Montessori and the Brain

The Montessori Method highlights basic truths about human learning. Through observation, Maria Montessori realized that early childhood presents a time of unique cognitive malleability, and that this can be leveraged through interactions the child has with the environment. Scientific support for her methods continues to come to light even in present day, over a century later.

Through quality implementation of the Montessori Method, children become engaged and excited about learning. They develop into independent learners who seek out challenges. Even further, this approach can develop students who are as engaged in their learning and as they are in their community, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Modern day neuroscience has discovered what Maria Montessori knew a century ago: children thrive in an environment that allows them to do work with their hands. Working with their hands develops stronger synapse connection in the brain, and literally develops a bigger brain!

From birth to approximately age six, a child’s brain works in a very different way than an adult’s does. At this age, the mind is like a sponge, soaking up huge amounts of information from the environment effortlessly, continuously, and indiscriminately. This is what Maria Montessori referred to as “the absorbent mind.”

The Absorbent Mind theory sets forth that the young child literally absorbs the environment. Things are not just remembered; they form the child. Children develop 85% of their core brain structure by the time they are five years old. The child will then build on this core foundation throughout life, which makes early childhood education an enormous opportunity to maximize brain development! Repetition creates stronger synapses in developing brains, since with every repetition another layer of the fatty sheath myelin coats the synapses for that action. This myelination process literally makes brains bigger and stronger! 

Those of us in Montessori education see the positive effects of Montessori on a daily basis. We watch as fine motor skills are strengthened, reasoning skills are sharpened, and independence is encouraged through daily interaction with the prepared Montessori environment. How does the Montessori Method achieve the results that it does?

Pediatric neuropsychologist and Montessori parent Steve Hughes believes the Montessori curriculum triggers specific brain functions that greatly aid cognitive development. In fact, he refers to Montessori as “the original brain-based method of learning.”

The Hand-to-Brain Connection

Hughes gives an example of the task of learning to read, a basic building block of education for all children regardless of schooling method. Reading requires three separate brain functions: capturing visual symbols, decoding each symbol’s sound, and assigning each symbol meaning. While each of these brain functions can be taught separately, Montessori materials such as the Sandpaper Letters and Moveable Alphabet encourage simultaneous use of each function, resulting in neurological networks that coordinate reading.

Hughes also focuses on the tactile methods of Montessori as they relate to brain development, asserting that the hands are a child’s strongest link to the brain. When motor movements are repeated they become templates in the brain that serve as a starting point for new experiences.

Because Montessori emphasizes hands-on learning, children are able to master information more quickly and easily than when conventional educational methods are used. The repetition of activities, multisensory materials, and self-guided learning common to the Montessori classroom create the perfect “recipe” for human brain development.

It is interesting to note that much of Maria Montessori’s early work in education was in the treatment of special needs children. Today, intervention methods for special needs students closely resemble Montessori methods, suggesting perhaps that what Montessori has been doing for over 100 years is extremely effective in creating and strengthening neural pathways.

It is amazing that Dr. Montessori was able to develop her materials without the benefits of today’s technology. She could not view a child’s brain to see which areas lit up when they were using the Cylinder Blocks, and yet through observation she knew that a child’s fine motor skills, shape and size discrimination, and hand/eye coordination were being strengthened through this work.

Maria Montessori was a scientist before she was an educator. She didn’t guess at the materials she created; she observed, made changes based on her observations, and observed some more. She let the children teach her rather than pushing her own ideas on them.

The fundamental touchstones of educating through Montessori – preparing a natural and supporting environment, and adapting that environment for a child to fulfill his or her greatest potential – have proven to create neural pathways that facilitate cognitive development.