Human Tendencies

The Montessori method is over 100 years old at the time of this posting. (The first Casa dei Bambini was established in Rome in 1906.) Many aspects of the philosophy are being debated due to the changing of times, most notably the impact of technology on our lives, and its effect on child development. However, One of the “timeless” aspects of the Montessori educational philosophy is the concept of the human tendencies, which Dr. Montessori observed as being common developmental traits/needs that children possess regardless of gender, nationality, race, or location of upbringing. As long as obstacles are not imposed, all humans will demonstrate these tendencies as a part of natural human growth and development:

1. Order

Our human tendency for order is for the purpose of understanding the surrounding environment and our place in it. We feel more secure when there is order in the environment and when life is predictable. Order allows us to see the relationships among people and things. Order helps us to explore, and without it we feel restricted and fearful. Order is given to the child through consistent care, and best by the same person. Order is not rigid or regimented, but consistency develops orientation, and trust develops when there is order. Order is essential for clarity of thought. The sight of something out of order naturally becomes a call to action.

2. Orientation

The human tendency for orientation helps us adapt to new situations and social groups. Orientation functions as a landmark or a reference point. If security of orientation is removed, one feels lost in one’s mind, not just in the physical world. Through orientation, one begins to identify with the culture of his surroundings. The power of man is to adapt and modify, and the tendency of orientation gives us this power.

3. Exploration and Curiosity

Curiosity is the strong desire to know more about something. Curiosity stimulates our interest, and it is the natural human tendency that makes boredom disappear because it usually involves discovery of something new. Manifestations of curiosity are often misunderstood to be misbehavior, but it is in fact natural behavior, and we must allow for the natural behavior to happen.

Exploration and curiosity exist together. To avoid curiosity leading to dangerous behavior, the adult must prepare the environment for the child so that it is safe to explore. It is human nature to explore the world in order to make it better for ourselves. We explore in the concrete world and in the abstract. At different stages of development, curiosity is manifested in different ways ranging from touching and pointing in early years of development, to asking “What is this?” and eventually asking “Why?” and “How?”

4. Communication

Communication is the desire to share ideas from infancy throughout all stages of life. The ability to communicate allows society to progress. Communication can be done using sounds and noises that are not words, through the use of body language, gestures, and other non-verbal ways. The human’s ability to form thoughts allow us to share our ideas.

Patterns of human behavior are not determined by natural law. Use of language helps us to create such patterns. Communication through the use of language allows us to learn more and to share our ideas with each other. Through verbal communication we can agree or disagree on moral customs, societal norms, and laws of living together. Language is open-ended, meaning that it is constantly changing and evolving, based on our experiences. Language is not genetic. Children learn the language of the people in their surrounding environment, which may not be the language of their country of birth.

5. Work and Concentration

Work is a characteristic instinct of the human race. Work is activity with a very clear goal. It is the means by which we bring our dreams into fruition. Man builds himself through working. Man works with his hands as the instrument of his ego. Work is only a “human tendency” when it satisfies the individual and brings happiness.

Without work, the personality can not organize and deviant behavior occurs. When work is thwarted, this leads to unnatural development and deviant behaviors. A child’s work must have purpose. It is not just play, but has value and significance to develop the personality. Through working, the individual becomes functionally independent, gains confidence and builds self-esteem. We experience satisfaction as a result of meaningful work, and the restlessness of the spirit disappears. When the child is granted the human right to work, deviation and conflict disappear.

Concentration is when full attention is being put toward work. We must protect, and not disturb, concentration. Interest, desire, and the freedom to learn are all necessary to support the human tendency for concentration. This happens naturally, and you can’t force a person to concentrate.

6. Movement: Activity and Manipulation

Humans work to bring our bodies under the control of our brains. A child can not grow to understand the world without being able to move. Movements need awakening and strengthening. It is criminal to inhibit movements of a child, including the use of high cribs and playpens, extended use of car seats, carriages and other “adult-friendly” devices that restrict the child’s ability to move around.

The child has a physical need to get involved and be involved through the use of her hands. Manipulation is the key to understanding. When we demonstrate work, we should not show and speak at the same time so that concentration can be put on the activity, and not distracted by speech. Activity is vital for comprehension. We have a life force that compels us to engage in activity. We should never give more to the eye or the ear than to the hand.

7. Repetition

Repetition helps us to perfect our actions. Humans have a strong desire to be exact, and through repetition we achieve success and control. A child engaging in repetition of a task may not be concerned with the main purpose or end goal of the activity. He is more concerned with perfecting one aspect of a chosen activity without regard to the end goal. A child is willing to experience error in order to achieve something, and repetition prevents failure, ultimately. Repetition helps us gain confidence, comfort, and controlled movements as we improve physical skills. Mario Montessori give us the following example (1966):

You see, I may have a perfectly manufactured instrument. With it, I may wish to attain a certain aim. I perform the movement I consider necessary for the purpose, but the result is not what I wanted. Take tennis for instance. When I tried to learn it I had a good racket. I saw the ball coming, I hit at it, and the ball went over my head. I didn’t even touch it! It took me some time before I was able to hit the ball at all. When finally I was able to strike it, it went somewhere quite different from where I had intended. Why was this? Was it because I was not strong enough? But I was strong! So what? So it meant that my movement was one and my intention another. I could not control the movement. In such cases, what do people do if they really want to go on with it and achieve proficiency? They submit to doing a series of exercises and continue until they have mastered the necessary movements. Then they are happy. What does that imply? It implies a repetition of the exercise. That is: I repeat and repeat until I have achieved that degree of perfection that satisfies my spirit. In the case of tennis, until I am able to send the ball wherever I want. (p. 25 – 26)

8. Exactness and Calculation

Exactness is coordination of logical thought and its expression through precise action. There is a drive that enables us to refine techniques and focuses our efforts. No energy is wasted and we are efficient and functional. We should never advise a child, “that’s good enough.” The child has a need and a desire to be exact and precise with movements and actions. If we advise that something is “good enough”, we adversely affect the natural human tendency for exactness.

