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

Assessment in the Montessori Classroom

How do we assess students without tests?

For most of us tests were a big part of the school experience. Whether we liked them or not, tests feel familiar to us—they were how we proved we knew something, how we passed classes and grades, how we qualified for the next higher level of education. Tests are also something that are noticeably absent from a Montessori school. So, it’s hard not to wonder: how are we assessing our students? Without tests, how do guides know when content has been mastered or when to give the next lesson? How do we know when a child is ready to move into the next program? How do our students compare to their age-matched peers across the country?

Montessori is grounded in two very important principles: the natural patterns of child development and child-led progress. Montessori believes each child progresses within general time frames (the Planes of Development), but at their own unique pace. From a Montessori perspective, formal test-taking does not give a complete picture of a child’s progression. A Montessori education is about more than what can be shown on a test. It is about leading each child toward the fulfillment of their highest potential in every aspect of their person, academically, socially, and emotionally—about giving each child a vision for life.

This calling goes beyond preparing children to simply memorize and regurgitate material for an exam. Instead, the Montessori approach measures progress (a.k.a. assesses children) consistently throughout their time in the classroom environment. Montessori guides use a variety of methods to help each child meet their developmental milestones and master the academic curriculum and social skills appropriate for their age group.

One way guides assess a student is through observation. In a Montessori classroom the guide carefully, deliberately, and objectively observes the children. This is an active, daily practice—they are watching and learning about each child as they practice their lessons every day. Allowing each child the time they need, the guide notices, listens—waits for indication that the child is progressing in the comprehension of, ease with, and precision in their work. Guides make themselves available for questions or requests for assistance and are ready to re-present a lesson (or a certain part of difficulty) as needed. And when a child has mastered a lesson, guides offer the next lesson in the sequence.

Assessment is also integrated into the lessons offered by the guide. For every child, at the start of a new lesson, the guide reviews the previous lesson content to “test” what students remember and to build upon that knowledge. Throughout the day, the guides might also unexpectedly join a student at work to ask them questions about their activity—a sort of Montessori pop quiz. “I see you working on the area of a circle. Do you remember what we call the outside edge of the circle?”

Observation and lesson-integrated assessment are skills employed by guides at every level. As children grow, new levels of assessment are layered in. In the Children’s House, guides begin to use the three-period lesson to offer language and crystalize a concept in a child’s mind. Three objects are chosen, such as a pentagon, hexagon, and square—objects familiar to the child after much sensorial exploration. In the first period of the three-period lesson, the child is given the names for the objects. In the second period, the longest of the three, the child is asked to identify the objects, but the guide says the names. In the third period, the guide points to the object and says, “What’s this?” The third period is the assessment stage of the three-period lesson, but only comes after ample time in the second period.

At the Elementary level, the weekly conference is introduced. Guides check children’s work and note if lessons have been revisited, and if so, whether they are doing so correctly. Guides note whether a child is avoiding certain lessons and make a plan with the child for completion. They also make children aware of the state and national standards society expects them to know by certain grade levels. Children are actively engaged in their own assessments and are motivated (or redirected) to focus their work where needed.

In the Upper Elementary we add in one more layer of assessment—the annual standardized test. The primary purpose of the test on our campus is to provide students the opportunity to develop the formal testing skills, as well as a test-taking comfort level they will almost certainly need as they grow older.

At Villa di Maria, we love that students are not limited to learning only what the state requires. State standards are the baseline, but most students go beyond and learn about anything they are interested in. The universe is the limit to their learning!

Villa di Maria + MMUN

What is MMUN?

You may have seen the acronym, MMUN, in our Facebook or Instagram feed, or generously contributed to an MMUN fundraiser (thank you!!) but perhaps you may have wondered, what exactly is MMUN and why is everyone so excited about it?

Delegates celebrate in front of the school after their first practice committee session.

Montessori Model United Nations, affectionately known as MMUN, is a special journey for our sixth-year students, which culminates in a five-day trip to New York City for an international conference. Similar to traditional Model UN programs, each student assumes the role of delegate for a chosen nation and proposes solutions to complex global issues from their nation’s point of view. But for our delegates, the program is so much more.

Beginnings: Peace, Dignity, Equality, Health

We begin each fall as students learn about the role and mission of the United Nations: peace, dignity, and equality on a healthy planet. It’s no coincidence that the mission of the UN echoes the vision of Dr. Maria Montessori herself, a lifelong advocate for peace education and equality. In 1927, Dr. Montessori even addressed the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. She spoke about the important role of education in achieving and maintaining world peace, and her words are still vitally relevant today.

Delegate motions to speak at MMUN Conference in NYC.

Research: Going Global

As our students take on the role of delegate, they must first get to know the nation they will represent. With partners, they research their nation’s history, culture, economy, and environmental issues and explore what daily life is like for citizens and how they meet their fundamental needs. Students are often surprised by the living conditions of people around the world. Things we often take for granted—clean drinking water, electricity, healthy food—may not be accessible for all citizens in their country. How can this be?? They wonder. Their awareness of  inequality and injustice in the world grows, and delegates begin to imagine what their role might be in changing this.

Delegates proudly display their flags for the Opening Ceremony’s Parade of Nations.

