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Montessori Philosophy Explained: The Planes of Development

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Anne Prowant, Children's House Guide

No matter where you are in your Montessori journey—whether you are a seasoned veteran or a newcomer to the method—tackling Maria Montessori’s theories of developmental psychology is never an easy task. Translated from Italian and written in flowery language typical of the early 20th century, her writings can be difficult to understand, to say the least.

But fear not! I’m here to break down Montessori’s theory of human development, called the Planes of Development, into bite-sized pieces for you. Hopefully, you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of your child—and possibly even a deeper understanding of yourself.

Read on to learn more or click on the links below to read about a particular plane of development:

The First Plane: Birth to Age 6 (Early Childhood)

 The Second Plane: Ages 6–12 (Childhood)

The Third Plane: Ages 12–18 (Adolescence)

The Fourth Plane: Ages 18–24 (Maturity)

The Planes of Development

The Four Planes of Development is the holistic framework upon which Montessori built her vision of developmental psychology. This theory encompasses human development from birth until maturity at age 24. I describe it as holistic because it considers all aspects of a child’s development—academic, spiritual, moral, and emotional.

When a child is born, she comes into the world full of promise and potential. The possibilities for who she will become and what her life will be are endless. We have no way of knowing what her potential is and to what extent it will be realized. All that we parents and educators can do is to help the child along on her difficult journey of constructing herself. This is an enormous task!

Traditional education assumes that development is linear: every year you learn more and more, building on what you learned in the past, until you reach maturity and know everything there is to know.

Dr. Montessori saw things differently. She recognized that human development is not perfectly linear. In fact, learning occurs in cycles. There are peaks and valleys to it, and you can see that represented in her chart.

When you look at the planes, you can see the horizontal line of life, which indicates the age of the child. The lines that form the triangles are the lines of progression and retrogression. Montessori asserted that development is intense at the beginning of a plane, peaks, and then tapers down to the next plane, in preparation for the beginning of a new stage of development.

The First Plane: Birth to Age 6 (Early Childhood)

This is arguably the most important time of a child’s development, since he is creating his self. His personality, quirks, likes, dislikes—the foundation for all of these is laid during this time. And as if that weren’t difficult enough, the child also has to organize himself physically. It’s during this time that a child learns to speak, read, crawl, and walk. When you think of it this way, can you blame young children for being egocentric?

 At this age, children soak up the world

 At this age, children soak up the world

At this stage, the child has, as Montessori put it, an absorbent mind. From birth until age 3 the child is, without any effort, soaking up everything about his world like a little sponge; this is the unconscious, absorbent mind.

In the second half of the first plane (ages 3 to 6), this absorption becomes conscious. During both of these times, the enormous task of learning is made more manageable through the sensitive periods.

In the second half of this phase learning becomes conscious

In the second half of this phase learning becomes conscious

Sensitive periods are windows of time in which the child is driven internally to master a certain skill and, if he is allowed, he will develop this skill more easily and naturally than during any other time in his life. Humans go through sensitive periods for order, spoken language, written language, math, movement, and many more.

By the end of the first plane of development, these sensitive periods should be completed, and the child will be ready for the second plane, which will build on what he has practiced during the first.

The Second Plane: Ages 6–12 (Childhood)

Between the ages of 6 and 12, the child is creating her intelligence, and more importantly, a conscience. Physical order is extremely important for young children, and now that that need has been met during the first plane of development, the older child is searching for moral order, or a sense of right and wrong.

Children learn best by observing the adults in their life. This is why we emphasize modeling the behavior that we, as teachers, would like to see in the classroom. If we want the children to walk in the classroom, we walk. If we want them to use quiet voices, we do so ourselves. A child in the second plane of development, then, needs strong moral role models in her life. She needs to see people living with integrity and taking a stand for what they believe in. Whatever moral conscience the child builds now will see her through those tricky teenage years in the next plane.

Developing this conscience will prompt the child to want to help when she sees injustice in the world. She wants to be shown what she can do to help! This is a great time to introduce your child to volunteering, putting on a bake sale, or something similar to benefit a charity or cause—any way that she can do something real to help a cause that she is passionate about.

In this plane, justice becomes important

In this plane, justice becomes important

During the first two planes, the child is saying, “Help me do for myself.” By contrast, the next two planes could be summed up as “Help me think for myself.” But the common thread that ties them all together, the key to all of the stages, is the child’s need for independence.

The Third Plane:  Ages 12–18 (Adolescence)

We’ve entered those scary years, the years of adolescence! You couldn’t pay me enough to relive this stage, but in Montessori’s eyes it is a very important time during which the child is working on the construction of his social self.

In other words, the child is separating from his parents, mentally and physically, and needs to be shown that he can participate in and have some control over his life. If all has gone well during the second plane, the budding teenager should have a strong moral conscience to rely on when tough choices present themselves.

The Fourth Plane: Ages 18–24 (Maturity)

During the fourth plane of development, the newly minted adult is working on constructing her self-understanding. She asks, “Who am I? What do I have to give to the world?” She has come to realize that the deepest, most meaningful learning happens from discovery, trial and error, practice—in short, her own experience—and she finally attains spiritual and moral independence.

A Radiant Future

So much of traditional education seems focused on what we, as a society, believe we need from children. How do their test scores make us look? What do their achievements say about us? Many approaches to traditional education don’t consider how we can support children to develop their personalities and reach their fullest potential.

Montessori education, on the other hand, encourages the development of the whole child. Children are on a pathway. The theory of the Planes of Development recognizes that path, and supports children’s journey on it—the journey to become people with maturity, imagination, a love of learning, and good moral character. In other words, Montessori education doesn’t just support academic development; it supports human development.

In her book The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori writes, “The child is endowed with unknown powers which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities."


In her book The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori writes, “The child is endowed with unknown powers which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities."