The basic developmental task of the child in its first six years of life is to build its personality. The period from 3 to 6 years is not a separate developmental phase, but a stage within this first developmental stage.
The "social embryo"
Even though it is often a challenge for the adult, the child's associated egocentric attitude during this phase of its life is quite understandable from its point of view. Toward the end of its third year, however, it becomes calmer and more balanced. Although the three-year-old child is still quite busy building itself up, it is now increasingly able to integrate itself into a group. Montessori therefore referred to the child at this age as a "social embryo": In the protected, prepared environment of the children's house, it can slowly but surely prepare for its entry into society.
The awakening of consciousness
From birth on the child absorbed all impressions unconsciously, undifferentiated and holistically. Now, at about the age of three, it begins to sort out these impressions and to clarify its knowledge about the world. In doing so, it must be active itself; it must "grasp" things. According to Montessori, at the age of three to six the child changes from an unconscious creator to a conscious worker. Montessori states, "At three years of age it is as if life begins anew, for at this time consciousness fully and clearly reveals itself.".
Montessori observed that the development of the child is controlled by special sensitive phases. Modern brain research speaks of "critical time windows", in which the child turns to individual developmental tasks with enormous perseverance and concentration. During this time, it learns with ease and enormous thoroughness. Once this phase is over, however, it is gone forever. The same things must then be learned with great effort.
For the child in the Children's House, order in its environment is of particular importance. The child is not only able to make this order a part of its personality, but depends on it to orient itself and to build an inner, mental order. For this reason, the activities with the sensory materials also exert a special attraction on the child, as they help him to order the information it takes in through its senses and to distinguish it more and more precisely.
Movement is involved in all activities. If the child has learned to crawl, walk, climb or hop during the first three years of life, it is now interested in executing and controlling the movements of its hand with increasing precision. Tirelessly and without being asked, it repeats the same exercises until this developmental need is satisfied!
Interest in writing and reading
At about four years of age, the child shows great interest in the written characters in its environment. The sandpaper letters and numbers developed by Montessori are the perfect answer to this sensitivity: through movement and via its senses, the child picks up the shape of these characters. Many children learn to write and read spontaneously in this way. Furthermore, the child has a special ability to absorb the languages in its environment and soaks them up holistically, like a sponge.
The The prepared environment in the children's house is tailored to these sensitive phases and the developmental needs that arise from them.
1] Montessori, Maria (1994): The Creative Child. The Absorbent Mind. Freiburg: Herder, p. 148.