Montessori Philosophy & Practice

THE FIRST YEAR—Unique Development
& The Child's Self-Respect

The following is the text from this section of the 2009-2010 edition of The Joyful Child, Montessori from Birth to Three
To see other sections of this publication return to:


Natural Development & A Child’s Self-respect
There is definitely a relationship between the child’s mastery of communication and movement and the development of a good self-image and self respect. How many of us would be better at "loving ourselves exactly the way we are" if our own attempts at self-construction had been respected early in life? There is a connection.

The first two years of life are the most important. Observation proves that small children are endowed with special psychic powers, and points to new ways of drawing them out—literally "educating by cooperating with nature." So here begins the new path, wherein it will not be the professor who teaches the child, but the child who teaches the professor.
—Maria Montessori, MD

Paying attention to communication attempts, and providing for free movement in a safe and limited space, in the child’s room, or a baby-proofed living room, will do more than anything else to help the child develop trust in himself.
Each child has his or her unique blueprint for development. One child may work on eye-hand coordination while another of the same age will be concentrating on making sounds, another on push-ups or trying to move her whole body through space. One child will be interested in sitting up an eating at a table sometime during the first year and another content to breastfeed. One child will enjoy sitting on a potty to urinate and another will just not be interested. The best we can do to support this individuality is to watch, listen, respect, and get out of the way.

Free movement means being able to move one’s body without artificial movement aids, to be able to move according to developing abilities, gradually learning to reach and to grasp, to turn over, to crawl, to sit up, and to pull oneself up to a standing position and walk—all on one's own.

Developmentally appropriate toys help development. For example when a child is first beginning to crawl and needs an incentive to move forward she is aided by using a rolling toy or a ball that only moves a short distance when being pushed. Intellectual recipes on helping in this way are abundant and contradictory. The most important advice is to learn to follow the child. Each child is unique, and there can be no simple answer for how to treat her.


Preparing the Home to Welcome the Newborn
As you go through the process of preparing baby's room before birth, lie down on the floor in the middle of the room and look around, listen. Will it be safe? interesting? beautiful? calming? Will it allow for as much freedom of movement possible?

Because of the young child's strong sense of order it is ideal if the room can stay the same for the first year. Thus it is very important to put a lot of thought into just how to arrange this first environment.

One day as I was watching the joyful, exuberant actions of a new kitten in our house, I couldn't help comparing it to the curiosity and needs of the young child. The kitten tested itself against the challenges of moving in every possible way around the living room, carefully examining each object and the best way for its body to move over, under, and around it. I was reminded of watching babies when they are allowed to move freely in a prepared environment.

Imagine how the natural development of kittens would be affected if they were confined to such things as kitten cribs with covers, kitten slings, swings, walkers, and pacifiers. I am continually thinking about how we can help babies to explore with their bodies and to develop grace and confidence in movement. The newborn has a lot of important developmental work to do, and we can help this work by providing the most naturally supportive environment.

While in the womb a child has already been exercising muscles and listening to sounds. After birth she will gradually learn to move on her own and to explore, with every sensory and motor ability at her command. She will study the room in detail with her eyes and listen carefully to every single sound with her ears. After strengthening arms and legs with baby push-ups, she will head for objects to explore further.

Every child follows a unique timetable of learning to crawl to those things he has been looking at, so that he may finally handle them. This visual, followed by tactile, exploration is very important for many aspects of human development. If we provide a floor bed or mattress on the floor in a completely safe room—rather than a crib or playpen with bars—the child has a clear view of the surroundings and freedom to explore.

A bed should be one which the baby can get in and out of on his own as soon as he is ready to crawl. The first choice is an adult twin bed mattress on the floor. Besides being an aid to development, this arrangement does a lot to prevent the common problem of crying because of boredom or exhaustion.

It helps to think of this as a whole-room playpen with a baby gate at the doorway and to examine every nook and cranny for interest and safety. If the newborn is going to share a room with parents or siblings we can still provide a large, safe, and interesting environment.

