The Sensitive Periods
Children are born with the instincts and natural drive that they need to develop and thrive in the world that they are born into. Dr Montessori called one of those natural drives, sensitive periods.
The sensitive periods are times in a child’s life, between birth and age six, when they are strongly drawn to a particular area of development.
At this time, the child craves a particular type of work. They want to repeat it again and again and seem to never get tired of practicing this skill. The child is able to learn these skills at an amazing rate not seen at any other time in their development. What a child gains from the sensitive periods sets the foundation for all of their future learning.
Maria Montessori identified four main sensitive periods. A sensitive period for order, language, refinement of the senses, and movement.
The sensitive period for order manifests between birth and age six. During this time, the child is drawn to routines and set relationships. A change to their established routine can be very hard for children of this age. This is because the child has not yet fully developed their own internal order. They rely on the adults and the environment to provide them with this until they are able to develop their own. Having external order provides them with a sense of security and trust. Without order, the child may become fearful, insecure, or exhibit what might be interpreted as behavioral challenges.
The sensitive period for language begins even before birth, while the child is in utero, and lasts through the age of six. During this sensitive period, the child is constantly absorbing the language/s around them. They are taking in the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of their language/s without effort. During this time, the child’s auditory organs will also develop according to the sounds that the child is hearing. This sensitive period manifests as an explosion of language around age two and a similar explosion into reading and writing between the ages of four and six.
The sensitive period for the refinement of the senses occurs between the ages of two and four. Our senses are how we experience the world. Refining them allows us to notice more minute details and more accurately classify the world around us. The neural networks in the brain are created based on these details and connections. Providing a child in this sensitive period with a sensorially rich environment complete with accurate sensorial vocabulary, will help to create a greater variety of these neural networks.
The sensitive period for movement usually occurs between the ages of two and four and a half. Refining movement is necessary for proper physical and psychological development. Young children refine their movements through imitation of adults and repetition. Children at this age will often watch how the adults around them move and try to imitate it again and again. Providing the child with the ability to practice a variety of fine and gross motor movements during this period will allow them to develop their independence and self expression.
When a child’s sensitive periods are not allowed to drive the child, this will most often result in a tantrum. The child’s inner drive is denied and they quickly become uncomfortable and upset. Because the child is not conscious of these sensitive periods, they are unable to express why they are having the tantrum. This can be frustrating for both the child and the adult. However, when the adults in the child’s life are aware of the sensitive periods, they are better able to respond to these moments of disequilibrium. Obstacles to the sensitive periods are often the result of denied freedom, lack of positive experiences, or lack of diverse experiences. If the needs of a sensitive period are not met, the child can still acquire the skills later in life, but they will require effort and will never be fully absorbed in the same way that they are during the sensitive period.