The Absorbent Mind: Learning by Osmosis by Maria Kaminstein
One September morning early in my Montessori teaching career, I was startled to see my new Kindergartners stroll into the classroom and begin working on the cube chains – organizing the intricate math materials and counting the beads correctly. Many of these children had not had a lesson on this advanced math work, so how did they know how to do it? I asked them, and they said, in effect, “We’re Kindergartners, and this is Kindergarten work – so now we’re doing it.” This experience was one of my first object lessons in what Maria Montessori identified as the child’s “absorbent mind.” Understanding the power of young brain was one of her seminal discoveries.
Children soak up everything – words, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, use of tools, processes, patterns of behavior, and much more. Adults are frequently startled, or even alarmed, at how closely the children have been observing them. I knew a two-year-old who pulled a chair over to the front door, climbed up, turned the dead bolt lock, opened the door, and went for a (thankfully short) stroll. His parents didn’t have to teach him how to leave the house – he just watched and then seized a golden opportunity to try it himself.
The Montessori classroom is intentionally designed to take full advantage of this absorbent quality of young children’s minds. The materials are their size, easy to access, and designed to clearly exemplify a skill or concept. They are also durable and attractive, drawing a child to want to touch and use them. Living in a mixed age classroom day by day, younger children are exposed to the work of the older children, and they begin to internalize the processes, vocabulary and knowledge of their older friends. They are also inspired to emulate them. When it is time for them to take on the work themselves, an important part of the learning is already done.
Children do not learn everything effortlessly or painlessly, of course. Teachers engage in many instructional strategies as they lead children through the curriculum. However, our understanding of children’s ability to soak up information helps us to make the best use of their time and energy, and makes the learning process, at its best, a true joy.
 Cube chain: Bars containing a specific number of beads (e.g. 8 beads per bar) strung together to make a long chain of beads. The number of beads on the chain equals the cube of the bead bar – for example, the chain of 8 bars has 512 beads. In addition, all the bars on the chain can be folded to create a cube shape. Children count the beads sequentially and put a number tag at the end of each bar. The chains are indirect preparation for multiplication and for algebra (see a future article for a discussion of indirect preparation).