Eventually he will explore the whole room with a gate at the door and then gradually move out into the baby-proofed and baby-interesting remainder of the house.

These are the beginning stages of independence, concentration, movement, self-esteem, decision-making, and balanced, healthful development of body, mind, and spirit.

Clothing that Supports Free Movement and Development

It is quite natural for a baby's hands and feet to be a little cooler than the rest of the body. Even temperature is important—but so is free movement!

When the child begins to creep (which can happen much earlier than we thought when the environment supports it) children also need to be able to create friction with their knees. I remember well the day I put the first dress on my first daughter, and put her on the floor. She was just learning to crawl and the bottom of the dress fell just under knees and completely prevented crawling! Well, that was the last dress for awhile because it was much more important for her to be able to crawl than to let everyone know she was a girl!

Attachment and Separation, Preparation for Weaning, and Toilet Learning
Children who wear cotton pants in the infant community learn to use the potty at the same time as they learn to stand and begin to walk. The Assistant to Infancy keeps careful record of when the infant urinates and then simply offers the potty at these predictable times—with no coercion of any kind. Children love to learn to sit on a little stool next to the potty, to remove panties, and to use the potty, just as they love to learn to imitate all of the other activities going on around them.

The first year of life is marked by an amazing growth in independence. First the baby leaves the security of the womb— because it is time to be able to move and grow as a separate organism. Next she learns to crawl, then to pull up, stand and walk. She takes in a huge amount of language which will be used later. Weaning and learning to use the toilet can be natural and enjoyable transitions when the process is prepared for when the child is very young.

It takes careful observation and wisdom for the parents to see when a child is taking each new step—and the support and encouragement of the adult is the most effective aid to this vital growth in security and independence. We must be there for the infant but step back when we are not needed. The stronger the attachment in the beginning, the more successful will be the separation later.

Breast feeding is an example of a strong attachment. The relationship between the mother and child during the times when the infant is nursing is extremely important, as it becomes a standard for future relationships. Think of the message of love the mother gives to the child when she gives her undivided attention, eye-contact, smiles, singing. The message is very different if the child is fed while the adult is reading, watching TV, or talking to someone else. This period will pass soon enough that we should support the parent in the bonding that occurs during feeding.

We must also keep in mind the psychological effects of too much oral satisfaction in the first year. Instead of nursing a child in response to every negative feeling—tiredness, pain, frustration—we should offer loving comfort in those situations and encourage the child to eat only when he is hungry for food. This helps a child stay in touch with his own natural and healthful eating needs, growing into an adult who eats for nutrition and not out of psychological needs.

Materials that Support Natural Development and Self-esteem

A small table and chair kept in the environment in the first year will provide a familiar space for the child who wants to try feeding herself with a bowl and spoon—and these first attempts happen earlier than we previously thought.

Likewise, a potty seat with which the infant is familiar will invite child to use it as soon as she is ready. Children love to remove their own cotton pants while sitting on a little wooden bench next to the potty. They can start doing this soon after they learn to walk.

There should be no pressure, no reward or punishment, no adult deciding when the child should learn to feed herself or use the potty. The environment is prepared and the child is free to explore and to imitate in these natural developmental stages.

A young child develops trust in herself, the basis of self-esteem, as she interacts with the environment. She learns to move out into the world, to touch and grasp through her own effort, those things she has been longing to reach. With the loving support of adults and older children, and in an environment that meets her changing needs, she will learn that she is capable, that her choices are wise, that she is indeed a fine person.

The End of The First Year
Once this foundation is laid, future learning for children is easier. These children have a positive self-image, and trust that the world is a wonderful place to be. They trust themselves and their ability to function in this world.
—Judi Orion, Montessori Assistants to Infancy Teacher Trainer

Click here to forward this page to friends

© Susan Mayclin Stephenson, 2010 (
Permission to reprint or link to a website is granted if these words are include:
"Shared with permission of The Joyful Child Montessori Company:"