The Second Plane Child
Note: This essay was one of many that I wrote as part of my AMI elementary training in Bergamo, Italy. You can find a complete bibliography at the end of the post.
The child enters the second plane of development somewhere around his sixth birthday, and traverses that phase for approximately six years (through age 12). It is important to note that this development, like that which came before it and that which will follow, is transitory. Therefore, the changes the child experiences – both physically and psychically – will not be permanent.
These changes come from within. As the child’s sensitivities change, so will his interests, passions, strengths, and weaknesses. These sensitivities have deadlines; they disappear at a certain time in the child’s development, regardless of whether or not he has been able to use them as tools of psychic growth. Therefore, is up to us, as adults, to respect them and adapt to the child in order to help him develop in the best way possible. Each plane is a world onto itself, not a part of the others. At every stage, the child must be allowed to develop in peace, following his own rhythm of development and not one imposed from the outside.
The child’s sensibilities go through a process of increasing intensity (a progression) at the beginning of each stage of growth, followed by a loss of intensity (a retrogression) as the current sensibilities disappear and a new set – appropriate for his new phase of development – take their place. Dr. Montessori illustrated this phenomenon of ebbing and waning sensibilities in the chart titled “The Constructive Rhythm of Life”, where the left side of the triangle that composes each plane represents the line of progression, and the right side represents the line of retrogression.
Camillo Grazzini writes: “The developmental life of Man is a sequence of births, of the emergence and disappearance of potentialities, of the birth and death of interests, and of the characteristics which are a manifestation of the sensitivities… The characteristics may be exactly opposite for these different ages.” (#1, pg. 31) He then shares with us Dr. Montessori’s words: “The characteristics of each phase are so different that the passages from one phase to the other have been described by certain psychologists as ‘rebirths’.” (#2)
And indeed, these transformations remind us of the changes that a caterpillar undertakes to become a butterfly. If you compare the two insects without knowing they were one and the same, you would come to the conclusion that they are terribly different. The only way you can understand their relationship is if you observe the transformation with your own eyes and allow Mother Nature’s work to run its course. What is important to note is that “the new abilities acquired remain for the whole of the individual’s life.” (#2, pg. 31)
Physical Characteristics of the Second Plane Child
There are certain physical characteristics that set the second plane child apart from the children in the preceding plane. While in the first plane the child’s growth hormones are active, and in the third plane the adolescent’s sex hormones activate, in the second plane the child experiences a period of relative physical stasis. His limbs grow and his teeth fall out, but he does not go through any drastic physical changes. His legs are long and strong, an indication that he should set out to discover the world. The home and classroom environments have become too restrictive for the child; he is pushed beyond these by his mental and physical maturity.
In the past, children in the second plane were ubiquitous on the streets in groups, playing an active role in their environment. These children used to have real responsibilities that fed their new development: City children would run errands for their mothers, while rural children would tend to the animals. Nowadays, our environment and society have placed restrictions on these types of activities, and most children remain cooped up in their houses, unable to follow through on the type of activities that are most appropriate for their natural development.
PSYCHOLOGICAL DIMENSION OF THE SECOND PLANE
We are going to explore the four aspects of psychological dimension in a human being: intellectual, moral, social, and emotional. Although in the human they are inseparable, it is useful for us to divide them into separate characteristics with the goal of gaining clarity and a better understanding of the child’s developmental needs.
We can understand the intellectual dimension to mean the world of the abstract, of imagination, and of culture (knowledge). These concepts all go together, since you need imagination in order to abstract, and you need to abstract in order to arrive at knowledge.
Dr. Montessori points out that human beings can “assemble and rearrange [their] mental content… by the power [they possess] of abstract thought”. If humans could not do this, they “would not be intelligent; or their intelligence would resemble that of higher animals… it would be rigid and restricted… and this would prevent its expansion.”
i. The Abstract World: Finding out Why
While the first plane child was satisfied with simple explanations of that which he could see, the child in the second plane is interested in the how and why of things; he wants to explore cause and effect (if this, then that), as well as the cause and purpose (why & because). In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori writes: “Children of this age are always asking us to explain things.” We should regard their questions as the expressions of a mind longing to know.” (#3, pg. 163) Between ages 6 and 12, the child “is not satisfied with a mere collection of facts; he tries to discover their causes.” (#4, pg. 20)
Dr. Montessori reminds us that we should use this sensitivity to show the child the interrelatedness of the Universe. We can thus entice the child towards building new knowledge, keeping in mind that at this age “when details are presented as being parts of a whole, they become interesting.” (#4, pg. 20)
The child might seem to be cruel, especially to insects, but this behavior stems from this same curiosity of how the world works and of what happens when he acts upon the world. Grazzini describes these children as “the nomads of developing life”, and points out: “It is up to adults to help them so that their exploration does not degenerate into purposeless wondering”. (#1, pg. 32)
ii. Imagination: The Ability to Create
We can best help children of this age by showing them how to harness their power of imagination in a precise way, with the end goal of becoming creative agents of change. Unless we guide the child to do this, “his imagination addresses itself only to a spirit wandering in emptiness.” (#4, pg. 21)
The word “imagine”, from “image”, crystallizes the power the mind has to form mental pictures. In Dr. Montessori’s words: “Imagination is a force for the discovery of truth,” (#3, pg. 161) or to see things as they really are.
