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The Biology of Learning

Biology is an important topic for children.  Maria Montessori found that children were highly interested in the living world around them.  Biology encompasses areas such as zoology and botany, which are staples in any Montessori classroom. As I thought through the various biology-related activities during the first and second plane of development, I became fascinated with the contrast of how children relate to science at each stage.  Ultimately, I was left looking deeper into the biological process of learning.   

What are the first two planes of development, and how do they differ?
The first plane of development begins at birth and lasts until around age six.  I'll give a small caveat here that this is a huge topic, but I will try to keep it concise.  Maria Montessori was a doctor and a scientist, and her research in this area is extensive.  I encourage you to dig deeper.

Montessori found that children in this plane have a unique way of learning.  She termed this the absorbent mind.  The child collects and classifies information with extreme ease.  It is filed away to be called upon later.  The child's focus is on the "what".  He doesn't make particular judgements or connection with information received; the mind simply takes it in.

For the first half of this plane, the absorbent mind operates unconsciously, or unknown to the child.  She simply takes what is given from the environment.  Yet in a short time, the child collects the information needed to walk and talk.  During the second half of the plane, the absorbent mind becomes more aware to the child.  As he is able to control his body, he will seek out opportunities to find more material to absorb.  This is the process that leads a young child to become deeply focused on his or her work.  It is through this first plane that a child's culture is formed through the environment.  A particular language has been absorbed along with specific patterns of behavior and preferences.
By contrast, the second plane of development, which encompasses age 6-12, is considered the age of reasoning and imagination.  The logical mind of the child has emerged, and she will turn her attention towards weaving facts together into understanding.  The "what" of the absorbent mind has been exchanged for why, how, and when.  While the second plane of development is separate from the first, it relies upon the information gathered during that period as a basis for exploration.

In addition to the ability to reason, the activation of the imagination occurs.  This allows a child to see the possibilities in life experiences.  A child in the second plane will also judge the information they receive as they develop a strong sense of justice and need for fairness.     

So while the first plane child is a sensory-based explorer seeking out facts, a second plane child is a cultural explorer who is discerning the why and how of their world.

How is biology approached during the first plane?
While all activities presented to a child during the first plane are geared towards the absorbent mind, I have chosen to focus specifically on biology-based activities to demonstrate how this translates in the classroom.

Traditional, primary-level biology activities focus on zoology and botany.  However, they center around the areas of language and sensorial, not science as we think of it from a reasoning perspective.

Early works include classification through sorting works, such as living vs. non-living, plants vs. animals, and vertebrates vs. invertebrates.  Both the botany and zoology puzzle sets are used to introduce the names and appearance of various plant and animal parts.  Subtleties, such as the specific collection of puzzles introduced, are used to make an impression on the absorbent mind.  For example, the five classic zoology puzzles introduce the five classifications of animals (reptiles (turtle), birds, amphibians (frog), mammals (horse), and fish).  Written language is explored through related three part cards.

The botany cabinet gives a sensorial experience of organic shapes, both through the tactile sense and visual discrimination.  It is also used to expand vocabulary.  And of course there is as much observation of real plants and animals as possible.

While the child is building a solid collection of relevant biology facts, the depth ends there.  However, that is not to diminish how crucial absorbing this knowledge is.  It will become a critical foundation for the reasoning mind.

How is biology approached during the second plane?
In a traditional elementary program, The Great Lessons are presented each year.  This collection of stories is designed to give a holistic understanding of the origins of the universe.  They are accompanied by various demonstrations and impressionistic charts meant to spark a child's imagination and lead them to asking how and why with everything they see.

Many of the activities feel similar to prior work on the surface.  The various parts of plants and animals are explored again.  However, this time the function of those parts is revealed and understood to a new depth.  Tidbits that were once observations now become questions.  For example, the fact that leaves change colors now becomes, "Why do the leaves change colors?" with the desire for truly comprehending the complex biological process.

The three part cards from primary are exchanged for five part cards that include definitions.  The functions of various plant and animals parts are explored in depth, analyzed carefully, and classified.  The needs of plants and animals are not simply stated, but they become the basis for various experiments and observations.  The plant and animal kingdoms are presented to exposure children to the wonders of the natural world.

Throughout this entire process, the guide acts as a storyteller whose main role is to entice the child.  They are careful not to reveal too much information, as discovering answers is the role of the child.  One of the main tenants of the elementary program is to teach children how to research for themselves, ultimately teaching a child how to become a lifelong learner.   

Why is this important?
You may be left wondering why this distinction is important.  Ultimately, I've found that understanding what is appropriate at each stage of development has kept me from unnecessarily putting effort into the wrong area.  My husband and I are both strong in mathematics and science.  Naturally, I want to pass this love onto my children.  Early on, I found myself going into great depth with my primary aged children.  I wanted to skip straight to the whys and hows because I find it fascinating.  While I don't think doing so is detrimental, I know my time would have been better spent if I focused solely on feeding the absorbent mind, not that I have regrets with how our journey has gone so far.  It's certainly interesting to see my children transition to the second plane; it has helped me to see the contrast I had only read about prior.

If you'd like to read about these topic from Maria Montessori herself, I suggest The Absorbent Mind for the first plane and To Educate the Human Potential for the second.  If you are looking for something that also moves into the third plane then consider To Educate the Human Potential.

While I enjoy Montessori's work, the resources that have impacted our journey the most are the theory manuals from the Keys series.  They bring together Maria's Montessori work from all avenues; books, lectures and short essays - into a practical guide.  There is one specific to primary (second half of first plane) and one specific to elementary.

Another excellent, practical resource is Child of the World by Susan Stephenson.


You can find me at Montessori Homeschooling.  Don't forget to follow me on Facebook.

This post is part of the 12 Months on Montessori Series.  I am truly humbled to be part of this endeavor.  I encourage you to visit all of the participating blogs to learn more about Biology.

The Pinay Homeschooler ~ Every Star Is Different ~ Grace and Green Pastures
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