Wasted Riches. Part 1. The learning abilities of the young child.

A mother and a baby in Zambia via Bread for the World, CC BY-ND 2.0

The following article has been presented by Muriel I. Dwyer, director of Maria Montessori Training Organization in London, to Unesco-Unicef Cooperative Programme in 1981.

The heading of this paper is “The Learning Abilities of the Young Child”. I should like to rename it “Wasted Riches”, as only now are most people beginning to recognize the immense potentialities of infancy and early childhood.

It has been widely shown by research over the past forty years that young children are gifted with a psychic nature peculiar to them, and this, inevitably, points a new path for the educator, whoever he may be. It is something out of the ordinary; something not hitherto recognized, yet something which vitally concerns mankind.

Just as men in the past have trodden the earth and tilled its surface without thought for the immense wealth hidden in its depth, so man of our day makes progress, in civilized life, hardly noticing the treasures that lie in the psychic world of infancy.

Dr. Alexis Carrel, in his famous book “L’Homme cet Inconnu”, wrote in 1935:

The period of infancy is undoubtedly the richest. It should be utilised by education in every possible and conceivable way. The waste of this period can never be compensated. Instead of ignoring the early days, it is our duty to cultivate them with the utmost care.

The greatness of human personality begins at the hour of birth or before, and therefore it becomes plain that education must begin at birth, as by the age of three the child has already laid down the foundations of his personality as a human being. So great are the conquest he has made that one may well say: the child of three is already a little man.

Psychologists have affirmed that if our own ability be compared with the child’s we should need many years of hard work to do what he does in his first three.

Dr. Silvana Montanaro writes:

young children are tireless and joyful workers, their pleasures and sense of achievement arise only from continouous exercising of their capacities and the amount of information they can store in thirty-six months has been compared to three high-grade university courses.

Today we can calculate the exact number of nerve cells in the human brain but we also know the most cultured and intelligent person uses only a tiny fraction of these cells. Unfortunately, we appear to be millionaires who lead paupers’ lives and it is obvious that this sad situation stems from lack of opportunity for children during their first years of life; because scientifically there is practically no limit to a child’s capacity for learning.

It is necessary to remember our subject is «the learning abilities of the young child» – not what most people find it convenient to think are the learning abilities of the young child – nor what it is possible to implement in the most difficult places. Please allow children to show us what they are capable of, what their abilities are. If you do, you will probably be very pleasantly surprised.

I know difficulties many of you are experiencing, but do not be afraid if because of conditions you can only take the first step. It is still very necessary for you to have a vision of the vastness of what is before us, and this very vastness is something that should give us great encouragement. It is of the utmost importance to remember that it is only the babies who have the power to build the men of the future. It is too late for us, even for the youngest of you here present.

But it is essential that we open our minds to this vastness of the potential of man. It should be a pointer of man. It should be a pointer of hope for all of us in our work. Keeping in mind that the most fortunate are only using the fraction of their potential, let us look at the attainments of average three-year-olds, in those parts of the world where they have reasonable chances for fuller development.

At birth, the baby has hardly any co-ordinated movement, no language, customs, tastes, religion. He is totally helpless and will surely suffer and possibly die unless given every help, but by the age of three we can expect to find that the child has the following abilities. He should at least:

  • be capable of speaking clearly and being able to express his needs and re-tell experiences in at least one language;
  • be capable of walking and also running, climbing with assurance, carrying things safely;
  • be able to feed and toilet alone, and make a good attempt at dressing and undressing.
  • have clear ideas of the behaviour that is acceptable at home and the immediate environment;
  • have a knowledge of the customs, music, simple poems and stories of his society, and have explored his immediate surroundings.

If one ponders or meditates on the state of helplessness of this life at birth and the achievements in three years one cannot help but be impressed, indeed totally overawed, when one realizes that at very best this is only a fraction of the potential of man. This ability to make fantastic progress continues until 6 years of age unless it is hindered, but here we come up against adult prejudice.

It is, however, time to be practical; how can we help? what is required? In order to answer, we must first clear a few points.

Man has a double embryonic life. Let us turn to Dr. Maria Montessori for an explanation of this:

At birth, man is relatively immature compared with other primates. This is a statement of fact. Consequently, part of the process of growth and development that these animals complete in the embryonic stage, man accomplishes in the post-natal state, when he is exposed to influences from the outside world. This is what Montessori means when she refers to the double embryonic process and it is related to the outer environment. It is, therefore, of a psychological order. The post-natal stage is a formative period of intense activity during which the child must create in himself the basic structure of his personality.

 The human genetic code provides that the vast potential of the human being is present at birth, but from then on what the environment (including the adults who form part of the environment) provides seems to be increasingly important. Thus, the study of the development of the brain of man is all-important.

Professor W. Ritchie Russel and Dr. Montanaro tell us that

the healthy human infant at birth is already provided with his full allocation of nerve cells. At birth the brain weighs approximately 335 gr. or about 25% of the weight of the adult brain; yet by nine months it is already 750 gr. or more than half the weight of the adult’s brain.

It is also interesting to see the rate of the increase: 0-3 months, 180 gr.; 3-6 months, 145 gr.; 6-9 months, 90 gr. By five years it is 90% of the adult’s brain weight.

This astonishing process is not due to any increase in the number of brain cells, but it is due to the growth of patterns and interconnections on which all possibilities of the future depend.

