Montessori Theory: The Four Planes of Development

While we (shamelessly) love to show off our school and community in the Villa di Maria blog, we are also here to spread the word about Montessori beyond our campus—demystifying and celebrating the Montessori method of education in the hopes that more people will discover its benefits for children and families.

You’ve seen our recent posts from our 101 series, where we breakdown some of the terminology you might find in a Montessori school. This week, we’ll kick off another series, all about Montessori theory. In our Theory series, we’ll dive deep into the foundational principles of the Montessori method and take a look at how these theories come into practice in the school setting. We’ll start today with “The Four Planes of Development.” The work of the Montessori guide, the organization of the Montessori classroom, the design and function of Montessori materials—everything about the Montessori method—it all comes down to the four planes.

The four planes of development are 6-year stages of child development, from birth to adulthood. In her research and work with children, Dr. Maria Montessori observed that children and adolescents develop through natural stages which can be defined by specific characteristics and developmental needs: birth to age 6; ages 6 to 12; ages 12 to 18, and ages 18 to 24. Dr. Montessori believed it was crucial to serve the specific developmental characteristics and needs of children in each plane, to allow them to move with strength into each following plane and prepare them for adulthood.

If “the formation of man” [sic] becomes the basis of education, then the coordination of all schools from infancy to maturity, from nursery to university, arises as a first necessity: for man is a unity, an individuality that passes through interdependent phases of development. Each preceding phase prepares the one that follows, forms its base, nurtures the energies that urge towards the succeeding period of life.

-Dr. Maria Montessori

Montessori education is designed to follow children through these planes—through their natural patterns of development. Montessori classroom environments intentionally foster the natural characteristics of each plane. Montessori guides receive rigorous training to facilitate each child’s incredible journey through each plane by meeting and challenging their academic, social, and emotional needs.

Planes and Transitions

Before we dive into each plane, it is crucial to note that, while Dr. Montessori defines each plane by a six-year age span, the transitions from plane to plane do not occur at hard-and-fast dates. For instance, a child transitions from the first to the second plane around age 6, but not necessarily on the 6th birthday—there is no timer on a plane of development. Instead, the planes are used as a framework, and each child moves through the planes at their own individual pace. In fact, this individual progression is a hallmark of Montessori education.

The First Plane of Development: Infancy (birth – 6 years)

The first plane of development is defined by the construction of the individual—this is when young children begin to develop a sense of self. In a nurturing environment, children naturally build physical and biological independence as they learn to carry out progressively more complex activities independently. They learn to move, take care of their bodily needs, and communicate—all with very little formal instruction. A child is born with an innate faculty named by Dr. Montessori as “the absorbent mind.” The absorbent mind observes and takes in stimuli just like a camera—concretely, exactly as it is—and empowers the child to learn so much about the world without conscious effort. At Villa di Maria, children in this plane are served in the Young Children’s Community (ages 14 months – 3 years) and the Children’s House (ages 3 – 6). These environments take advantage of the absorbent mind by introducing the children to concrete concepts about self-care, language, geography, math, biology, and community care. The guides capitalize on the young child’s ability to learn through their absorbent mind by introducing vocabulary and facts about the world through their lessons and by modeling grace and courtesy in their communities. As they develop through the first plane, children in a Montessori environment are offered endless opportunities to gain knowledge of themselves, their communities, and the world—knowledge that will be used as the foundation for the upcoming second plane.

Second Plane of Development: Childhood (6 – 12 years)

In the second plane of development, the child acquires mental independence and a burgeoning social awareness. During this stage, there is a crucial transition from the “absorbent mind” to the “reasoning mind.” Second-plane children are capable of abstraction, of using imagination to visualize concepts not seen. Armed with a strong foundation of concrete knowledge gained in the first plane, second-plane children begin to ask why—they seek to understand the causes of things and become sensitive to questions of morality and justice. At Villa di Maria, children in the second plane are served in Lower Elementary (ages 6 – 9) and Upper Elementary (ages 9 – 12) environments. These classrooms foster the child’s impulse to explore abstract concepts in science, geography, history, math, language, music, and art, and to gain a deeper understanding about the world. The social development of the second-plane child is also supported in the Montessori elementary environment. In fact, it is central to the Montessori elementary education. Children enter their elementary years seeking to find their place in a community of their peers. At the onset of each school year, the Montessori elementary classroom establishes a set of rules for their community. The children collaborate and lead this process. Through healthy debate and the support of the guide, the children create a classroom constitution, a document that expresses their shared values as well as the actions and behaviors required to uphold those values. This social contract becomes a point of reference for all of the children throughout the school year—something to guide them as they navigate through social development.

Third Plane of Development: Adolescence (12 – 18 years old)

During the adolescent plane of development, students deepen their understanding of the world and their place in it. This is a time of immense social growth and developing independence. Similarly to the first plane, the third plane is a phase of dramatic physical, mental, and emotional change and can be a time of turbulence, insecurity, and creativity. On their way to adulthood, students in the third plane work to discover who they are and how they fit into different social groups, their families, their communities, and the world around them. They try on different masks and personalities and seek role models to emulate. Montessori middle and high schools offer adolescents a place for this development. They offer students opportunities to explore and deepen their academic interests, express themselves creatively and socially, and make meaningful contributions to their communities. Montessori education allows adolescents to see themselves as valuable participants in the global community.

Fourth Plane of Development: Maturity (18 – 24 years old)

Dr. Montessori described the fourth plane as a time of maturity and the final plane of development. As adolescents enter adulthood, they develop a sense of certainty—a stronger sense of self. It is during this plane that young adults develop spiritual and moral independence, integrate fully into their communities, and begin to contribute to the construction of a greater world.

Isn’t this what we want for our kids, to reach adulthood with the independence, security, and wholeness to make the world a better place? It’s what Dr. Montessori wanted and why she devoted her life to understanding child development and promoting better education for children. Because of her knowledge of the four planes, children at Villa di Maria get to experience the fullness and beauty of each plane in our classrooms from ages 14 months to 12 years and emerge from VdM in strength to enter adolescence and adulthood.

References: “From Childhood to Adolescence” by Dr. Maria Montessori