A place for everything and everything in its place is a maxim of the Montessori Method. Order has been called the first law of the universe. In the early 1900’s scientists were excited to realize that everything in the universe went along in an orderly fashion, no doubt influencing Maria Montessori as well, who was truly a scientist at heart. Today, scientists explore chaos theory which challenges this idea, but perhaps only because our minds can’t expand far enough to see the order in the chaos. Montessori found that a sensitive period for the “need for order” emerged in a child at the age of two. To give Montessori credit where credit should be due, modern psychologists like Howard Gardner, have also identified a point in brain development for the emergence of a sense of order, and guess what, it’s also at age two!
You are probably thinking, “My 2-year old sure isn’t (wasn’t) orderly.” What does this research mean? It means the brains of two year olds are counting on things being a certain way over and over again because their brains are now able to sequence. Think of it this way. When the meltdowns occur at this age, it is often because the child’s sense of order has been rearranged by an adult for a number of good reasons (to the adult’s way of thinking). This can be disruptive to the child’s schema of what is supposed to happen first, second and then third. The term, the terrible two’s, is often used to describe this stage of development and I guess toddlers can be pretty terrible if the adults don’t understand about schemas. That’s why it’s important to introduce some predictable order into a two year olds’ life.
You can create some of this order by having bed time rituals, morning get up times, naptime, etc. happen with the same routine each day. In fact, any time of the day that you can organize with some sameness is helpful. If your days aren’t that predictable then settle on the going to bed and getting up rituals as basic ones to follow.
Why would nature time the development of needing a schema/order/ritual/sameness in the child at this age? As I have thought on this over the years and learned something about brain development, I wonder, perhaps, if it isn’t nature’s way of controlling (damping down) the powerful stimuli from the environment that bombard the brain at this time in development. If part of your daily experience can be orderly, predictable, with few surprises because there is order in your life, maybe this frees up the brain to concentrate more fully on the new stimuli flooding in. Infants sleep to dumb down the stimuli, but 2 year olds are awake for longer stretches of time and so perhaps the need for order provides the same effect to the brain as needing frequent naps does for infants. Maybe it is nature’s way of protecting and focusing the brain on what is “new and different” while allowing for “sameness” in other areas, improving the efficiency of learning.
In any case, in an authentic Montessori classroom, you will find the beautiful order to the material arranged on the shelves in systematic ways which comforts the child with the sameness. Maria said the environment was the 4th teacher and I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling of “wholeness” whenever I step into a Montessori classroom. Just the layout itself is “teaching” order. Trying to set up a child’s environment at home to honor this principle is more challenging as usually there are more toys to display than you have shelves for them to go on. Dumping toys into bins, boxes, chests and the like hardly reinforces the order of the classroom. No easy answers there. Parents always ask, “Why isn’t my child neat at home?” Perhaps we should be satisfied that the brain is developing “neatness” and leave it at that. I know my grown children are good housekeepers and whether that is because they went to Montessori schools or not, I’ll never know. They sure weren’t that neat as children!
As we understand the importance of repetition and order in development, we can examine what concepts are being reinforced that will become good habits of mind and heart in the lives of our children. Montessori-based experiences are reinforcing good habits in so many ways.
Dr. Celeste Miller