As children approach the age of six years, they begin to change. Physically, their hair becomes coarser, their first teeth begin to fall out, rounded baby contours disappear and their bodies become slimmer. They are entering the period in their lives that Montessori called the Second Plane of Development.
Along with physical changes, second plane children manifest profound inner changes, which Montessori was moved to describe as a veritable "metamorphosis"
The powers of absorbent mind and sensitive periods, characteristics of the first plane of development, are no longer enough for the new interests of second plane children. New powers come into play, because new directions must now be traveled by these children. For the continuation of self-construction new materials and new tools, the characteristics of the second plane, are required now.
The basis of all areas of culture should be given at this period in the children's lives. The presentations should lead to activity of the hand in cooperation with their intelligence. This best fosters the child's attention and the development of abstractions. Materials are no longer enough alone, but they are essential as initial steps toward conceptualization.
A core approach to the child in this plane of development is to give the "whole" picture first, then to examine details. The stories that we tell serve to present this large picture in a vehicle that appeals to the children. By first acquiring the total picture, the "whole", children are able to properly place the specifics in their place. The children are then able to identify relationships, and to better understand the causes - the "hows" and "whys" - of all that is occurring around them.
The second plane is a time in the children's lives when they are able to work hard. They are not satisfied with little jobs and with activities that require little effort. They become bored if they are not asked to do enough, and interested and enthusiastic when the task is challenging and large. There is an insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding. They are challenged to the maximum of their potentialities always within reasonable observed limits, and that hard intellectual work is a key element of the development of these children.
The characteristics of second plane children are:
There is a new vitality in these children, who seem to have a boundless energy, a dramatically have an increased level of physical stamina. These children are able to run for long periods, they climb trees, play games, swim and ride bicycles from daylight to sunset. They are strong, and they have become tougher.
Separation from Family
Second plane children also seek to detach themselves from their family. The long partings at the schoolroom door are replaced by the children's offhand wave as they run down the school path. This transformation is the sign of maturation and new level of independence in the children.
The family and school environments are no longer enough for these children. Now they need to leave home and school, and to enter society itself. Montessori answered this requirement of second plane children with her concept of Going Out, which is in essence a field trip that is conceived, organized, carried out and followed up by the children, rather than by the adult. Exploration of society and of the many resources available outside the classroom is thus able to take place, and the children develop social skills, their independence, and learn to shoulder new levels of responsibility in new situations.
The second plane child also has an urge for association with others in some form of organized activity. There may be a common interest around which the group forms. Practically, this characteristic requires that presentations be given to groups of children, and the understanding that the children will also work together in groups. Individual work and projects are uncommon in a Montessori elementary environment.
Second plane children also begin a period of moral development. They want to understand for themselves, and to use their own judgment. This is what drives the impertinence and domineering attitude that Montessori observed that some children adopt. She noted that this is in fact a claim to mental independence, a desire to identify good and evil through their own powers, and a resentment of limitations set by an arbitrary authority.
There is a strong sense of justice in the second plane child. Fairness is of vital importance, and adults are quickly brought to task if they do not ensure that fair treatment is at all times the norm. Adults must ensure that the promises that they make are kept. Second plane children quickly lose respect for adult’s whose word is not their bond.
Some children manifest this growing interest in morality, (especially at a time when they are entering the second plane, and encountering moral questions for the first time) in the telling of tales, or "tattling". Adults should recognize that this is not some new desire in these children to get their comrades into some sort of trouble, but instead an exploration of the adult's limits, and a seeking of confirmation that "That was not the right thing to do" or "That was not fair".
This moral sense in second plane children, and the growing ability to judge, can combine with the tendency toward self-perfection in a new way. The child becomes self-evaluative, and in some cases, this can be quite severe.
The focus upon morality also sparks a strong attraction towards heroes. Montessori noted that a sort of hero worship takes place at this time. Sporting personalities, teachers, movie and television stars, singers, are to be found at the forefront of the heroes selected, but the children of this age are also ready to hear the stories of history's great innovators and heroes.
Second plane children want to know the whys and wherefores of everything. They investigate all areas of knowledge (Montessori believed that they should be given the whole universe), and it is at this time in their lives that the sensorial approach is no longer enough. With the sensorial base of touching and experiencing, the child has an ability to use the imagination to picture that which cannot be present.
The imagination is a means by which the mind recalls that which has been experienced. An example of this is the children's ability to conjure up a mental picture of a tiger which they saw at the zoo last year.
The imagination is also able to formulate an image of something never personally experienced, based upon the personal store of what has been experienced. An example of this might be the ability to imagine a mammoth. ("It was like a huge elephant, with long curved tusks that bent down, and then curved up in front of it, and with a thick covering of long wooly hair!")
