as he/she conquers the tiny elements of a larger task.

It appears to be too simple to have been missed for so many centuries, but as Einstein said “It’s when a solution is simple that God starts to listen”. Bronowski (1973) highlights Montessori’s very sentiment: “For humanity to survive and flourish the school books of the future need to be filled with the story of where Man came from”. This knowledge which delivers on all levels of development brings the child into a state of harmony with the external world. Now that child has begun to express judgements, gained an understanding of cause and effect and done it all through liberty of independence, he is discovering reality. This is the means by which he may free himself from the adult (Montessori, 1948a). It doesn’t happen overnight but instead is a persistent and gentle assembly of the fully formed child at the end of the second plane.


Montessori recognises adolescence as a time when the child enters the state of adulthood physically, psychologically, socially and morally. Physical maturation is attained through puberty, and this rapid period of growth can be accompanied by fragility, and Montessori made it comparable to the first three years of life when there is a relatively similar burst of physical growth.

Psychologically Montessori observed doubts, hesitations, violent emotions and a surprising decrease of intellectual capacity. Concentration she believed is not lessened due to lack of willingness, she simply put it down to being a characteristic of this age group. The adolescent may also become more sensitive to humiliation which she observed can evoke a bitter rebelliousness towards any perpetrator, deliberate or not. Montessori also noticed an inclination towards creative work and a need for reassurance for a sense of self-confidence.

Montessori believed this period is when the social man is created, but has not realised developmental completeness and warned that it is in this period that all human defects are spawn in this plane, from self defeating traits like timidity, anxiety, depression, inferiority as well as ones more destructive to society, like inability to work, laziness, dependence on others, cynicism and criminality (Montessori, 1948a). Independence for the adolescent is different to prior planes, where the emphasis turns now to economic independence, albeit not absolute, but is an essential strategy for avoiding the defects.

Montessori also recognised a unique sensitive period in the third plane. This she believed was an impulse to have a sense of justice and personal dignity. In some ways perhaps this explains some of the tumult of this period, as the balance is sought between justice for one’s ego and justice for the child’s fellow man. Let’s look again at the four areas of development in more detail.

12-18 Social Development

Kahn (2003a) describes some of the optimal social outcomes of the third plane child as follows: an understanding of the value of making a contribution; the need to co-operate with adults and peers; the beginning of a social conscience; work as a product of commerce and a balance of individual initiative in relation to community goals.

Fulfilment of this development for Montessori hinged on the environment or place in which the children live and work. This place Kahn (2003a) proposes can be a significant educational tool. Montessori proposed farm school’s as the most effective way to facilitate this: Erdkinder. Apprentice style programs from the start and community renewal efforts help build the intimate knowledge of the environment and habitat which help the child enhance their understanding of knowing their place in the world.

Khan (2003a) describes the place where the children live and attend school as a source of food, water, energy, materials and recreation. And instead of being just a secluded piece of real estate the Erdkinder is presented as a part of the economic, social, political and ecological surroundings.

A source of meaningful work like the prepared classroom environments in the previous two planes is what the Erdkinder provides. Occupation through the apprentice style programs offer the point of engagement for the adolescent on the farm. Economic independence is a new responsibility which Montessori believed to be part of the natural inner guide of humans at this age and essential to educational reform she believed was to offer a school experience of the elements of life (Montessori, 1948a).

Referring back to Montessori’s idea of development as a succession of deaths and births, the adolescent can be viewed as a social new born. Adult society is his new home and with the facilitation of his independence throughout he is more than ready to participate, and in fact relishes and insists upon making a contribution.

12-18 Moral Development

Moral outcomes as outlined by Khan (2003a) include respect for others; a sense of work being noble; a desire to serve universal needs; and a drive to find the keys to a better world.