Two types of imagination exist: reproductive and creative (or productive). Reproductive imagination involves being able to conjure up an image in the mind of something that was seen in the past but is no longer physically visible. To develop reproductive imagination, the child must have had numerous real life experiences in the first plane of development, from which to draw upon and abstract.
Clearly, the young child from age 3 to 6 has the power to imagine things that are not visible; it is our responsibility to provide precise experiences so that the conclusions he abstracts in his mind are representative of reality. Otherwise, when he transitions to the second plane and develops a sensitivity to imagine, the inaccuracy of his abstraction will prevent him from using the sensitivity for imagination as a tool to gain knowledge.
One way in which Dr. Montessori satisfied the child’s need for precision was by creating materials that highlighted qualities of a higher order of abstraction – qualities such as color, size, and weight. She termed these objects “materialized abstractions” and gave birth to the Sensorial area of the Children’s House environment.
To help a child use his reproductive imagination skills to envision something he has never seen, we need to start with concepts the child is familiar with, and these concepts can only come through experiences in the environment. He is then able to build a picture of a reality he has never seen. Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of Magical Child, explains: “Imagination [in the first six years of life] is possible only to the extent that the conceptual patterns from which points of similarity can be drawn are there in the mind-brain system. The object must offer a continuum of possibility, and so must the brain’s knowledge. A child can only imagine himself to be someone else or one object to be another when both subject and target exist in his structure of knowledge.” (#5, pg. 140) This is the essence of reproductive imagination.
The child in the second plane is not tied to reproductive imagination, but can instead build a new reality. The abstractions he’s achieved in the first plane, coupled with his strong sensitivity for imagination, allow him to reach a level of productive or creative imagination.
To create a new reality, imagination, work, and exactness are of the essence. Dr. Montessori reminds us: “When a child’s interest is aroused on the basis of reality, the desire to know more on the subject is born at the same time.” (#4, pg. 21) At this point, he must be allowed to direct his actions towards his chosen subject and should be provided with precise information, which satisfies an inner need for exactness. Precise definitions are crucial, for a new reality will spring forth from his abstractions, and its exactness depends on the accuracy of the information provided.
Ours is a great responsibility, reminds us Dr. Montessori: “If we study the works of all who have left their marks on the world in the form of inventions useful to mankind, we see that the starting point was always something orderly and exact in their minds, and that this was what enabled them to create something new.” (#3, pg. 169) Supporting imagination without precision will lead to “a lack of balance which becomes an obstacle to success in the practical things of life.” (#3, pg. 169)
Another potential pitfall in the child’s education is the use of fantasy. While society sees fantasy as a type of imagination, Dr. Montessori believed that it should play no role in education because fantasy does not lead to creativity on the part of the receptor. Children don’t need our help to develop their fantasy; our involvement should focus on helping them experience reality and how the world works so they can picture the world as a whole and reach the ideals of humanity.
iii. Culture: Bringing the World Within
In Montessori, the word “culture” denotes the development of knowledge. The child in the second plane is driven by a sensitivity for gaining culture, with the unconscious goal of constructing his personality. “We might say culture incarnates itself within the being and lives,” explains Dr. Montessori. (#6, pg. 34) The knowledge we give the child at this stage will transform him and will provide the living ideas of truth that will grow within him.
Imagination is essential for the incarnation of culture to take place within the child; he cannot incarnate the world without picturing it, and he cannot picture it without the power of imagination. When this power of imagination meets Cosmic Education, it permits the child to understand the relationships between humans and everything that surrounds them. This can only happen if “any distinction between subjects, or division of subject matter, ultimately [leads] back to a vision of unity.” (#1, pg. 35)
Morality is one of the sensitivities of the Second Plane. At a certain point, somewhere around the age of seven, the child begins to evaluate acts and consider their fairness. He might want to know if something he or another child did would be considered right or wrong.
Once the child has established his own definition of right and wrong, the concept of justice will arise, as does an awareness of the inter-relationship between one’s acts and the needs of others. Children at this stage will react emphatically when faced with what they consider to be an injustice. This solidarity applies not only to fellow human beings, but also to anything in his environment once the child has come to a conclusion regarding the rights and responsibilities of that being.
The child’s consciousness or awareness of the world around him flowers during this stage, and it is to this consciousness that we must cater if we are to guide him towards obedience. It is not appropriate for the teacher to set limits by herself and expect the children to follow them, as is the case in Children’s House. The Second Plane child should be involved in the creation of said limits; for this is the only way he will respect them.