The imagination can also formulate an image of something that has never been! When the imagination is used in this way, it creates an image of something new. It invents something.
The imagination is in Montessori's view, the great power of children of this age, saying:
The Development of the Intellect
There is a powerful drive in the second plane child to know the reasons of things. The entry of the child into the second plane heralds an impressive development of the intellect. Facts and names were once of absorbing interest. Now it is a drive to find out How? and Why? Second plane children are drawn to ideas, and enjoy discussions where ideas and logical trains of thought are explored. The how’s and why’s of the non-living and living world, and of human societies are all explored by the children during their discussions, and as they work in the elementary Montessori classroom.
If there is an eagerness to learn, then why not feed it?
The need for physical order that was so strong in the first plane now subsides. Second plane children are instead intent upon developing an internal, mental order, and the physical neatness and order that was once so important is no longer a point of focus for them. When this urge to develop a measure of mental order meets the need to know the reasons for things, we find that the children develop an interest in classification. This interest is satisfied by the nomenclature and classification materials available in the elementary Montessori classroom.
In the Primary, the child’s message to the adult was: “Help me to do it myself.” In the elementary, the message becomes: “Help me to think by myself, for myself.”
Developing Power of Abstraction
From the sensorial mode of thought characteristic of the child of the first plane, second plane children begin a movement from concrete towards abstract thought. Now is the time that these children begin developing their powers of abstraction. They strive to operate on an abstract plane. When discussing this idea of abstraction, Montessori wrote that the mind can:
From innumerable impressions, children creates abstractions, enabling them carry more of the world in their minds! It is not necessary for children to carry in their minds an image of every type of chair that they have ever seen. Instead, from the chairs that they see, the children generalize, identifying qualities common to all "chairs", and building an abstract concept or idea (a "universal") of "chairness".
As they approach the end of the second plane, children often seem to be driven to move away from the sensorially based mathematical materials available in the environment, towards calculation and manipulation in written form. The fundamental aim of Montessori materials in the elementary - to facilitate a movement away from the concrete and into the abstract. Some children will require materials for extended periods, whilst others will seem to hardly need it at all. Both approaches should be respected.
Montessori was adamant that the hand must work side by side with the intelligence, observing that children show a great attachment to the abstract subjects when they arrive at them through manual activity.
The phenomenon of repetition that is so striking in the Casa also subsides in the second plane, in that the children are no longer content to repeat the same process over and over again. Instead, what occurs is repetition as elaboration. Now new knowledge and concepts are stretched to their limits. In the elementary classroom, the children who reach the point where they are able to add abstractly on paper do not tend to calculate the sums of twenty or thirty little problems. Instead, they create a huge addition problem, using adding machine rolls. This may take all day. Then, they calculate the sum of this number, and may go on to discover how to read the number ("248 octillion, 373 septillion, 408 sextillion...").
Repetition via elaboration thus often may create what is called Great Work. Large projects become the norm, rather than small, discrete little activities.
The second plane child is constantly seeking to stretch limits, both physical and mental stamina are challenged in this way.
Sense of Responsibility
With this increase in the level of abstract thought, reasoning, the rise of the imagination and the exploration of matters of morality, the children of the second plane come to develop a greater sense of responsibility. They are now able to determine and understand the results of their actions. They can, by employing the imagination, empathize with the feelings of other people. The reasoning mind is brought into play here, identifying patterns, causes and effects. And the imagination also becomes active as the children consider the outcomes of the various actions that they might choose to take.
In this way, second plane children are able to judge the rightness or wrongness of their own actions. From this arises responsibility.
The same process takes place when an impulsive act has affected another. Heartfelt, sincere apologies and efforts to make good on whatever has occurred now become spontaneous and common. These children are socially responsive and it is at this time that ecological awareness can also blossom. Children become sensitive to the actions of adults who, for example, spread litter on the sidewalk, or who own too many packages containing dangerous, non-biodegradable chemicals.
Maria Montessori compares the second plane child to a spider in its web. The child's mind is constructed according to a plan, as is the spider’s web. Second plane children need a wider field of action (as the spider's web lengthens its reach), which is activated as the ability to abstract becomes more practiced and dominant.
Above all, we should seek to ignite in every child an unending fascination with the world and with knowledge. Then, we should ensure that this fascination may be pursued to the extent and depth that the child desires. The information that we provide, the stories that we tell, and the freedom that we defend for each child in our care all serve to give the children gifts that they may well otherwise never have received: A sense of wonder at the universe, an unending drive to explore new horizons, a love of learning, and a sensitivity to and responsibility for the world in which they find themselves.