Shared experience in the common activities on the farm sets the foundation for achieving these ideals. For the farm to function independently information needs to be exchanged, tasks need to be recorded and skills need to be imparted to fellow members to sustain the relentless workflow. Khan (2003a) describes the following as evidence of moral development on the farm “Thus it is through the occupations and roles on the land that “valorization” of personality takes place; the students feel valued because they are making a tangible contribution”. In other words the inner guide displays a kind of restraint of personality or right sizing of the ego as it fits into a bigger picture.

Montessori references the “Self-Help” social experiments carried out by Mary Lyons in the 1830’s as an informer to her method of education for this plane. Self-Help she said showed great moral value because it rouses the adolescent from inertia if they have been children to passive parents. (Montessori, 1948a). Montessori goes on to say the emphasis on work helps rather than hinders academic study, and refers back to the first plane where exercises in practical life instilled morals and are seen to continue to do so.

As mentioned already, a unique sensitive period is identified by Montessori in this plane. This sensitivity is towards nobility, personal dignity and a further sense of justice. This extension of sentiments from the previous plane also manifest in the reassertion of the importance of knowing where humanity has come from and where it is going, especially now in terms of the well being of the planet. Looking at history from an ethical standpoint and discovering scientific facts about how the resources of the planet have been used and continue to be used promotes the undeniable relationship between man and the earth, and gives the adolescent a inner sense of balance along with eyes that can diagnose external imbalances. Kahn (2003a) puts it beautifully, “When history interfaces with formative adolescent thinking about what life will bring, it can be an inexhaustible source of motivation, identity, vocation and morality”. Again, how wonderfully simplistic.

12-18 Cognitive Development

As has been assimilated already cognitive operations extend to all parts of human functioning. It’s probably been clear throughout but it is worth shedding light on the interrelationships of the different aspects of the child’s development. No one part operates as a singularity, and it’s a comforting reminder to view the child as a delicate composition of many significant and interconnected parts.

The table below discriminates the following optimal outcomes of cognitive development as belonging to the twelve to fifteen year old: to philosophically consider questions of nature and the cosmos; the ability to connect to the evolution of civilisation and an understanding of many of natures disciplines.

For realisation of these qualities Khan (2003a) suggests a continuation of the external direction of inquisition for knowledge and encourages drawing on the resource of contemporary environmentalists to provide answers. He goes on to explain the interdependencies learned in the second plane take on a new sense of reality when experienced by the adolescent in the Erdkinder environment. Not until the student takes on real life occupations on the farm do cognitive processes built up in the previous plane, begin to integrate with the social, moral and emotional elements. Occupations are the motivation for study and provide not only practical experience and new skill-sets, but they have a richer academic content beyond what is found in most high schools or even universities.

Life in the open air, with sunshine, a nutritional diet based on food from neighbouring fields is key Montessori believed. But not just a country life, but work in the country was paramount, and if the produce they produce themselves has commercial value then it can again contribute to the development of an understanding of economic independence. This reaffirms Montessori’s belief that the work of the hand and work of the intellect have to be kept in unison even at this stage. She sites intellectuals of her day as out of place in society just as much as a craftsman with no intellectual development (Montessori, 1948a).

Khan (2001) figures it is now “the web of life (and it’s interdependencies) that provide the cognitive framework. Working with soil and water introduces geological, biological and historical studies. Animals and plants are now studied for their role in the web of life.

Montessori herself identified a syllabus far beyond a list of subjects, but natural history and the history of human civilisation provide a foundation to all other knowledge. Knowledge she said has to be very wide and thorough and without too much emphasis on specialisation, rather the child should understand all forms of activity (Montessori, 1948a). She also suggests the need to provide opportunities for self-expression through the arts and music. Anyone who has been to a museum for either art or music can see how they too relate to the story of mankind and it’s garden.