Mario Montessori creates this scenario that is easy for one to relate to, to explain this natural desire to be exact (1966):

So then I acquire confidence and I make myself a lot of stoneheaded sticks. One day I throw one of them meaning it to go somewhere. And what happens? It goes left instead of going straight! Every time I throw it, again it does the same. Why? That’s the thing, why? Something has come into my mind that gives me no rest. Why? It rings in my head. I can’t sleep at night. I am absent-minded during the day. So I have to investigate. Eventually I notice, for instance, that the difference between this stick and the ones which go straight is that this one is crooked and the others are not. Is that why, instead of going straight, it goes off at a tangent? I don’t know, and I want to know. So I experiment and I find that it is so. Now I know. Now I am satisfied. Now I have grown. (p. 24)

Calculation allows us to be precise and accurate with regard to mathematics, but also with other actions that involve muscle memory. We make calculations on a daily basis such as, calculating distance of a spoon or glass from our mouths, calculating space between objects or in relation to our bodies and how large or small our steps should be in order to avoid running in to people or things, and calculating the amount of time it takes a certain ball to go through the air at a certain distance away and a certain speed, and the shape of our hands as we go to catch the ball as it approaches. Calculation is the outward manifestation of the tendency for exactness.

9. Abstraction and Imagination

Abstraction is the ability to draw from essentials of concrete experiences to understand a concept or idea. The ability to abstract is what elevates us above other forms of life. Communication is based on the ability to abstract and abstraction helps us to create the mathematical mind.

Imagination begins with the ability to observe and imitate to fit in with the environment, and over time we gain the capacity to create something that does not exist. Animals adapt biologically, and humans adapt culturally. Consider these examples given by Mario Montessori in The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education (1966):

The great wealth of man in his dire poverty was something no other animal possessed: a reasoning intelligence which enabled him to make use of the abstractions he made. If he saw a wolf, for instance, which in trying to kill a calf was reached by the mother cow, and if he saw the horns of the cow go inside the wolf and the wolf die, he must have felt, “I wish I had pointed weapons like that. then, if some enemy came around, I could stick them into him!” Or if he saw a rabbit with his special kind of paws, burrowing and digging a tunnel in the ground, he must have thought, “I wish I could do the same thing, but when I try it, my nails break and my fingers bleed!” And when he saw the mammoths of that time, such big, nice, thick coats they had. And they looked so warm, even when the blizzard was raging around them on the icy plain. The wind that brought cold death to men did nothing to them. How the poor little men, freezing to death, must have envied those mammoths. That is where the great gift of having an intelligence that could abstract and reason, proved its worth. He wished for himself all the things he had not got. “Me, with something that can pierce even if my head has no horns. Me, with a digging instrument, without possessing it in my body. Me, with the coats of the mammoths to cover my body.” And so he created in his mind something which did not exist. Why did he succeed? Because man was endowed with imagination and knew to what use to put it. (p. 22 – 23)

Imagination in this sense is not the same as fantasy. Imagination as Maria Montessori describes it, is based in reality and is based on the senses, and is not an escape from reality.

10. Self Perfection

Self-perfection is the human tendency to master all aspects of our lives. This necessity goes beyond the fulfillment of basic physical survival needs. We possess the ability to overcome our limitations. This begins with self control and self discipline. The greatest satisfaction comes from mastery of the self. Mario Montessori gives this example (1966):

Can you imagine primitive man, crouching in the forest near a waterhole, hungry waiting to kill an animal for food? He sees a deer coming and in his excitement he springs up shouting, “Ha! Here he is at last!” Goodbye! The deer disappears. So, “from now on,” he says, “even if the ants are biting me, even if I get cramped, I am going to keep still until the deer is within reach of my weapon! I must master myself. I must acquire not only master over the environment, not only master over the instruments and the way to use them, but above all I must acquire mastery over myself!” (p. 26 – 27)


Human tendencies are broad potentialities that have the function of directing the individual towards progress, improvement and fulfillment. Individuals and societies have tendencies towards improvement, not just survival. Mario Montessori states (1966):

There are certain basic factors which do not change. What may change is the contents that you give the mind. It is these factors that make the child become adapted to any society, no matter what its pattern of behavior. These all important factors are what nowadays psychologists call “human tendencies.” These tendencies can be aided or adversed to fulfill their task. (p. 15)

Role of the Adult/Role of the Environment

We must provide for the freedoms for biological growth and development to occur. We must provide for the freedoms of expression, movement, and choice. Every human being has a personal timetable for development, and adults must be aware of this so that we can best respond to the child according to these universal and fundamental human needs.