The origin of the word society issocietas, which means companion. From the dictionary meaning, society means an aggregation of individuals living together in a more or less ordered community. While an aggregate is a whole formed by disparate elements, there must be unifying factors bringing these people together. Dr. Montessori writes:
‘Education must foster both the development of individuality and that of society. Society cannot develop unless the individual develops, as we learn from observing the child, who immediately uses his newly won independence to act in a social environment. Most of our actions would have no reason for being if there were no other people around us, and we do most of the things we do because we live in association with others.’ (p. 56)
Social Development in the First Six Years
In the three-year-cycle, every child experiences the entry of a social group, independent of parents and caregivers. It is an environment specially prepared for the needs of the three-to-six-year-olds. The guide shows the child how to complete activities on her own for the first time, now trusting this new adult and feeling secure in this environment. She begins to experience the freedom which is hers, making choices with guidance. As she works here, she becomes aware of other children in this environment. She learns how to express her feelings in appropriate, respectful ways. She develops abilities to wait, share, respect another child, and to delight in their achievements. With the first spill of beans or materials, she sees her actions impact the entire environment. She learns how to control her choices to impact the group favorably. She takes so much joy in taking place in the group that she develops a sense of benevolence and positive feelings toward the entire group. This is the emergence of community.
In the second year, the child finds herself in a familiar place, but with changes. She is no longer the youngest, and she is much more independent, now knowing not only how to care for herself but how to help other children. We see the child moving into the second psychological stage of the Exercises of Practical Life, responding to the needs of the environment and not just responding to materials available for practice. The child discovers how fun it is to work with other children. Many group games which we offer in Sensorial, language, and math are a response to the need to collaborate. This may be in collective exercises with the golden beads, for example; and the child begins to exercise give and take, to listen and to talk, to lead and to follow, and to come to a compromise.
The Third Year
In Dr. Montessori’s words:
We observe in the child the development of social intelligence. In social awareness, we observe the ability of the child to read social and emotional signals and cues. The child becomes aware of oneself in relation to the group, of the needs of others and oneself, the group and one’s actions in part, and a final awareness of one’s ability to contribute in a meaningful way toward the group. Arising from this awareness is a new social facility: communication, patience, empathy, the ability to share, to give and receive help, and a new flexibility to align one’s behavior to the collective needs of all, for the benefit of all—that is, altruism.
‘Children act in accordance with their natures, and not because of the teacher’s exhortations. Goodness must come out of reciprocal helpfulness, from the unity derived from spiritual cohesion. This society created by cohesion, which children have revealed to us, is at the root of all social organizations.’ (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 252)
How it differs from the cohesion of organized society
‘A society like this seems to be more united by the absorbent mind that is does by the conscious mind. The manner of its construction is observable and may be compared to the work of the cells in the growth of an organism. It seems clear that society goes through an embryonic phase which we can follow among little children in the course of their development. This unity born among children, which is produced by a spontaneous need, directed by an unconscious power and vitalized by a social spirit, is a phenomenon needing a name, and I call it “cohesion in the social unit.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 241)
The Work of the Child from Three to Six Years