The Four Planes of Development

The Four Planes of Development after Maria Montessori

by Cornelia Tosch, February 2018 


What is a child about? How can a helpless baby become a full member of our society? Maria Montessori’s understanding was that “education” becomes an “aid to life” - a natural process all children undertake spontaneously, guided through ever evolving stages of development. Among others, she followed with her thoughts, former theories & thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who was convinced that the development of a child is following an inner program of four different steps. The program is universal as it can be seen as part of the nature of the human being[1].

Maria Montessori had a profound respect for the child. She considered children as fellow human beings, not as inferiors. She wrote, 

I have found that in his development, the child passes through certain phases, each of which has its own particular needs.  The characteristics of each are so different that the passages from one phase to another have been described by certain psychologists as ‘rebirths’.

(Montessori, “The Four Planes of Education”, p.1, reprinted in 2004)

Maria Montessori termed the stages from birth to adulthood “The Four Planes of Development” and follows a holistic view as she considers the cognitive, biological, social and moral changes of the individual from birth to the age of 24.   

"The child's development follows a path of successive stages of independence, and our knowledge of this must guide us in our behavior towards him. We have to help the child to act, will and think for himself. This is the art of serving the spirit, an art which can be practiced to perfection only when working among children." (The Absorbent Mind, p. 257)

These stages address the ways that the child in his personality, cognitive ability, and behavior changes during each distinct phase. Understanding the characteristics and needs of the child at each stage allows the adult to support the natural unfolding of life. The child becomes the active agent, and the adult is there to support him. The Montessori approach is the same at all ages, but the applications of the approach must change, according to the child’s needs.



The overall, "Development is a series of rebirths" (The Absorbent Mind, p. 17) and life follows a constructive rhythm. As indicated in figure 1, especially the first and the third stage are characterized by evident changes in the child and therefore marked in red triangles. The blue triangle is showing calmer periods with more latent development, less dynamic, more about a refinement. The first and second planes form the years of childhood, and the third and fourth planes form the passage into adulthood. The first plane is for the formation, or creation, of the individual and the second plane is for the development of the individual. The third plane brings another creation, the adult in society and the fourth plane develops that creation. In addition, the first and third plane contain of two sub-phases, each lasting about three years. In general, the first three years of each plane are for creation, and the last three years for development, or “crystallization.”

While Maria Montessori puts the strongest emphasis on the first 3 years of life, these are periods that are normally less valued and educationally emphasized in the current school systems. They are putting highest educational input and effort on the time of university which is completely the opposite of Maria Montessori’s interpretation.


The First Plane of Development (0-6 years)

The first plane of development occurs from birth to around six years of age. It is divided into two sub-planes, (0-3) and (3-6). 

At birth, a human baby is virtually helpless. At this stage, “it is not a question of development, but of creation from nothing”

(Montessori, M., Education for a New World, “Periods and the Nature of the Absorbent Mind,”).

The First Sub-Plane (birth to three years), the child as the “Spiritual embryo / Unconscious creator”

This is the most critical period of development and the greatest changes take place during the first 3 years of life. In these three years, the child has what is called the unconscious Absorbent Mind. This means that he is not conscious of his actions and reactions. He does not act on a willed choice, nor has a conscious memory.

Brain research classifies the brain in three parts: 1) a rational brain, 2) the limbic system and 3) the reptile brain. The discovery of the child in the first years is massively influencing how many and where synapsis is built. And the interaction with the parents are clearly influencing the emotional development of a child as well.[2] In the didactic triangle of child, environment and parents/adults, we must not neglect that only a child which has secure feelings, can learn peacefully and discover the world to its full extent.

The Second Sub-Plane (three to six years) the child as “Conscious Creator/Worker.”

At this stage, the child still has the Absorbent Mind, but he is now in the stage of the conscious Absorbent Mind. The child can interact with his environment consciously and deliberately and realizes that he is learning.  His work is joyful, purposeful activity; he is always busy. He is conscious of his thoughts, and the fact that he can think for himself. He begins to develop self-mastery and self-control. He can only learn through his own experiences, by doing this with his own hands, the instrument of his mind. This is the period of crystallization in the first plane.



The Second Plane of Development (6-12 years)

Compared to the first plane of development, the years from ages six to twelve are a relatively calm and stable period.  There is a great deal of intellectual work that takes place due to an unlimited curiosity but not the intense amount of physical and mental growth that took place in the first plane. The child has mastered the basic human skills. He is socially adapted to his culture. He now learns through reasoning, using his imagination and logic to explore areas of study. He wants to come to his own conclusion, wants to know how things work. The child at this age has an insatiably inquisitive mind. The question they asked in the first plane was, “What is it?” but now they ask, “Why is it?” “Why do these things happen?”, “What if they don’t happen?”, “How does the world work?”.  They understand past, present and future. The child is intensely interested in learning about everything and he is able to feel the invisible. Just as the first plane of development was for absorbing the environment through the senses, the second plane is for understanding how all these components in the world work together. It is a so-called “cosmic education” = discover the world and universe!

