Sensitive Periods of Development
Strike up a conversation with any practiced Montessorian and, sooner or later, the words “sensitive periods” will likely crop up. So, what are these discussion-inspiring sensitive periods, and why are they so important? As Mary Ellen Maunz, Master Montessori Teacher and Founder of Age of Montessori, states, “a sensitive period is a [child’s] burning fire of interest in something, during the period of time that a child acquires a new specific skill.”
Put another way, sensitive periods are developmental windows of opportunity during which children have an especially strong interest toward a specific concept or skill. During these sensitive periods, children absorb the corresponding concepts easily and naturally. Each child will go through the same sensitive periods at approximately the same age. Knowing what to expect allows us (parents, teachers, grandparents, and caregivers) to anticipate and provide the necessary environment to fulfill the child’s needs.
The child has a creative aptitude, a potential energy that will enable it to build up a mental world from the world about it. He makes numerous acquisitions during the sensitive periods, which put him in relation to the other world in an exceptionally intense manner. ~Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood
Maria Montessori was the first to identify and document the developmental sensitive periods of children. Since that time (nearly 100 years ago,) study after study has substantiated her findings. Age of Montessori has created the easy-to-read graphic below to help illustrate these important concepts.
Movement, Emotional Control, and Math Patterns (Starting from Birth)
The first thing I notice when looking at the graphic above, is that three of the sensitive periods are active from birth: Movement, Emotional Control, and Math Patterns. Children are born with limited control of movement, but gain rapidly in areas of both gross and fine motor control. As they learn to use their bodies, children are also developing cognitive abilities. They literally learn through their hands and through movement.
Additionally, these earliest years are a sensitive time for bonding with parents (or primary caregivers). Babies learn about relationships, communication, and emotional control through the responsiveness of their parents. When parents respond to baby’s attempts to communicate (through crying, cooing, and babbling,) the child develops a sense of self-worth. It also builds an essential foundation for more complex communication and thinking.
It may seem incredible to think that babies are born mathematical minds, but Dr. Montessori discovered that all human babies come into this world naturally hardwired to learn mathematics. Montessori also observed that young children learn early mathematical concepts through touching, stacking, sorting, and handling objects. It is through this manipulation of various materials that children learn to recognize quantities, sequence, and patterns. This is the groundwork for basic mathematical principles.
“The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” ~ Maria Montessori
Need for Order (Starting at approximately 6 months old)
Very young children (6 months to 3 years) have an innate need for order. It is a deep psychological need. Many parents don’t realize it is there, and with good reason. Certainly most of us parents have watched our little ones behaving in ways that seem anything but orderly. But Montessorians have proved, again and again, that once the standard is set, the child’s internal desire for order is activated. Also, some of the unruly tantrums we witness are actually the result of the child’s sense of order being disrupted.
Interest in Small Objects and Vocabulary (Starting around 1 year of age)
Any parent of a one-year-old can tell you that children have an almost insatiable interest in small objects. Our job is to keep choking hazards out of little hands, while still allowing for safe exploration of small objects. Children at this age are experiencing an intense sensitive period that will ultimately lead to the development of fine motor control and the pincer grasp. These are fundamentals for writing and many other important skills.
The following statement by Dr. Arnold Shabel, former Director of UCLA Brain Research Institute, substantiates Dr. Montessori’s discoveries about how children learn vocabulary.
Without being melodramatic, I think it would be important to tell parents that they are participating with the physical development of their children’s brains to the exact degree that they interact and communicate with them. Language interaction is actually building tissue in their brains […]. The language centers of the brain are simply unable to attain full maturity without ample stimulation.
Special Epoch for Sensation and Letter Shapes and Sounds (Starting around age 2.5 years), Reading and Writing (Age 4.5 to 5 years.)
Montessori educators have a saying: never give more to the ear and eye than we do to the hand. In other words, children learn more easily and effectively through hands-on, physical sensation, than by just watching or listening to a lesson.
Children also become very sensitive to and interested in letter shapes and sounds. Between the ages of 2.5 and 5 years, children are drawn to activities such as tracing textured (sandpaper) letters with their fingers and correlating the sound of the letter with its shape. This spontaneous interest will ultimately lead to the sensitive periods for reading and writing (between 4 and 5 years old).
“The Letters are a stimulus which illustrate the spoken language already in the mind of the child.” ~Maria Montessori, Education for a New World
Music (Starting around age 3)
It is important for young children to be exposed to music. Around age 3 years, children experience a sensitive period for learning rhythm, pitch, melody, and more. Music develops the brain, leading to academic, social, and emotional growth.
“Childhood thus passes from conquest to conquest in a constant rhythm that constitutes its joy and happiness.” ~ Maria Montessori
Would you like to learn more about the child’s sensitive periods of development?
Check out this free webinar by Age of Montessori entitled Stages of Development: Why It Matters!
Or sign up for one of Age of Montessori’s 6-week online courses, such as our online Child Development Course. Below is a brief introduction…