12-18 Emotional Development

The recognition of splendour described above for the emotional development of the first and second plane is further accentuated in the third plane. The characteristics described by Khan (2003a) as optimal outcomes, are of a young man or young woman for whom Jesus would have felt he would have fulfilled his purpose. His purpose he said “was to give life in all it’s fullness”. And this fullness one can only imagine was first and foremost a feeling within. It’s really quite moving to see this articulated in an article focused on a new education for children.

Montessori believed a connection to the wonder of nature at the farm school would give the adolescent the time for reflection and meditation he/she needs in this plane (Montessori, 1948a). Stability of environment, Khan (2003a) infers, also plays a great role in the realisation of these emotional traits but one gets the sense that it is spiritual equilibrium that is the true determinant for this state, and as a wise man once said “there’s nothing more spiritual than love”. So herein we find the blueprint to all of the categories of development discussed above, what a dance it’s been so far to get here. The Perrier’s really flowing now!


Far less has been written about the fourth plane. However to summarise Montessori’s ideas behind the period a presentation of the characteristics of the fourth plane adult will be followed by a collection of Montessori’s suggestions for education of this age group.

Arriving at university an individual who has fulfilled his development up to this point can be fully formed (Grazzini, 2004). He/she is now ready to complete a spiritual development which leaves him with all the credentials to follow a personal mission in life. Grazzini (1996) proposes this individual is one who is inspired to reach beyond the egoic path of striving for material gain, prestige and power, to instead contribute to the cosmic plan as laid out by Montessori to make the world a more harmonious place to live.

Pertinent to the fourth plane being, Montessori remarked that a feeling of personal value, an appreciation from others and a feeling of usefulness were essential currency for the life of this soul (Montessori, 1948a). He who has arrived at university she said has left behind childhood and adolescence to participate in a social destiny in part driven by his/her studies. The fourth plane sensitive period is described as a need to feel a lofty mission towards a humanitarian progression. Montessori (1948a) argues that university students are adults who will be called upon to exercise their own unique influence on the civilisation of their generation. This influence she states must permeate the culture, but of course can only be realised if development is not obstructed by what she calls the old regime of education.

Economic independence should be fully realised in this plane she argues, and she encourages students to work while they study even if it means taking longer to finish their course.

As with all of the previous planes of development, Montessori suggests a need for massive reformation to the educational paradigm for the university student. She sites a time in the middle ages when universities inspired towns to be built around them as they were the epicentres of cultural richness and development (1948a).

Like the elementary class and high school the university must engage in sowing more seeds of knowledge. Montessori stresses the need however not just for the development of the intellect, nor just the extension of the acquisition of culture: education must now facilitate construction of the totality of the human personality. This construction she reaffirms comes from experience and action. Again relating back to the first plane Montessori emphasises the importance of being active with the hand, having now determined the practical aim of the craft in which the individual is engaged. This she says gives inner discipline provided the work is chosen by the individual spontaneously (Montessori, 1948a). Inner discipline then fosters real consciousness and intelligence but only when life itself and not just culture or intellectuality is the centre of the educational approach. Above all the role of education for Montessori is to seek out the child, using his/her nature as the guide to inform humanity where to journey next.


Montessori’s four planes of development seem to be the result of one of her fundamental philosophies in approaching the education of man: that of observation. Through this method she found numerous secrets and by classifying them has been able to create a framework to facilitate her ideas on human development.

Having worked with Montessori’s ideas for over fifty years Camillo Grazzini concluded the following: “The developmental life of a human being is a sequence of births, of the emergence and disappearance of potentialities, of the birth and death of interests and characteristics which are manifestations of the ruling sensitivities” (Grazzini, 2004).

Consequently from the first plane to the fourth, unique characteristics and tendencies in the child come and go. In the first half of the first plane Montessori observed the child as a spiritual embryo. She also identified the absorbent mind in this sub-plane likening it to a camera film detecting impressions of light which would only reveal themselves as characteristics later on. The hand she saw is the tool to inform that process. Montessori called the child of this sub-plane the unconscious creator.

