Montessori Philosophy & Practice


The following is the text from this section of the 2009-2010 edition of The Joyful Child, Montessori from Birth to Three
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Every time a child is born it brings
with it the hope that God is not yet disappointed with man.

—Rabrindranath Tagore, Poet laureate of India and Montessorian

We know very little about what a baby really experiences during those nine months in the womb, what he senses, feels, intuits, thinks about, understands. But we do know that he responds to voices and to sounds and to music. So we offer the best by every day spending some quiet time talking to him, singing, and playing beautiful music.

Experts who study the acquisition of language tell us that the basis for learning one’s mother tongue begins in the womb. In the study of the lives of great musicians it is often found that exposure to good music began in the womb.

Parents who learn songs to sing to their babies long before they are born find that these songs are very soothing to the infant after birth.

In 1995 I met with Mrs. Shinnichi Suzuki, of the Suzuki Method of Talent Education, in Matsumoto, Japan, to share ideas on environments for young children. For Montessori and Suzuki the purpose is to create a loving relationship between child and adult, to give the child the joy of accomplishment and developed talents, and, by meeting the needs of children, to help create a more peaceful society. We discussed the best way to help children and agreed that our work must begin before birth.

The skin, the first and most important sense organ, is complete after seven or eight weeks of pregnancy. The sense of smell is ready to function by the second month of pregnancy. The sense of taste is active by the third month. The ear completes its structural development during the second to the fifth month of pregnancy.
It is possible that the fetus absorbs the particular characteristic rhythms of the mother’s language. In a sense the fetus is already at work, learning language!

—Silvana Montanaro, MD Psychiatrist, Montessori teacher trainer

Music and Language

In the first days, months, and the first year of life the infant is especially interested in the sound of the human voice and in watching the face and lips of a speaking person. It is not an accident that the focusing distance of the eyes of a newborn are exactly the space between his face and that of the mother while nursing. Perhaps the best first communication experiences are provided while nursing the baby.

We can feed the child's intense interest in language, and prepare for later spoken language, by speaking clearly, not using "baby talk", by not raising our voice to an unnatural pitch often reserved for speaking to pets, and not oversimplifying language in the presence of the child.

We can tell funny and interesting stories of our lives, recite favorite poems, talk about what we are doing "Now I am washing your feet, rubbing each little toe to get it really clean" and enjoy ourselves in this important communication. And we can listen: to music, to silence, and to each other.

An adult can engage in a conversation with even the youngest child in the following way: when the child makes a sound, imitate it—the pitch and the length of the sound: baby "maaaa ga" adult "maaaa ga", etc. One often gets an amazing response from the child the first time this happens, as if she is saying "At last, someone understands and speaks my language!"

After several of these exchanges many children will purposefully begin to make sounds for you to imitate, and eventually will try to imitate the adult’s sound. This is a very exciting first communication for both parties. It is not baby talk. We call it “singing.”

For the first year, the activities of changing, nursing, bathing, picking up, holding, and dressing are the most important and impressionable times. Ask permission or tell the infant that you are going to pick him up when you are about to do so. If there is a choice, ask him if he is ready to be picked up, to get dressed, nurse, have a bath, even before picking him up. Children know when they are being asked a serious question or being given a choice. As you change or bathe an infant, rather than distracting him with a toy, look into his eyes, tell him what you are doing, ask questions, and give choices.

The value of this communication full of love and respect cannot be overemphasized. It makes a baby want to talk to you, and the desire to communicate is the foundation for good language development.

Good language development also depends on the language the child hears going on around him in these early days, months, and years. Overhearing conversations between parents and other adults is as valuable as being spoken to.

A parent or older sibling who talks and sings to the infant is also teaching him language. It is truly amazing how much language a child takes in during the first three years of life, blossoming into the complete understanding of a total language in a way that an adult can never emulate.

It is never too early to look at books together and talk about them. Beautiful board books can be stood on edge for a baby who is not yet able to sit up to enjoy looking at them. They introduce a wide array of interesting subjects to children at the age when they want to see and hear—and talk—about everything.

Crying is Communication
Cultures vary widely in their response to a crying infant—from a belief that crying strengthens the lungs, to absolute incredulity that anyone would let a baby cry for an instant. We recommend spending time and effort to learn what your child is saying with a cry. There is no recipe and each child is different.

