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The fourth trimester
Happy Friday, everyone.
Three months ago, my wife Gena and I welcomed our second child, Adam.
This past Monday, he started at a Guidepost infant program—actually, at our new in-home Picco program, which merits its own Friday note soon. This note, though, is about the time between, that he spent with us at home.
The first three months of life are incredible. This period is sometimes referred to as “the fourth trimester”, to indicate a sort of continuity with pregnancy. Newborn human babies are still so helpless and are developing so rapidly that it can almost seem like they are born “too early”. Montessori called the newborn a “psychic embryo” or “spiritual embryo”. She thought that the mind of the child really starts its development after birth, once it has contact with the world unmediated by the womb.
Though our programs don’t begin until three months old, the core principles underlying our programs are relevant to newborns. The youngest of children are exerting independent effort to build themselves, to learn, to grow. Even tiny babies need the freedom to experiment and explore and achieve. Even the youngest of humans benefit from thoughtful care and environmental design.
Learning to eat
The most basic biological function of any organism is eating. Newborns are terrible at it, which is to say, they need to learn it. Within minutes of being born, Adam initiated his first learning journey: he wiggled and pushed and adjusted himself on Gena in repeated attempts to latch and breastfeed. He finally got it—sort of, ineptly—and has been working on improving ever since. Digestion wasn’t easy for him, either. He started off cholicy and discontent, flexing his abdominal muscles, trying to figure out how to help his body process and what to do with his body’s signals of discomfort. This process was more physiological and less visible, but evidently still quite effortful.
As Gena put it:
What’s struck me most about the whole experience is just how much even a newborn human’s work of feeding himself—to say nothing of my work of feeding him—is complex and non-automatic, depending as much on trial-and-error experimentation and skill-building as on reflexive instinct. This is apparently truer for primates than for other mammals, and it becomes truer in proportion to the intelligence of the primate, culminating, of course, in the human: “the most problematic nursers of all primates, if not all mammals,” according to this research review. The article cites a prominent anthropologist and primatologist, Sarah Hrdy, who chalked up this difference to “a trade-off between the reliability of innate behaviors and the flexible power of a learning brain.”
(If you want more of the story of Adam, it’s worth reading her whole piece here.)
Learning to see
The sensorimotor learning is no less dramatic. Newborn infants are eager to look around, but they can't actually see much. Here’s a simulation of newborn perception across the first several months from the Lozier Institute:
It’s not quite as bad as it looks, for two reasons. First, infants are especially good at face perception. They pick up information that distinguishes faces, such as the hairline and the position of the eyes on the face, and use it to familiarize themselves with the faces of caregivers. Second, due to eye saccades, head movement, and being carried around, infant vision is always in motion, which makes it easier to detect even blurry environmental invariants.
All that said, they still have to work at it, and they do. Adam stared at everything. Faces, high-contrast lines like the gap between blinds, high-contrast mobiles (like the Munari mobile that Montessori helped design), and that classic infant obsession with ceiling fans. Here’s Adam at three days old, learning to turn and stabilize his visual field as it moves. The process of learning to focus one’s eyes and track objects, again, is effortful.
Learning to move
Then there’s the motor side of sensorimotor learning: newborns move. A lot. They don’t locomote—they can’t move from point A to point B. But even very small children are already working at it and even approximating it. Adam was rotating counterclockwise in place on the floor by scooching himself around within a month, and within two months he could, alarmingly, scooch himself off the changing table if we let him. (We didn’t.)
Beyond locomotion, infants are constantly moving in every way they can. They have no concept of what their limbs are and no capacity to coordinate them—but they learn, quickly and voraciously, by exercising what capacities for movement they do have, developing muscles, eliminating degrees of freedom, and becoming more and more synchronized. Here’s Adam on day 2, self-calibrating.
There are countless other effortful processes and developmental milestones—smiling and grabbing and sleeping and inventing new alien noises every day—but I’ll just discuss one more, the most distinctly Montessori of them all: concentration.
Learning to focus
“Concentration” and “focus” aren’t terms we naturally associate with newborn babies. And to be fair, their powers here are quite limited compared to older children and adults. But neither are they insignificant. By the time Adam was six weeks old, he was concentrating for over thirty minutes at a time, on a regular basis.
This was first evident on his changing table. I created a somewhat ridiculous setup for him, converting my tool bench into a changing table:
It quickly became one of Adam’s favorite places. Here’s a time-lapse of him focusing on and interacting with the nearby objects on the peg board for 35 minutes. He still loves it. Leaving him on the changing table (supervised, now that he can hurl himself off) and letting him look, grab, and explore is still part of our daily routine.
Exercising the capacity to concentrate is the crux of Montessori education. “The role of education is to interest the child profoundly in an external activity to which he will give all his potential” (From Childhood to Adolescence, p.11, emphasis in original).
Concentration is the primary locus of human agency: the choice to focus on some part of reality, to understand it and manipulate it. And it also has a centralizing role, developmentally, since focusing on something in the world coordinates different developing functions: visual focus, executive function, cognitive resources, and motor control all have to be brought to bear simultaneously and in a complex way on one thing. And it ultimately flowers into virtue itself, into persistence and thinking and valuing and even love—the ability to deliberately devote oneself and spend oneself on something or someone of one’s own choosing.
Infants are in fact doing all of this, long before they enter our programs. We can help them along like I did (semi-accidentally), first by creating an environment that is choiceworthy for his engagement, and second and most important by recognizing his engagement when it does happen, and valorizing and protecting it.
Education—not in the sense of “schooling”, but in Montessori’s definition of “the help we must give to life so that it may develop in the greatness of its powers” (1946 London Lectures, p. 6)—absolutely begins at birth. It begins at birth because the exercise of nascent human agency begins at birth.
It’s a great and fleeting privilege to be a parent of a newborn. And it’s a great privilege to be working with all of you to create experiences that will help Adam and countless children like him at each stage of his development.
Have a great weekend,
Executive Director, Montessorium