Montessori Parenting

What Are Sensitive Periods in Montessori?

Have you ever noticed how babies start working hard on learning to walk? Babies work hard to learn to crawl, walk, and run. No one teaches them how to walk, they just do it! Similarly, children who are three or four years old almost all start “writing.” As if spontaneously, they start trying to copy a pattern of writing. Children might write zig-zag lines or shapes similar to letters.

These are both examples of sensitive periods. Maria Montessori noticed that children experience sensitive periods in early life. Dive into this Montessori teacher training topic with us and learn all about sensitive periods and their important role in education. 

What Are Sensitive Periods?

Sensitive periods are like a window of opportunity during which children show a special interest in achieving a certain skill. Some examples are the sensitive periods for language and movement. During these sensitive periods, children are also primed to learn the skills. They are motivated and can learn the skills quickly and completely.  However, if we don’t take advantage of these periods of interest, they are gone forever. While children can still learn the skills or learn the information, it is harder to do. 

Children often make it very obvious when they’re experiencing a sensitive period. They start trying to achieve the skills on their own! Young babies don’t need much help in learning how to crawl or walk. They start making the effort on their own, demanding adults help them learn. This natural desire to learn certain skills drives children to independence.

Sensitive Periods for Young Children

According to Montessori, children experience several important sensitive periods in early childhood. Here is an overview of each of them.

Sensitive Period for Movement

Taking place from birth until the child is about three years old, the sensitive period for movement includes learning to crawl, walk and more!

The sensitive period for movement focuses on gross motor skills. Gross motor skills are the ability to move large muscle groups. Babies work on gaining control over their arms, legs, hands, and feet. They want to be able to move independently and explore the world!

This sensitive period for movement helps explain why toddlers are always on the move. At this age, children want to crawl, climb, jump, balance, and run. This is because they are making connections between their brains and muscle movements. Children need lots of opportunities for exercise and movement in general, but especially during the sensitive period for movement. 

Sensitive Period for Language

A two month old baby begins to coo. By the time they’re one year old, they can say a few words. By the time they turn two years old, they can understand hundreds of words and communicate using two or three word sentences. How does all this happen? 

Montessori wrote, “The child has a mind able to absorb knowledge.  He has the power to teach himself.” This is how children learn language. That said, children have a special interest and ability to pick up language from birth through age 6. 

The sensitive period for language includes being able to talk and understand language as well as the ability to write and read. Montessori found that children often learned to write before reading. Interest in these skills peaks between about ages 4 and 6. 

Children naturally show interest in reading and writing as young children. They may pretend to read a book. Or, they might start scribbling shapes that look similar to letters. Children can build on this interest and learn the sounds each letter makes so they can begin writing and reading. 

Today, research also supports the idea of a sensitive period for language. This is especially true for learning a second language. Children have a unique opportunity to become bilingual before they are six years old. The younger children begin learning, the better their pronunciation will be.

Sensitive Period for Order

Between about 1 and 4, children show interest in order. In other words, they like structure, organization, and routine. This refers to both routine in their days as well as a clean and neat environment. 

How might you notice the sensitive period for order? Many young children become upset if their routine is disturbed. For example, you might notice your preschooler gets upset if you change their snack. Or, they might not like it if you skip reading a book before bed. They want to experience the same order of their routine every day. Similarly, children at this age may enjoy keeping their space organized. For example, children might want to hang up their jacket or help with cleaning tasks. 

Many people, parents in particular, are surprised to learn about the sensitive period for order. Montessori herself wrote about this in The Secret of Childhood, “ It may seem extraordinary or far-fetched to say that children pass through a sensitive period in regard to external order, when everyone believes that children are untidy by nature.”

This is because young children aren’t often given the opportunity to clean or learn how to put things away. However, when given the opportunity, many children become enthusiastic participants.

Sensitive Periods in Montessori

Sensitive Period for Sensory Experiences

Montessori also noticed that children experience what she called “The Absorbent Mind” from birth through age 6. She noticed that during this time, children benefit from sensory experiences. This is why the Montessori curriculum includes an area called “sensorial.” The sensorial materials give children the chance to refine their senses such as smell, hearing, touch, and vision.

Young children thrive on sensory experiences. Montessori also noted that young children are like “little scientists,” experimenting in the world around them. You might notice this when a young child enjoys playing in water. They’re learning all about the properties of water through sensory play. When they pour water, they see that water takes the shape of the container it’s in. Children also learn about how water splashes, how it moves, and so much more. 

Additionally, children can refine their senses by matching different shades of color, organizing blocks by size, matching sounds, and identifying smells. All of these experiences are stored and serve as formative memories that help children understand the world around them. 

Why Are Sensitive Periods Important? 

Sensitive periods are essential for understanding childhood development. When educators and parents recognize sensitive periods in children, they can support learning and skill mastery. 

How can Montessori teachers and parents help children during sensitive periods? Educators should follow Montessori’s advice of “following the needs of the child.” By observing children, educators and caregivers can notice when children are entering a sensitive period. Then, we can provide helpful activities and opportunities for children to practice skills and learn. 

For example, if a child is in a sensitive period for sensory experiences, they might try to play with water in the toilet. Or, the child might stick their hands in the sugar bowl. They crave sensory experiences related to touch! So, provide sensory-rich experiences such as pouring water, spooning beans, or noticing different textures. 

Sensitive periods offer educators and parents the opportunity to help children master skills when they’re most ready to do so. Montessori noted that taking advantage of sensitive periods is essential because, “If the baby has not been able to work in accordance with the guidance of its sensitive period, it has lost its chance of a natural conquest, and has lost it forever.” Whenever possible, it’s best to work with the child’s natural desire to learn. Noticing sensitive periods helps children learn skills at the best time in their development. 

If you feel that your child has missed a sensitive period, that doesn’t mean your child can’t learn those skills. It may simply take more effort and work. Today, we know that the mind never stops growing and changing. So, if you feel your child has missed a sensitive period, don’t be disheartened. 

Learn About the Sensitive Periods in Online Montessori Teacher Training

Are you ready to learn more? Discover our hybrid and online Montessori teacher training courses

Online Montessori teacher training will give you an in depth understanding of not only the Montessori method, but also childhood development in general. Whether you’re a parent or educator, you’ll learn the tools to work with children and help children take full advantage of the sensitive periods. Plus, you’ll learn to embody the characteristics of a Montessori teacher and how to talk to children

Learn more about our courses by getting in touch! We look forward to helping you find the best program for your needs.

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