During a visit to a hospital nursery at the University of Rome during my Assistant to Infancy training, I watched a professora respond to the crying of infants in the following way: first she spoke gently and soothingly to the baby, reassuring him that someone was present. In many cases this was all that was necessary to comfort the child and to stop the crying. However, if this didn't work, the professora made eye contact or laid a hand gently on the child. Often this calmed the infant completely. If not, she checked to see if there was a physical discomfort, a wrinkle of the bedding, a wet diaper, the need to be in a different position. Solving this problem almost always reassured the child and eliminated his need to cry. Only very rarely was a child actually in need of food.

I find this extremely interesting coming from a country with a major obesity problem. Perhaps if we tried harder to "comfort" our infants in other ways than to always provide food or pacifiers—which teaches them that the way to happiness lies in putting something in the mouth—we could help raise children who are more in touch with their needs.

It is common for an attentive parent to think that crying always means hunger or pain. But the baby could be worried, having bad memories, wet, cold, hot, afraid, lonely, or bored. There are many reasons for calling out for help.

An attentive parent who spends a lot of time watching and listening can learn, even in the early days, what each different cry means. Everyone wants to be understood.


Looking and Processing
What does your child see in the home? In the first year it is good to have soft colors, and not too many objects visible. When a child is visually overstimulated she often closes her eyes and shuts out the world. It is better to inspire and invite the child to visually explore the environment by soft colors and limited objects than to overwhelm her.

When the child has taken in all the sights and sounds and sensorial impressions she wants during a particular time she knows, with inborn wisdom, that it is time to go to sleep to process it. Imagine what it is like to come from a warm, soft, relatively dark and quiet environment (a womb) into a completely new place full of lights, sounds, touch, all unfamiliar except the voices of the family. It is very important to respect the child's wisdom as to how much to take in, when to go to sleep to rest and process, when to wake up and take in more.

At birth, a baby already knows how to regulate his sleep for optimum physical and mental health and for integrating new experiences. If we respect this intuitive knowledge after birth we are well along the path of preventing the problems of sleeping which often exhaust new parents and babies. If we keep in mind that sleeping is vital for many reasons and should not be interrupted, we will try, as ancient cultures of the past have stated over and over, not to awaken a sleeping baby except in an emergency.

We must be careful not to train a child to be dependent on us to go to sleep. When a baby is always held till she goes to sleep a sleeping problem can develop. To avoid creating a dependence on the adult for such a natural activity as going to sleep, it is important to respect, from the first day of life onward, the child's ability to go to sleep on his own.

Position for sleep: It is well known now that the safest position for an infant for sleeping is on the back. However, it is important that, from the very first day, the child spends some time on her tummy in order to exercise the muscles of the neck and the arms and legs. Again, observe the child to see what she wants to do.

A child is curious and in need of sensorial exploration from the very first days and wants to be with the family, not tucked away in a quiet room all day. To help make this possible, parents can use a special baby floor mat, or flat sleeping or playing mattress, a small futon or special rug, which can be moved to wherever in the home the family is spending time—kitchen, bedroom, living room, family room, etc.

In this way the child can be with the family, observe life, and doze off at any time sleep is needed. Then the infant can stay in touch with her unique natural rhythms of sleeping and being awake. He can listen to conversation, laughter, and music, or peaceful silence. On these mats the child can also improve developmental skills such as exercising and stretching muscles, doing push-ups, reaching and pulling up—and still follow the natural rhythms of sleep, and wakefulness.

A great deal of mental work goes on during sleeping and dreaming. All daily experiences must be integrated and all personal ‘programs’ must be reviewed on the basis of the new information received during the day.

We should not look at newborn infants as small, helpless human beings, but as persons who are small in size, but with an immense mental capacity, and many physical abilities that cannot be witnessed unless the environment assists in the expression of life.

—Dr. Silvana Montanaro, MD

The Absorbent Mind

Children in these early years literally absorb the life around them. An adult can never be too kind, too respectful and too wise, or pay too much attention to the sounds the child will hear, or the environment he will observe.

When children are not with their parents, attention must be paid in setting the highest standard of expectation for any other adults with whom children spend time.

The environment we create for our young children is the one they will tend to create for their children, and their grandchildren, on, and on and on . . .

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© Susan Mayclin Stephenson, 2010 (
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