Child Development Meets Montessori

Freud, Erikson and Jung

By Barbara Isaacs

At the start of 2023, I have reflected again on theories  of child development, and how they have influenced our understanding of children through the 20th Century.  Now almost quarter of a century in into the new millennium, Montessori Musings offers our community a glimpse at these key theories and examines their relevance to our work with young children.

We need to acknowledge the limitations of these models as we ponder who created them, their Eurocentric focus, and the limitations of linear interpretations of children’s learning and development. Yet from the Montessori angle they offer us tools for deeper understanding of Montessori’s legacy and their application to practice, particularly when we try to unravel and learn from our observations of children. We also find, as we follow current research, that many of Montessori’s views of children and how they learn resonate in their findings.  How often have I heard “Montessori said this a hundred years ago!”

In my view, it is not enough to hide behind Montessori’s deeply intuitive understanding of children!  It is our responsibility to continue to search for deeper meanings, reflect on the marvels of early childhood and on circumstances, the children’s and our own, in which we have observed their behaviours, ways of learning, their developmental path, their joys and anxieties of life.  This is why Musings has introduced the encounters with some of the giants who have provided us with important points of reference, as we grapple with our understanding of children of today.  At the same time, we focus on exploring children’s opportunities for learning alone and from others sharing their company.  So far, we have juxtaposed Maslow with Bronfenbrenner, Piaget and Vygotsky.  The choice for our third exploration is to reflect on the Freudian legacy. 

Montessori was aware of the work of Sigmund Freud and referred extensively to psychoanalysis in the Secret of Childhood, (Montessori, 2017). Parents and educators witness Freud’s theory of the unconscious struggle between the id, ego and superego. We also see strong examples of the early stages of his psychosexual personality development where parts of the child’s body become vital elements for our explanations of their behaviour. The mouth, anus and genitals are linked with the child’s need to feed, potty train, explore gender and grow in autonomy and relate to infantile sexuality. (Simply Psychology)

Freud’s daughter Anna was inspired by Montessori’s view of child-centred education which influenced the practices in her Matchbox School in Vienna in the 1920’s (Midgley, 2008). The nursery moved with Anna to London in 1938 and served the migrant community during World War II.  The Anna Freud Centre nursery continues to serve families to this day; on my visit there in the early 2010’s I could still identify connections with its Montessori beginnings in the way the environment was organised and maintained. The roots of play therapy can be traced to the work of Anna Freud, Margaret Lowenfelt and Melanie Klein (British Association of Play Therapists). 

I also believe that Erik Erikson’s early experience of working with Anna Freud in her Vienna school has stimulated his later research and formulation of the Psychosocial theory, the only theory to chart the critical incidents which affect our personality from birth to death.  However, for early years educators and parents, the first four stages are relevant as they chart the personality development where crisis between the needs of the individual and society and the resolution of these crisis should lead to development of virtues such as hope, will, purpose and competence.  Our human need for trust in our prime carers in the early stages of life, our drive to be independent and gain autonomy of our body and mind and to exercise our initiative and test it within a social context, are all relevant in our personality development.  How the crises, which inevitably occur during each one of these stages, are managed by the child and others around them shapes how we manage similar situations in the future.  The virtues which characterise the positive resolution of these crises form our character as we grow older (McLeod, 2018).

There are many examples of how Freud’s legacy can guide our understanding of children’s development. For example, Erikson’s first stage of Trust versus Mistrust is closely linked with Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s attachment theory, the foundation for our relationships not only in early childhood but also through life.   More recent brain research by Sue Gerhardt documented in her Why Love Matters book demonstrates further the impact of stress on the brain and our need to establish positive loving respectful relationships with children, particularly in the first year of life, when the infant is totally dependant on the prime carer for all its needs. We also find significant references to infants’ need for trust and love in Montanaro’s Understanding the Human Being, which now serves as the theoretical foundation for the Montessori Infant Toddler communities world-wide.

Interestingly the work of Carl Jung, who initially worked with Freud, offers an opportunity to explore his view of the collective unconscious and Archetype characteristics which are at the heart of his personality theory. He offers another perspective of understanding human behaviours, which is helpful to consider, particularly today.  Jung focusses on the present and future and makes important reference to their universality as expressed in literature, art and dreams.

I hope that this brief meander, exploring some of the features of Freud’s and his followers’ theory on our work also resonates with your reading of Montessori’s text as she advocates close relationships with prime carers, the need for independence and a caring respectful environment all of which foster initiative and industry.  It is these conditions which will enable the children in our care to navigate through the joyful and also challenging daily experiences and provide strong foundation for life.

Do join us on Tuesday 19 February as we come to share vignettes and experiences from practice demonstrating our need, as practitioners, to engage with particularly Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Register here.

Further reading

Bretherton I. (1992) The Origins Of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby And Mary Ainsworth in Developmental Psychology (1992), 28, 759-775  accessed 10.2.23.

British Association of Play Therapists(2013) History of play therapy accessed 11.2.23

Fonagy P. (2014) Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis: The Need for a New Integration

Freud S. (1927) Letter to Maria Montessori accessed 11.2.23

Gerhardt S. (2004) Why Love Matters how affection shapes baby’s brain London: Routledge

McLeod, S. A. (2018, May 03). Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development accessed 11.2.23

Mc Leod S.A. (2018) Carl Jung’s Theories: Archetypes, & The Collective Unconscious

McLeod, S.A. (2018) Sigmund Freud’s Theories  accessed 11.2.23

Midgley N.  (2008) The Matchbox school Anna Freud and the idea of a psychoanalytically informed education  accessed 10.2.23

Montanaro S. Q. (1991) Understanding the Human Being the Importance of the First Three Years of Life Mountain View California: Nienhuis Montessori USA

Montessori Maria (1936/2017) The Secret of Childhood Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

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