“Children are sponges—they are going to absorb whatever is around them, so we need to be intentional about what surrounds them,” Dave Ramsey says in the book, Smart Money Smart Kids, but the saying has been around for decades. You’ve probably observed this first hand when your child says or does something “exactly like” ________ (mom, dad, grandma, a sibling)!
Ms. Allison, Children’s House guide at Sonnet Montessori and school director of our Prior Lake location, recalled working with a pod of four children of ages four, four, five and 18 months. The older children would unroll a working mat and place their work on it every day, designating their space. The youngest child was not taught or instructed to use a working mat, but she was absorbing information from the environment, and one day at about 21 months of age, she independently got out a working mat, and unrolled and started it using it correctly, just like the older children. She was not taught or instructed by Ms. Allison or the other children but had absorbed the information unconsciously and saved it in her brain until her brain was ready to use it.
This is an example of the child’s brain being a “sponge”, or in Montessori terms, of the “absorbent mind.” Remember the statistic that 90% of the brain develops before the age of 5? The absorbent mind provides the foundation for learning for the rest of the child’s life. What they are absorbing and learning now will stay with them into adulthood!
Research has shown that the absorbent mind is only active until about the age of six. This does not mean that learning stops after age six, but rather that it doesn’t absorb as easily, and that learning requires more work. (Incidentally, research has shown that it is advantageous to learn two languages early on in life, noting that “infants’ brains are learning environments that are special and non-creatable.” Source)
The Absorbent Mind: Unconscious Period
The learning during the first part of this period is unconscious. “It moves on instinct, like a caterpillar. It doesn’t care about making mistakes, as the brain hasn’t been fully formed yet. Unconsciously before the age three, children simply ABSORB everything around them and save it for when their brain is ready to use the information,” explains Allison.
Even though we’ve heard that infancy is the only time you “can’t” teach a child anything, they are actually learning vast amounts of information through the absorbent mind. Think of an infant’s acquisition of language – it’s seemingly effortless! They don’t have to be “taught” to speak, they just absorb it by being around language. It is unconscious learning.
The Absorbent Mind: Conscious Period
We say that between the ages of two and three, the conscious mind begins. It seems that the child becomes aware of his or her autonomy overnight! They suddenly realize that they can make choices, choose work, decide what they want to do, and determine what is the right thing to do. This is why many parents of toddlers enter into a power struggle with their previously compliant child who has discovered their ability to say “no”! However, this is an appropriate and normal stage of development that parents should be prepared for and respond to with knowledge. How can they foster their child’s independence by providing freedom with limits?
During the conscious mind period of ages 3-6, it’s important to provide many stimulating activities for the child. We should also carefully observe our children, looking for signs of them entering into a sensitive period for learning.
Join us next week as we dig into what the sensitive periods are and how to identify them!
Special thanks to Allison Polster for her contribution to this blog post. Allison has worked in early childhood education for more than 15 years, in public, private play-based and Montessori programs. She became interested in Montessori when she observed advanced learners in public schools being sent off to play while the teachers spent more time with the children who were behind. While researching better ways to meet the needs of all students, she came across Montessori, which offers individualized instruction. She obtained her Montessori credential through the American Montessori Society.