This disposition changes during the ages 3-6, where Montessori observed new unique tendencies. She called the child of this period the conscious worker, driven to repeat and perfect activities through the hand which help build the personality. There is an awakening of conscience in this sub-plane and with it comes a need to be in an environment with other children. A subsequent tendency is to take an interest in this community and a morality is born not as an abstraction but as a practical technique to maintain harmony in the mini-society of the Casa dei Bambini. Overarching the whole first plane Montessori presented what for her was the most important finding of her work: normalization. This she believed set the platform for the entire process of development, and has been referenced in contemporary psychological study by Csikszentmihalyi.

In the second plane new characteristics are born while those from the previous period cease. The mind is now ready to abstract and turns outward in a search to acquire culture. A need to associate himself with others is seen for the first time as well as the incarnation of the concept of justice. The power of the imagination is born in the child of the second plane, as is the ability to reflect on his/her own thought processes, something the psychologists call meta-cognition. In an evolution from the first plane morality now becomes abstract and is another one of the primary interests of the child as observed by Montessori.

The adolescent Montessori suggests is a social new born. His sensitivities are towards being noble and carrying a sense of personal dignity. The impulse to acquire culture is extended to a desire to understand all facets of life human and environmental: and despite the tumult of physical and emotional change it is a period where the child begins to feel a part of the world he/she lives in.

The fourth plane is again one of consolidation. Sensitive periods represent something very different now, they can be seen to be a constant now for the rest of the individuals life. They relate to the human tendency to want to create a more harmonious world to live in, and as Montessori argues this is the true nature of the human being who has been allowed to develop according to his instincts.

In contrast to all of the differences between the planes of development the analysis of Montessori’s ideas on how to foster this unimpeded natural process of growth, makes clear some definite themes of commonality. First there is a clear similarity in the planes of how each component of development, social, moral, cognitive and emotional interrelate and are actually interdependent. A second common theme is the importance for the individual in all planes to be engaged in action in order to preserve the equilibrium between acting and thinking. In conjunction to this notion is the emphasis Montessori asserts for the individual to have the freedom to choose the activity which will build the personality, and for those choices to be rich and plentiful.

Hopefully that’s given a coherent overview of Montessori’s planes of development. To close, there seems to be an opportunity to use one of Montessori’s favourite methods of communicating her ideas: the inclusion of  an analogy.

There appears to be a eery likeness between the four planes of development and some of the periods of human history. It could be said the first sub-plane of the first plane is similar to pre-history, where little or nothing is known about the what’s going on. Prehistoric man you could argue is the spiritual embryo getting ready to be make and leave his mark on the history of civilisation. There’s also the connection with man’s development of his hand. In pre-history man starts using his hand to make tools which catapult his evolution, the first plane child evolves through his/her hand as well, making strides towards consciousness.

The second plane seems anecdotally to share common characteristics with the Enlightenment period. The Enlightenment is the age of reason and discovery, and although Ancient Greece and Rome hosted many great discoveries too it was during the Enlightenment period that the Classical ideas were questioned and not just accepted. How similar this is to the second plane child who won’t accept information without seeking to uncover why it has merit.

The third plane has some of the feel of the Romantic period. A turn to nature and focus on affective qualities. It was also a time of significant turmoil as the last great conqueror Napoleon wreaked havoc in Europe. It’s fair to assume Napoleon’s deeds don’t often get compared to puberty, but for the purposes of this analogy the resemblance seems uncanny.

Finally the fourth period seems analogous to contemporary society. While reflective of the past, there’s a focus today in the present and of how this world can become more harmonious through love of self and nature. For this to be an accurate assimilation of course would depend on which section of contemporary society you were analysing. Maybe its too fanciful a comparison but if even half of the discoveries of Maria Montessori presented here are to be taken as fact then why can’t humanity be seen to be on this path: the way of peace, love and empathy.


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Peter Friend 1 April 2012