The anatomy and physiology of the nervous system clearly points out that education (in the sense we shall outline) realises an instrument whose precision is directly proportioned to early progressive training. Thus intelligence, this individual and free gift, will have available, to manifest itself, a device for which the developmental environment is all-responsible. Whilst most adults tend to think that new-born and unweaned babies only need hygiene and good food, the new human being, psychically hungry, is wasting its most valuable time. Only appropriate stimulation can increase the volume and weight of the cerebral cortex and adapt each individual cell to its proper function.

“Education” in the sense we mean, is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is acquired by virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.

The adult’s task is to so prepare the environment, be it home or school, so as to provide the child with series of motives of activity relative to different areas of life, including culture, that he needs to explore and incarnate if he is to achieve full development and adaptation to his time, place and group.

It has been said that individual activity is the one factor that stimulates and produces development and that this is not more true of the little ones of pre-school age than it is for the primary, middle and upper school children.

Learning follows its own development and rules. Every step is conditioned by what happened (or did not) beforehand. Therefore education can only be efficient when the specific rhythm of this evolutionary plan is respected. Thus an adequate development during the first years of life is linked to the adult’s knowledge of and attitude to the child’s needs.

Techniques alone, although they are an essential help, are not sufficient because human beings are so constructed that they can receive positive stimulus for development from the outside world only through the channel of love.

It is the only true way of communication capable of penetration; under various forms, it accompanies us from conception to death. I say from conception because already in the mother’s womb the child, when loved, is in a different biological environment. Very recent researches have shown that women happy with their pregnancies produce a special molecule, endorphin, capable amongst other things of contributing to the development of the nervous system. Mother’s milk, moreover, is the only one containing special protein, cystine, which is enormous help in developing the brain. So the importance of breast-feeding, not only from the nutritional and hygienic point of view but also from the developmental standpoint and as an outward sign of love, is once again underlined. It is important for children that mothers be happy with and during pregnancies.

Also, the moment of birth and the handling of the child at birth and immediately afterwards is vital, and I would ask you all to look at the work of Dr. Le Boyer.

In the early years of life, man has a special type of mind that allows the impressions he receives not merely to enter his mind but to form it – they become part of him. This allows the child to form himself on the society and environment which he finds himself. This type of mind has been called «the absorbent mind». This special mind allows the child to build into himself the customs, languages and ways of life of the people who surround him.

Man throughout his life has certain “needs” in order to continue to live and develop, but let us take a very brief look at a few of the needs of the child from birth to six years. We have already spoken of love, and with it comes security, sufficient and correct food, and necessary clothing and shelter; but there are others, just as important. We must confine ourselves to a few words on a limited number of the most obvious, such as movement, independence, communication, exploration, curiosity, order and exactness.


Movement is the conclusion and purpose of the nervous system; without it can be no individual. It is fundamental that the actions of man should be connected at the centre – the brain, mind and movement being two parts of a single cycle.

It is essential for education that mental development be connected with movement, and dependent on it, because movement has great importance in mental development itself, provided that the action which occurs is connected with the mental activity going on. Observations made on children over the world confirm that the child uses his movements to extend his understanding, for movement helps the development of the mind and this finds renewed expression in further movement and activity.

Independence or Self-reliance

If we observe the natural development of life with sufficient care we see that it can be defined as the gaining of successive levels of independence, and each such gain is a step forward on the road to independence. For example:

  • at 2 months the child can control his head movements and follow something of interest, observing it attentively and at length;
  • at 6 months the child can sit up and observe the world in a psychologically very important position of “confrontation”;
  • at 12 months the child walks and can use this ability for furthering his discoveries of the world, etc.

Then we have the coming of the ability to digest solid food, and the mastery of language, and so it continues. What is important for us to keep in mind is that as soon as an organ or ability has evolved, it must immediately begin to act in its proper sphere. If such experience is not obtained, the organ fails to develop normally, for at first it is incomplete.

It follows, then, that the child can only develop fully by means of experience on his environment, by being allowed and encouraged to exercise his new-found abilities until he has perfected them and used them to further his development, as well as building his self-confidence. If he is denied these possibilities his development is hampered and, in severe cases, arrested.


There are many forms of communication, all of which are important, but one unique to man is articulate speech which makes possible abstract concepts, the passing of ideas, etc. It is significant that the riches of a language are directly connected to the width and range of experience of the people who speak it. The young child has a special sensitivity to language and with his special type of mind is capable not only of absorbing one but several languages if the correct opportunity occurs within his environment.

If we wish to help this side of his development, we must see that not only is he provided with a wide range of experiences at a very early age but he must also be given opportunities to acquire the necessary vocabulary with which to express these experiences.

Exploration and curiosity

All human beings are naturally endowed with a high degree of curiosity, because when they are born they are indeed strangers in the world. In order to become adapted and orientated, they must explore all areas of the environment and society.

So again, it is all-important that the child’s natural curiosity be encouraged, his questions answered, and that, from birth, he be given every possible opportunity to explore in all his fields, being limited only by safety and his own abilities.


Order is necessary for a harmonious life; indeed, without it there would be chaos and eventually life would be impossible. Another point worth noting is that the human being requires a special degree of order in any area of his life, environment or learning, to which he is new and thus still at the stage of exploring.

If one translates this to the young baby or child who is new to everything and everywhere, and has all to explore and learn, it is not surprising to find that order, even exactness, are of utmost importance to him and his development. If he is forced to live in a disorderly environment his exploration is hampered and thus his development can be retarded.

The original article is available from Unesco. The copyrights to the materials above belong to their respective owners.

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