Delegates are assigned to UN Committees, which address complex issues like food security, fair trade, nuclear disarmament, xenophobia, poverty, and climate change. Their research now becomes focused on their particular topic. Students work to gain an understanding not only of the subject itself but also of their nations’ approach to that subject. Our emerging adolescents must consider their own perspectives on these issues, and then do the challenging work to consider differing perspectives of others. During this process, the students’ empathy for others and awareness of themselves as global citizens grow immensely.

We use the UN Sustainable Development Goals to anchor student research.

As does their research skillset: synthesizing information from multiple sources, evaluating websites for bias and authenticity, supporting claims with evidence, and always citing sources.

Position Paper: Perseverance and Achievement

Next, each student must organize their research into a formal paper, called the position paper.  It summarizes the global issue and proposes evidence-based solutions that could be implemented locally and globally.

The position paper is often the most challenging part of the MMUN program because it is the first time these students have synthesized such copious amounts of information into a cohesive paper. The process requires perseverance and dedication as students revise their papers to make their ideas more clear, more compelling. But when they finally submit their polished paper, their smiles beam with the satisfaction of achieving their goal. Many high-fives and victory laps around the Magic Circle ensue and we always celebrate with baked goods! 🥳

Speech: Community, Confidence, Celebration

Now the time comes for the delegates to share their views with the larger community. Students at VdM are no strangers to public speaking. From an early age in the Children’s House they share ideas and perform in front of others; our Elementary students present reports and make special announcements regularly. Still, the idea of presenting one’s speech to a roomful of strangers at a conference can be intimidating.

Our 2021-2022 delegates present their speeches to the Upper Elementary class.

To ease their apprehension, our delegates rehearse often with one another, offering feedback and support. And as a dress rehearsal, each delegate distills their position paper into a one-minute speech designed to inform an audience of their families and classroom peers about their issue and compel them to support the proposed solutions.

Delegates sharing opening speeches with the community.

By the time they arrive in NYC, they are ready to deliver their speech with confidence.

NYC Conference: Independence and Consensus

Next, students pack their bags, hug their parents goodbye and board the plane for the Big Apple!

Delegates visited the Empire State Building among other iconic NYC sights.
Our animal-lovers made new friends in Times Square.
Delegates enjoying Times Square.

As in the Montessori classroom, we purposefully limit the number of adult chaperones on the trip to allow space for the adolescents’ growing need for independence and to encourage them to rely upon one another. Students plan which sites and restaurants to visit, pay for their own meals, and help navigate their way through the city.

The conference itself brings students from around the world together to collaborate on solutions. Guided by a bureau of former delegates in their respective committees, the delegates discuss different aspects of the issue and voice their nation’s point of view.

Delegates collaborate in sub-committees during Committee Sessions.
The art of active listening during the online conference..

Equally important is the art of listening, the means to finding common ground.  Inclusion, compromise, and consensus are the key tenets of the delegates’ work at the conference. All voices are honored. All ideas are given equal consideration. Students feel empowered!

2020 Delegates participated in an online conference due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Delegates definitely stand a little taller upon their return from the conference, a combination of feeling more independent, feeling proud and inspired by their work at the conference, and a new awareness of their role as a global citizen.

Legacy Projects: Be the Change!

As our emerging adolescents develop awareness of their place in the world, their work as delegates also nurtures a sense of optimism about the future and helps them discover the power they have to create change in their own community and beyond.

We harness the exhilaration  delegates feel upon returning from the conference and help them launch legacy projects to enrich our community. Some projects have included planting trees on campus for more biodiversity, creating classroom materials for the Sustainable Development Goals, fundraising to help refugees in our community, and starting a lending library to promote literacy.

The end of the MMUN conference does not mark the end of our delegates’ journey.  They carry their inspiration forward to future endeavors, and many can’t wait to participate again next year at their new school!

We Are VdM: Chung Yi Cheng

The very best part of Villa di Maria is our people. Our community of families, faculty and staff is something to be proud of. In this series, We are VdM, we’ll highlight the energies, talents, humor and wisdom of some of our amazing people. Today, we’ll meet Chung Yi Cheng, afternoon assistant in the P2 Children’s House classroom. Chung Yi has been a sub and member of our late-stay team for several years, as well as the teacher in our after-school Mandarin club. Her attention to detail and her calm and comforting demeanor bless both staff and students alike! We are thrilled to have Chung Yi as a full-time member of our staff this semester!

How did you discover Montessori?

I was introduced to Montessori through a local Montessori school summer camp as an assistant and then as an after-hour program assistant before coming to Villa. I completed the AMI orientation course and have been to one conference and one workshop.

What do you like about Montessori?

I like that it respects individual development. Montessori guides teach individually or in groups and do not evaluate students’ value based on grades. I like how Montessori provides real-world experience, and cultivates children’s independence.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be an architect and interior designer, but the education system in Taiwan kept me from getting close to my dream.

What is your favorite thing to do on the weekend?

I like to be in the studio to create art from my thoughts, in the kitchen to make some yummy food for people I care about, or walking and traveling with my husband.

Here’s Chung Yi giving a lesson on colors in Mandarin. It is so exciting to be able to offer a bilingual experience to children!

Welcome, Chung Yi, we’re so glad you’re here!