“The first duty of an education is to stir up life, but leave it free to develop,” claimed Maria Montessori more than a century ago. Today, the educational triangle that her education and her fundamental principle are based on are being proven by neuroscience.
What’s more, after years of experimentation, Steve Hughes, neuropsychologist, pediatrician, and Montessori father, is firm in his conviction that the Montessori Method strengthens certain brain functions that help expand cognitive development. He has even given the method the nickname “the original system of learning based on the brain.”
Neurological development is strengthened by learning through Montessori methodology. This claim can not only be supported by hundreds of successful cases of development since its establishment, but also through the various discoveries that today’s neuroscience has made. Let’s look at 5 of those:
Illustration by Karin Taylor
1. The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence
“The human being conceives of his surroundings through his hands. They are the tools of his intelligence. His hands are creative, they can produce things. The sensory organs and coordination develop through manual activities,” claimed Maria Montessori.
Today we know that the resources that the brain uses to process the sensory stimuli it perceives through the hands is significantly superior to other parts of the body, so we could say that experiencing the world through your hands is the equivalent of going through the large door of our brain and, as such, they must play a central role in learning.
In the image, we can observe what is called “homunculus motor and homunculus sensorial.” This term is used to describe a distorted human figure that is drawn to reflect the relative sensorial space that our body parts represent in the cerebral cortex. In both homunculi, we can see how the hands are significantly larger than other areas.
2. Natural experimentation strengthens the child’s skills and abilities
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment,” maintained Maria Montessori.
Encouraging free and natural experimentation means urging children and babies to move around and communicate with their environment. Children who learn through Montessori education spend more time moving around than in traditional schools; that is to say, an active relationship is demanded with the medium, which promotes a better mastery of motor, sensory, emotional, and cognitive skills.
So the benefit of promoting an active attitude in relation to the environment makes babies and children more competent when it comes to recognizing the intentions of others. This discovery is supported by various studies on the benefits of playing with Velcro mittens to bring on an intended action. In short, encouraging children to do something helps them to learn more quickly than mere observation, as was stated in the text published in 1981 by Kandel et al.
3. Executive functions and Montessori
Executive functions are those cognitive abilities that allow us to mentally manipulate ideas. These mental skills promote the conscientious, active, voluntary, and efficient resolution of the problems that show up in daily life.
Learning to be flexible and to accept changes in our environment, concentrating on a task, continuing it with an objective, resisting our impulses, and retaining information to operate with it are indispensable skills for proper development.
The term “executive functions” classifies those abilities into three categories: inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. If these functions are not well developed, there may even be a false diagnosis of disorders like ADHD and other difficulties with learning.
With Montessori learning, developed at a moment when this was not yet known, help is given to the development of these functions through different activities, e.g. waiting, looking for material by going through a labyrinth created by partners doing other activities, etc. Research shows that children who have attended Montessori preschools demonstrate better execution in this family of cerebrospinal mental processes.
4. The sensitive periods or advantages of opportunity in childhood
Maria Montessori observed that in childhood, there were sensitive periods for learning. In these evolutionary moments lies great neuro-emotional potential, and as such, education is essential. Concretely, it is essential for children to explore their world in the most autonomous way possible in the period between the ages of 0 and 11 years old.
Thus, in a comprehensive way, we can talk about the creation of Montessori microcosms or microworlds. This is the creation of a purely child-like environment: children-sized furniture, little toys that encourage exploration and cognitive flexibility, etc. Neuroscience has identified these stages in which the brain needs a certain stimulation in order to develop.
5. Mirror neurons as the basis for learning
For children to see and experience the world is the basis for the concern that Montessori learning inculcates in the youngest of children. Mirror neurons, the ones that can be found in the frontal lobe, help absorb information about the environment through the senses. This was discovered by Maria Montessori through observation and later corroborated by the discovery of these neurons that specialize in imitating.
As we can see, the Montessori method is one that is gaining a great deal of scientific support and that must keep being studied in an exhaustive way, as it guarantees the creation of a universe based on affection and respect for the individual rhythms of each child and environment.