The Sensitive Periods -- Windows of Opportunities
“A child's different inner sensibilities enable him to choose from his complex environment what is suitable and necessary for his growth. They make the child sensitive to some things, but leave him indifferent to others. When a particular sensitiveness is aroused in a child, it is like a light that shines on some objects but not on others, making of them his whole world.” Maria Montessori
Have you ever wondered why your child runs up and down the stairs over and over again, sings the same song countless times, is driven to feel the sand, or perhaps is attracted to observing the small details in pictures or books? Well, you may have just witnessed some of the signs of the sensitive periods your child is going through.
Maria Montessori was a pioneer in applying the concept of sensitive periods in pedagogy. She discovered that sensitive periods occur from birth to age of six and each period manifests itself through a certain pattern of behaviour where children may repeat certain activities over and over again for no apparent reason. Children show great pleasure from performing certain activities and enter deep concentration and even obsessive behavior while performing them. During each sensitive period a child has a thirst to refine certain abilities, understand processes, or to understand the world around them and how they fit into it. If supported during such a period, a child is able to absorb the concepts effortlessly. These periods do not come in any specific order; they may overlap and usually last until the child feels that their internal “mission is accomplished”. The sensitive period disappears after a period of time and it does not come back in a person’s life – a truly fascinating aspect about the early years of life.
Once a sensitive period occurs, it is crucial to provide a child with space, time and a prepared environment where they can freely master their skills and absorb new information. Restrictions and interruptions while a child works on mastering certain abilities might result in great emotional respond such as tantrum. The ‘Terrible Twos’ could be an example of breaking certain orders or routines that may not even have occurred to adult at the time (Parent: “my child throws tantrums over not buttoning up his jacket all the way sometimes, why is this happening to me?!”) . A child cannot articulate what it is they need because they are still so young to identify their sensations, which is why you may not understand why a child requires certain stimuli. In order to meet these sensitive periods, the child’s daily environment needs to fit the urges they may be having, rather than blocking them (Child: “why won’t they just do all the buttons up, it’s driving me crazy that there is only one left to do up!”)
This is where observation comes in. At Little Gems Montessori, we are constantly observing the children – academically and holistically – and once we notice a sensitive period, we support the child by presenting appropriate activities, time and opportunities for repetition in order to fulfil the children’s needs for self-actualisation and self-construction. We not only prepare the environment and maintain it, but also personalise it and make it ‘alive’ for a child. Now, how can parents and caregivers ensure that their children have the entire intake to reach their greatest potential outside of the school environment? Let’s take closer look Montessori’s sensitive periods.
The Sensitive Period to Order (birth to 6)
This period is characterised by a desire for predictable daily routine, familiar environment, structure and repetition. Children learn how to live in the world, understand the relationships between places, people, and objects, categorise the information, and make discoveries, to predict and to reason. External order leads to internal order and children not only feel secure but it fulfils their curiosity, builds their knowledge and helps to progress in their social life.
How do to spot the period? The child may be putting things in an order, packing their toys, reminding others about where things should be placed, preferring familiar places and showing deep discomfort when any changes occur in their daily routine. Consistency, predictability and order in the environment are the keys here. At our nursery we support the children with carefully prepared environment where every single activity has its place; we maintain the daily routine and role model the ground rules. The adults are to be consistent too, not only with ground rules but the structure that they are following each day. As a result, the children learn and work independently in a predictable secure environment where everyone is aware of where the activities are and where they need to be returned, what the roles and social responsibilities of each member are in our small ‘social unit’. If we feel we need to make a layout/activity change in the classroom, we do it with children in order to minimise the children’s distress. We often observe children protecting the order in the class and the inner peace the predictable environment brings them. Older children often remind younger children about the ground rules and advice them to return the activities to the exact place and model the appropriate behaviours.
The Sensitive Period for Movement (birth to 6)
A child’s urge to move begins before birth as they have need to stretch their bodies in the womb, and then continues after birth which manifests itself through their primary reflexes. Over time, the child works very hard to accomplish an important task, to move from one place to another and manipulate objects with hands. It is important to provide the child with opportunities to pull up, crawl, walk without support, and allow the hands to grasp, manipulate and touch different objects. Once the child accomplishes their task to walk, they are on another mission and they continue refining their gross motor skills, balance, coordination, spatial awareness, running and jumping, etc. Regular outdoor activities such as visiting a park, beach, or forest are a great support during this sensitive period. Gradually through repetition, children master their body coordination, their neural pathways strengthen and children begin to perform skills unconsciously and naturally. For example, at our nursery we support the children through our outdoor education, during which they can run, climb, jump, balance and master those gross motor skills.
“The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence” (Maria Montessori). Once the child has gained a level of independence in their gross motor skills, the interest shifts towards mastering their fine motor skills and the age between 2.5 and 4.5 years old is crucial to mastering those skills. The child begins to hold objects with both hands, improves coordination of movements, develop pincer and a tripod grip. Again via repetition, children strengthen those intricate hand muscles and movements, and improve their hand eye coordination. The psyche is well coordinated and in balance with the body, the inner harmony is attained. In our classroom, one can find so many activities which help children to master those fine motor skills, including manipulating with tweezers, transferring, pouring, cutting, threading, sewing, writing, sorting and many others. We often observe the satisfaction and inner peace these activities bring to children.