III. SOCIAL: THE CHILD’S PEERS
The social behaviors of the Second Plane child undergo a metamorphosis: from the developmentally self-centered viewpoint of the Children’s House child arises a sense of community and comradery among peers. These ties are held together by a mutual morality and agreement to an often-complex set of rules.
Dr. Montessori does not specify a sensitive period for social development, because the child demonstrates this interest across the planes. The variation in social development is related to the type of associations the child tends towards. In the first plane, the children work side-by-side in the classroom. Their society is a ‘society by cohesion’, held together by the bonds of affection they feel towards each other and their environment. However, the focus is on the individual and his own development.
During the second plane, however, the children begin to demonstrate more varied skills and begin to look outward beyond their own development, to the development of the group. This specialization breeds a certain type of organization of the group, leading to bonds created through the child’s growing awareness of his inter-dependence. Dr. Montessori writes: “[The second plane child] likes to mix with others in a group wherein each has a different status. A leader is chosen, and is obeyed, and a strong group is formed. This is a natural tendency, through which mankind becomes organized.” (#7, pg. 37)
This progression – from self-centered development to member of a peer group – can be viewed as a ‘social fabric’: the threads that run vertically down this fabric are those bonds of affection developed during the first plane, where children worked side-by-side, held together by affection. Meanwhile, the threads that run horizontally and pull the fabric together are those emotional attachments developed during the second plane that bring solidarity to the group. This harmony should not be under-appreciated; for it is the predecessor to solidarity among humans.
The peer society of the Second Plane child is a practice society. Mario M. Montessori explains: “… by creating a group with special laws, signs and sometimes language the child has the experience of social life… One day he will become a social being, [a member of society in his own right], and this is how nature, the Mind behind the Universe, prepares him for his grown-up task.” (#8, pg. 37)
IV. THE EMOTIONAL ELEMENT
The child during the period of the second plane goes through many transformations, not the least of which is a transition from a sweet and accommodating being to someone who can be rude, blunt, and obstinate. We should analyze these behaviors to understand their origin and the messages they are sending.
The child’s rudeness stems from his need to claim a mental independence – to think for himself. This rudeness would virtually disappear if the child were given intellectual freedom. Sadly, just like in the first plane the adult tends to act for the child (helping him with activities the child can do on his own), so in the second plane the adult has a tendency to think for the child, trying to push her own agenda and supplant her own vision of the world for his developing one.
A second source of the rude behavior is the child’s reaction to arbitrary authoritarian limits. We’ve already discussed how we must appeal to the child’s conscience when setting rules; he will want to know why those regulations are in place so that he can obey conscientiously.
While the child in the second plane has the right to think for himself and participate in the creation of rules, he also must develop a sense of responsibility for his choice of language. He begins to understand that the things he says can hurt others, and might use his words as a weapon.
The second plane child requires reassurance of his abilities until he can develop a sense of his new limitations. “He only attains a sense of security if he is convinced of his own value”, writes Grazzini (#1, pg. 38). Adults should provide feedback on the child’s performance when requested by the child. Additionally, he should be given the opportunity to set his own challenges and overcome them to the best of his abilities. Through these two experiences – feedback and self-assessment – the child will gain a better understanding of himself, and will no longer need to request constant praise or push the envelope of his capacities. Above all, the child must feel respected and must develop a sense of self-respect based on his successes, failures, and how he overcomes them.
The absorbent mind, hard at work during the first plane of development, is the foundation for all of human society. It allows the child to adapt to his environment and permits him to embody his culture’s values, habits, and customs.
What the child has absorbed during the first plane he will question during the second plane in order to maintain his mental independence and come to his own conclusions about the society he will soon enter into. In other words, the child is reworking the ideals of his society and culture to make them his own.
Grazzini, Camillo. Characteristics of the child in the Elementary school. AMI Communications Jounal, No. 2/3, 1979. (pg. 29 – 38).
Montessori, Maria. The Four Planes of Education. As quoted by Grazzini, Camillo in Characteristics of the child in the Elementary school.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Co., Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2007.
Montessori, Maria. From Childhood to Adolescence. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Co., Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2007.
Chilton Pearce, Joseph. Magical Child. Penguin Books, New York, New York. 1977.
Montessori, Maria. Lecture given at Trinity College, Cambridge, October 1935. As quoted by Grazzini, Camillo in Characteristics of the child in the Elementary school.
Montessori, Maria. To Educate the Human Potential. As quoted by Grazzini, Camillo in Characteristics of the child in the Elementary school.
Montessori, Mario. Three lectures given in the ‘Advanced Montessori Training Course’, London 1957-58. As quoted by Grazzini, Camillo in Characteristics of the child in the Elementary school.
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