To do so, children love to work in projects and discover deeply each topic through research. I discovered this myself with my 6 years old daughter. We were reading as a bed-time story “Asterix et Cleopatre” and consequently we did a whole week of research on the old Roman imperium, old Egypt, hieroglyphs, Cleopatra and Cesar, why did she die, which snake poisoned her and why, how many snakes are there nowadays, where to find Old Egypt, what happened to both imperia etc…. We are still in the process of researching more and more!

During this plane, the child is in the sensitive period for peer identity and it is crucial for him to be accepted as a member of a group. They seek this partly as well outside of the family in the so-called peer-group. This plane also brings up a sensitive period for developing ethics and morals. The child is intensely interested in the concepts of justice, fairness and has a keen awareness of injustice. He is much more interested in heroes, famous people etc.


The Third Plane of Development (12-18 years)

This plane of development brings another “rebirth”, but this time it is not the birth of an individual, but the birth of social man.  This is the time, says Montessori, “When the social man is created but has not yet reached full development.” [3]. We can compare the third plane of development to the first, because it is a time of great transformation, both physically and psychologically and the first sub-plane (12-15 years) is a time of greater change than the second sub-plane (15-18 years).

The physical changes that accompany puberty are rapid and dramatic. The body is getting weaker, clumsier, less dynamic because of all the changes and children are not inclined to great energy. They like to sleep late.

Emotionally the child finds himself in a period full of questioning. He finds himself in an in-between status: neither child anymore, nor adult. He is emotionally inconsistent, full of contradiction in its feelings, full of doubts and might show consequently very strong reactions. He is very vulnerable and criticism is hard to accept. It is a period of confusion, in search of their identity and including many questions about love, work, life, peace.

And there is also a psychological change from the child in the family to the adult in society. They need to be responsible for the group they live in. Maria Montessori used the term Erdkinder to describe adolescents who are preparing to enter the larger, global community.  Mentally, they have developed logical thinking, but they do not want to be pressured into learning facts. Consequently, academic learning should be connected to real life skills: gardening, cooking, sewing, fixing/repairing, etc. Maria Montessori was never able to create such a school, but she communicated her ideas about it. In this protected environment, under adult supervision, adolescents would be prepared for living on their own as part of the society. This would satisfy their strong need for independence while helping them learn that a harmonious society consists of inter-dependent people.

"Therefore, work on the land is an introduction both to nature and to civilization and gives a limitless field for scientific and historic studies. If the produce can be used commercially this brings in the fundamental mechanism of society, that of production and exchange, on which economic life is based. This means that there is an opportunity to learn both academically and through actual experience what are the elements of social life. We have called these children the "Erdkinder" because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the "land-children."

(Montessori, M., Childhood to Adolescence, p. 68)

Maria Montessori was ahead of her time. When using MRI technology, researchers are able to prove that certain areas of the brain grow and change during adolescence.  The prefrontal cortex, the “rational brain” is not fully developed until well into early adulthood. In fact, what we are seeing is an “exuberance” of synaptic growth, second only to the amazing synaptic growth taking place in the first sub-plane between birth and the age of three.  It is this exuberance, or over production of synapses that causes the adolescent brain to function so inefficiently.  As experience shapes the growth and lowers less efficient pathways, the prefrontal cortex matures, and adolescents are able to reason better, use better judgment, and exhibit better impulse control[4].


The Forth Plane of Development (18-24 years)

Following the bigger changes and creations in the third plane, the fourth plane is another stable period of development and consolidation of the creations formed in adolescence. A consolidation of all that have been acquired before This is the transition to adulthood. The physical development is over. The adolescent becomes an individual, part of the society, social person and it will emerge after all into a secure, responsible, independent, moral and social adult

From 18-21 years, they are in a period of questioning, a career search. From 21-24, they are settling in with what they want to take on. If we have given the youth enough exposure to many branches of learning and practical skills, s/he can now choose a profession that is deeply satisfying. The quest for independence can now be achieved

As in the passage through all previous planes, his success now depends on how he has developed his potential until this point.  If the preceding levels of independence have been realized, he will be able to make her own “choice of action,” aware of his own “possibilities and responsibilities.”  Montessori writes,

“Culture and education have no bounds or limits; now man is in a phase in which he must decide for himself how far he can proceed in the culture that belongs to the whole of humanity.” (Montessori, “Four Planes of Education,” p.14, reprinted in 2004).

Personality will blossom in each stage. He knows who he is, has his place in society, knows what he can and his limits, can take a decision, accepts consequences of his action and decision and someone aware of the part he is supposed to have in society.


[1] Oerter, Montada (1982). Entwicklungspsychologie. Beltz, Psychologische Verlagsunion

[2] Sunderland, M., Die neue Elternschule / The Science of Parenting, 2006, DK.

[3] Montessori, M. From Childhood to Adolescence / Von der Kindheit zur Jugend, 2015, Herder

[4]Giedd, J., Inside the Teenage Brain, 2002, Frontline.


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