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The Tendencies of Humans

Throughout history, humans have relied on their ingenuity and adaptability for survival. Regardless of race, country, or culture, people follow similar patterns of exploration, inventiveness, and creativity. After years of careful observation, Maria Montessori was able to identify eleven important tendencies that compel human beings to construct and refine the world around them.

girl smelling flower

What do we mean by the word "tendency"? One dictionary defines it as "A predisposition to think, act, behave, or proceed in a particular way". The following characteristics are ones that we display before we even know what they are; we do them naturally and instinctively. In Montessori philosophy, they are the key to understanding how and why a Montessori classroom calls out to the very soul of the child.

Here are the tendencies of humans as defined by Maria Montessori:

  • Orientation. Human beings want to know their relationship to the environment around them. When children enter a new environment, they often want to look at and touch everything around them. They enjoy knowing "where" they fit in - from learning their address to finding their country and continent on a map.
  • Order. People prefer order to chaos and confusion. Order brings predictability and security. There are two kinds of order: external and internal. An orderly classroom (external) helps children to have orderly thoughts (internal).
  • Exploration. Our earth is filled with wonderful sounds, scents, textures, tastes, and colors. Children are naturally curious, and love to use their senses to learn more about the fascinating world around them.
  • Communication. Humans delight in conveying thoughts, feelings, and information to each other. Various types of communication include the written and spoken word, touch, facial expressions, gestures, art, music, and dance. Communication is the link of understanding between people, both face-to-face and from generation to generation.
  • Activity. People generally like to stay busy. For children, movement can be enjoyed for its own sake, rather than always having a goal or end product in mind. Even children who have very little to play with will find ways to be active through games, songs, dance, and pretend play.
  • Manipulation. Humans need to take hold of their environment to understand it. It is the next step after exploration: once you have found something interesting, you will quite naturally want to use it in some way. This is how the concept of "tools" began.
  • Work. Humans feel worthwhile through their work. Work leads to a feeling of accomplishment and self-respect. Maria Montessori believed that it was through work that a child constructed his true self, free of defect or misbehavior.
  • Repetition. This occurs when a child repeats a task over and over again. Oftentimes it is with the intent to master the task, but even after mastery occurs, a child may continue to repeat the activity for the sheer pleasure of doing so.
  • Exactness. Have you ever seen a child get upset because something was put back in the wrong place? Or watched them line up their blocks neatly before building a tower? Instinctively, humans seek to be precise in their work. Doing something exactly right brings enormous satisfaction.
  • Abstraction. This is truly the characteristic that sets us apart from animals. We are able to visualize events that have not yet occurred; we are able to feel and express emotions that are not tangible. We can imagine something that exists only in our minds, and then take the steps to make it happen.
  • Perfection. All of the tendencies culminate in this one. Once we have explored, manipulated, and worked in our environment, we can perfect our activities. In doing so, we are masters of our own minds and bodies as well as the tasks we set out to do.
girl with tree

Once we are aware of the underlying forces that compel human development, we will recognize them everywhere. The tendencies of humans are what compel babies to put everything they find into their mouths. They are the reason that a young child wants to know how things are made, and why children are filled with wonder when they enter a forest. They are the reason for our appreciation of a finely-crafted piece of furniture or a beautiful painting; we recognize the repetition that went into the mastery and finally perfection of a difficult skill.

The prepared environment (i.e., the Montessori classroom with its carefully chosen and beautifully arranged materials) is built around these tendencies. Because of this, Montessori teachers do not need to force their students to work; children are naturally drawn to the materials because they appeal to their instinctive drives. For example, the environment is safe and secure, filled only with items that can be touched and manipulated by the child. Work is neat, orderly, and accessible; this encourages exactness and exploration.

Today's child unconsciously displays the same traits that early humans did, and without realizing it, we often stand in the way of their exploration and manipulation because it is an inconvenience to us. When we are able to remove any hindrances to a child's natural tendencies, the child will flourish and likely surprise us with their pursuit of knowledge, their innovative thinking, and their limitless curiosity.

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