Age Three: The First Montessori Year of Transition, Part One

Have you ever heard the term, “threenager?”  It pops up from time to time on the Internet and refers to the unique, sometimes challenging, aspects of a three-year-old.  We hear an awful lot about the “terrible twos.”  As parents, you brace yourself and expect resistance, tantrums, and other challenging behaviors at two.   However, many, many parents are shocked, dismayed and even amazed by their three year olds.

“Nobody told me three was harder than two!”  I often joke with parents that at two children will tell you “no” and move on, but at three they will tell you “no and let me tell you why…”   Hours later, parents find themselves locked in the most elaborate arguments and negotiations with three-year-olds, thinking they hadn’t expected this until the teenage years.  Hence, Facebook is chalked full of so many good memes featuring the “threenager.”

As with most topics related to early childhood, Maria Montessori spotted the trend way before the rest of us.   Granted, she didn’t call them “threenagers,” but she did identify the three-year-old year as a time of significant transition.

In her work, Dr. Montessori identified Four Planes of Development.  Each plane lasts about six years and children’s movement within and across these planes often looks different from child to child.  She did not see them as linear, although she did identify common characteristics.  Within each plane, she identified two sub planes that generally span three years.   The Montessori three-year-cycle and classroom age groupings are aligned to these sub planes.

Montessorians love to debate whether the triangles should point upwards or downwards, but the point is that they represent peaks and valleys of development.   For example, 0-3 is a time of intense growth and development (acceleration) that peaks at 3, but then from 3-6 that growth slows down (deceleration) and evens out quite a bit.     This is clear cut in Adolescence as well.  12-15 a.k.a. puberty is a pretty intense time, but you’ll often hear parents of teenagers say that they become bearable again after 15 or 16 just as they approach heading off on their own.  Just enough to make you miss them!

In fact, if you reflect on your own life and continue to plot, many find that the three-year acceleration and three-year deceleration continues well beyond age 24.  It happened to be the case for almost every student in my Montessori training cohort!  I’m facing down a period of acceleration and I suspect that is going to have to do with the arrival of Baby #3.

As for the three-year-old, he is a transitioning from what Maria Montessori called the Unconscious Absorbent Mind to the Conscious Absorbent Mind.   The Absorbent Mind is the concept that children take in information and experiences like sponges.  From 0-3, children do so unconsciously.  Native language is the perfect example.  Babies learn to speak the language of their parents without direct instruction.   From 3-6, they absorb consciously.  They accept direct instruction, they ask questions, they apply learned concepts to new situations, and they problem solve, but their learning maintains the sponge like quality.

Current neuropsychological research supports this.  Famed infant neuropsychologist, Dr. Alison Gopnik, refers to it in her work as Lantern learning vs. Spotlight learning.  If you consider how a lantern casts light, that is how infants and toddler take in information.  On the other hand, the 3-6 year old focuses his learning like the illumination of a spotlight.  He can shut out what goes on around him and zero in on a particular activity.  This is why new three year olds are often overwhelmed when they move into a Children’s House community.  They are still absorbing like a lantern, but the classroom is designed for children who can focus more like spotlight.  Just think. They go from having about 50-60 work choices on the shelf in the Toddler House to over 250 in the Children’s House, the majority of which they will be redirected away from until they master the basic lessons.

This movement from the Unconscious to Conscious Absorbent Mind happens gradually with the full transition occurring during the course of the three-year- old year.  For some children, it happens quickly, and for others much more slowly.  The transition is not complete the day your child turns three.  In fact, in most cases, the transition hasn’t even started.  It is a gradual process over the course of a year and is precisely why three-year-olds are included in both the Toddler House curriculum and the Children’s House curriculum.

The Children’s House (3-6) is designed for the child in the period of the Conscious Absorbent Mind.   The Infant House reflects children completely rooted in the Unconscious Absorbent Mind, while the Toddler House often finds a mix of both and helps facilitate the transition between the two sub planes.   Ideally, we want to ensure that a child has fully moved into the period of Conscious Absorbent Mind before moving them to Children’s House as it is very difficult for a child remaining in the Unconscious Absorbent Mind to function successfully in the Children’s House environment.

The young three- year-old is still absorbing his environment with great intensity.  He has grown tremendously in physical independence over the past three years and is eager to assert it.  He wants to move, he wants to express himself and interact with others, establishing his social role.  He is impulsive, but is beginning to desire order and understand social expectations.  He is curious about others, but still operates on his own, playing alongside, not with others. However, he wants to be self-directed.  His fine motor skills are still underdeveloped.  He needs help, but doesn’t really want help. He is ecstatic to offer his help, which in some instances is not really helpful.  He requires tasks to be broken into multiple, small steps.  He is easily frustrated.  He is weary of all the choices being made for him, but hasn’t yet learned how to choose independently.  He may be able to use the toilet on his own, but still requires some assistance or reminding.    He may be showing some interest in numbers or letters, but generally prefers sensations and experiences.  His language is still developing.  He may be hard to understand, confusing pronouns, or making up words, but he likes the sound of his voice.  His language capability still lags behind the complexity of his emotions.

The older three-year-old, who has fully entered the period of the Conscious Absorbent Mind, is quite different.  This three-year-old is calmer.  He still needs to move, but does so with purpose and is focused on the refinement of movement, creating precision in his movements.   He is establishing patience.  He is still mostly ego-centric, but is developing an awareness of others outside himself.  He can wait and take turns without protest.  He requires less adult assistance. He acknowledges his limitations and accepts or seeks assistances particularly from older children.   He seeks out interaction with other children and is fascinated by older children.  Most notably, he has gained the ability to focus his attention and is less distractible.  He is physically stronger and sturdier. The clumsiness of toddlerhood is completely gone.  He wants to use his hands purposefully.  He is interested in small objects and is dedicated to training his fine motor skills. His ability to communicate his needs, wants, and feelings verbally is emerging rapidly.

As you can see, a great deal happens for the three-year-old.  Not surprisingly, he is compared to an emotional teenager. His needs and desires change drastically, but not always obviously or quickly.  The complexity of this year is why The Springs is so fortunate to have a Toddler House.  The Toddler House affords the child the time and space to make this huge developmental leap without pressure.   Prior to the establishment of our Toddler House, 2.5 and young 3 year olds were lumped in with the Children’s House classes.  Knowing it was not ideal, the state limited how many children of this age could be included, but it is a common practice in Montessori schools that do not have Toddler classes.  In hindsight, as a faculty, we have identified how challenging this approach was not just for the student, but the teacher, who was not trained to support that age group, and for the other students whose needs were so different than the younger child’s.   All of a sudden, it became very clear how beneficial it is to the transitional three-year-old to be a part of the Toddler community.

In Part Two of this series, we will discuss how the Toddler class specifically addresses the needs of the transitional three –year-old so be sure to pop back next week!


By Maureen Clifford, Executive Director and Montessori Mom

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