The Period of Sensitivity to Small Details (birth to 3 years)
Surely you have observed when ready a story to your child that they notice the smallest of details in the pictures of the books? Or perhaps a young children who stops countless times during their stroll, to observe the tiniest details of objects, plants or insects along the way? Montessori said that young children notice the small details on the edges of your consciousness. For infants and toddlers this sensitive period is a period of wonder during which they build their understanding of the world they live in. Young children are surrounded by so much stimuli and this sensitive period help them to categorise and understand the properties of things that surround them.
During this period it is crucial to give children the time to be fascinated and to observe, to compare and to discover. By doing so, we give children the opportunity to make connections, build understanding and prepare them to understand the “big things” later on. And as for us adults, it might give us opportunity to see the world through a child’s eyes for a moment: to stop and enjoy the beauty of the world too.
The Sensitive Period for Language (birth to 5)
“The only outwardly recognisable sign of the onset of the sensitive period for language is the child’s smile” (Maria Montessori). This sensitive period begins as early as during the development in a mother’s womb when a child recognises familiar sounds such as mother’s voice. After birth the child absorbs all the sounds of language and tries to imitate them later on when they start to babble. This period lasts until the age of five, and during these years the child gradually achieves more and more complex linguistic competence. Children learn to speak effortlessly and during this period they can learn more languages at the same time with ease. It is important for a child to be surrounded by an environment that is rich with language stimuli. This involves singing, speech, discussion, reading books and giving them time and space to express them self verbally. We also support children by introducing new vocabulary through lessons, presentations and demonstrations with appropriate language, grammar and manners.
This sensitive period also includes a period for writing and reading. According to Montessori, the best age for beginning to write and read is age of 3.5 to 4.5 years old and she discovered that writing comes before reading. “Writing is a complex act which needs to be analysed. One part of it has reference to motor mechanisms and the other represents a real and proper effort of the intellect” (Maria Montessori). In the Montessori classroom the child refines their hand-eye coordination, pencil grip, anticlockwise movement and memory through many activities. Then the hand and mind come together and communicate in harmony: this is where the child develops the desire to put meaning to those random marks, and make sense of the phonetic sounds and shapes of letters. Once this window of opportunity opens, we provide the child with all the means, materials and activities that can fulfil their desire for writing and reading.
The Sensitive Period to the Refinement of Senses (birth to 6)
From birth, children have been collecting sensorial information, categorising them and making sense of them. Sensorial stimuli is all they hear, smell, touch, taste and see, and by using all these five senses they classify impression and make sense of the world around them. It is often not the objects but the impression they get from handling the object. For example, your house cat is a ‘cat’, but the tiger in the books is also a ‘cat’, thus enriching their label for ‘cat’. The first phase is connected to the sensitive period for small objects when a child picks, taste, handles and observes small objects where they not only gain the sensorial stimuli, but also starts understanding the difference between their individual senses. In the second phase, which begins around the age of three, children have the urge to gain more experience, organise and integrate those sensorial expressions. The Montessori sensorial curriculum area has a variety of materials for engaging all the senses and the materials are designed to isolate the senses encouraging the child to refine one sense at the time without being overwhelmed by other stimuli. Through our presentations we guide the children to name and categorise those sensorial experiences. The exercises are designed to refine children’s ability to reason, compare, observe, make decisions, auto correct and solve problems.
At home, it is important to allow the children to have that sensory experience they crave. And yes, even if that means they get dirty! Give them variety of textures to feel, things to taste or smell, sings songs and allow them to explore musical instruments (even though it may become super noisy!). Provide objects that they can group with similar traits and, most importantly, give them opportunity for outdoor play where all the senses can be stimulated.
The Sensitive Period to the Social Aspects of Life (2 to 6 years)
This period begins about the age of three when children begin to realise that they are part of bigger group, becomes more aware of the needs of others, and a certain social conduct in the society they live in. Before this the children are unconscious to gaining an understanding that their behaviour affects others and many conflicts might arise, and from the age of three children become conscious to the group and begin experimenting with relationships, making close friendships and begin to develop the desire to belong. In the Montessori class, this is supported through the vertical grouping: a mixed age class where the children act as siblings, younger children learn from their older peers, and the older children share their knowledge with the younger ones. They become custodians and role model the routines and behaviours of the environment. The teachers role model all the intricacies of grace and courtesy, guide the children into activities, maintain the ground rules and act as moderators in case of any conflicts.
It is important to support the development of social skills of your child and giving them plenty of opportunities to socialise e.g. play dates or opportunities to make new friendships outside of the school. Parents and caregivers are the role models the children look up to the most. Therefore, practicing the grace and courtesy, positive social behaviour will reflect in your child who will care, respect others and internalise social conducts with ease.
Eva is the lead teacher of the Jade classroom at Little Gems Montessori in Larnaca. If you'd like to find out more about the sensitive periods and how we support them in the classroom, drop us a line on 999 50070 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.