It all starts in the womb, as the embryo grows its human body inside its mother, it also prepares for things to come after birth. This growth is mainly physical and focused on making the brain, bones, muscles and everything the body needs to be functioning properly.
What is happening after birth is of another level but also similar. As the body still grows and will go through major physical changes, it also becomes an individual, a human being with a personality and very personal psychological traits who needs to adapt to her new surroundings. The child grows her spirit. This quite amazing phase of the development of the child is very interesting to observe and we, as observers and servants of the child, encounter the most incredible transformation of the physical embryo into a *spiritual embryo.
Maria Montessori talks about Spiritual Embryo for the period of life from birth until 3 years old. She used this expression as a parallel between the physical embryo growing in the womb and the first 3 years of life of the child after birth when she considers the newborn baby is growing in spirit and forming his personality while adapting to the world around her.
Montessori talks about a ‘constructive activity’ that the newborn baby works on during a ‘formative period’ of adaptation to the new world she is just born in.
“The newborn child has to do a piece of formative work, which corresponds in the psychological sphere to the one just done by the embryo in the physical sphere […] This postnatal work is a constructive activity, which is carried on in what may be called the “formative period” and it makes the baby into a kind of ‘Spiritual embryo’.” Montessori Maria, The Absorbent Mind
According to her, science seems to deny this phase of life when the child goes through a lot of work to construct himself. It is important during this period to take care of the child, so she can go through this formative period in the best environment possible.
“The child becoming incarnate is a spiritual embryo which needs its own special environment. Just as the physical embryo needs its mother’s womb in which to grow, so the spiritual embryo needs to be protected by an external environment that is warm with love and rich in nourishment, where everything is disposed to welcome, and nothing to harm it”. Montessori Maria, The Secret of Childhood.
The unconscious Absorbent Mind
These first few years of life seem like a mystery as we cannot necessarily know what is fully happening in the infant’s mind, though we can see the physical changes. The adult world does not have much power to understand what is happening or have much influence on the child’s intelligence capacity during this phase. The child is learning through absorbing what is around her, and she is creating the basis of what she will be later on. This shows how important this phase of life is in the development of the child.
Maria Montessori called the child during these first three years, the unconscious Absorbent Mind because the infant child learns so much without realizing she is learning. She absorbs what comes from his environment through his senses or like Montessori said, « through his life ».
* The word Spiritual is not used by Montessori as it is nowadays; the way she uses it implies the mind, the psychology of the child.