Sunday, July 5, 2009

Montessori's Erdkinder

“We have called these children the ‘Erdkinder’ because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the `land-children.’ They are learning of the beginning of civilization that occurred when the tribes settled on the land and began a life of peace and progress while the nomads remained barbarians and warriors. …” [Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence]

Montessori bequeathed pedagogy with several new terms, not least her own name. She also left “the absorbent mind” and “sensitivity period,” although the latter originated with Hugo de Vries; he was the Dutch botanist who made mutation famous; she made “sensitivity period” famous. She also introduced the term Erdkinder, but her focus was on early childhood education; hence this term, used to designated those in the last years of childhood, has remained the property of specialists. Most people have never heard of Erdkinder—even in Germany, althought this is a German word.

Maria never tired of repeating that intense observation of children taught her all she knew. “Sensitivity period” arose from the observation that at different ages children have a very pronounced tendency to learn different things; in these periods their minds become absorbent and acquire experience and knowledge spontaneously, effortlessly. She suggested three periods of sensitivity (and phases within those): birth to 6, 6-12, 12-18. She developed methods and materials to optimize learning in the first two periods, but she only outlined what she saw as the ideal way to educate adolescents, the last cohort. She picked a German word for this, “earth children.” Why she chose a German word I’ve never been able to pin down, not years ago when we were much involved with the Montessori method nor even now with the help of the Internet. I think she heard the word and liked it during one of her lectures in Germany. But the word, Erdkinder, is not in general use in Germany and never has been. It is thus a technical term.

She observed that with age twelve or thereabouts, a new sensitive period begins in which the adolescent becomes keenly interested in social interaction and integration with the group. Hormonal changes disturb and also catalyze this process; emotional turmoil is a consequence; intense anxiety is an on-and-off feature; periods of withdrawal are common. These are what all of us know as the terrible teens. This is not a period, as Montessori saw it, when abstract learning attracts the child—nor a time when the relative solitude and confinement of the classroom answers to the needs of youths.

She projected an interesting—and, indeed challenging—departure for the education of children between 12 and 15 and a modified form of it for those aged 15 to 18. Children, she wrote in the work cited above, should live in a sizeable community on the land, on a farm, something analogous to a Kibbutz—but located reasonably far from the city. Not, she emphasizes, in the suburbs. Children, at this stage, should be shielded from the tense ways of city life. She imagined them spending much of their time in direct participation in the work of the farm, out there in the agricultural environment, in company with suitably trained adults. The earth children would not merely labor; they would take active part in planning the work and solving problems that arose: their participation would be comprehensive. They would also earn money. Montessori considered that an important part of socialization. She also imagined that the Erdkinder would live on the farm with those assigned to teach them.

At this age in life, she observed, children are drawn to communal forms of art, including the theater and music. She pictured them organizing and staging their own entertainments—and also continuing with academic subjects at regularly scheduled times—but always in the context of solving actual problems that arose in the work requirements of the farm. Physical labor, she believed would nicely balance the emotional turmoil produced by their maturing bodies. In the last stage (15 to 18) the formal education would intensify somewhat, but still in the context of the community’s needs. At graduation they would then be full adults, with a comprehensive preparation—be it for life, work, or additional formal education.

Montessori called this the education of the New Man. Alas, she lived before gender-neutral phraseology became de rigeur. When I think about it, I can visualize that such an educational revolution, especially if carried out without compromises, would indeed produce vastly beneficial results for society. The greening of America would have a different meaning…

In the process of checking on recent developments, I discovered that such schools have indeed been implemented up to a point. You can view a video depicting one of these schools, the Hershey Montessori Adolescent Program in Ohio, here. A cursory check shows me that such schools are also sprinkled around the world here and there. The seeds are in the ground.

I’ll leave this subject with a quote from Maria defining her method in a sentence. “I have studied the child,” she said. “I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it and that is what is called the Montessori method.”


  1. Very interesting. I didn’t know anything about this approach towards adolescent education offered by Maria Montessori but, not surprisingly, it makes a great deal of sense.

    One funny line in your post caught my eye –"These are what all of us know as the terrible teens." The common phrase is actually 'the terrible twos' and your extension of that to the teens is funny, telling.

  2. I think she is right on! Physical activity seems primordial for teens and I now think that if my teenage years were relatively calm it's because I was sedated by hours of swimming... Recently, I saw that young adults can voluteer to help on organic farms all over the world. I've been thinking this might be an activity for my teenage son in August in Spzin... Glad to see Montessori would probably agree.

  3. Monique--unaware that I was coining a phrase, but it's descriptive. Hasten to add that it was not something B and I experienced except by looking at others' children.

    Michelle--similar thoughts occurred to us, not least that in the difficult years society should help the parents by following the bend of Nature with properly organized institutions.