The Montessori Sensitive Periods

In Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, Dr. Montessori states “Children pass through definite periods in which they reveal psychic aptitudes and possibilities which afterwards disappear. That is why, at particular epochs of their life, they reveal an intense and extraordinary interest in certain objects and exercises, which one might look for in vain at a larger age. During such a period the child is endowed with a special sensibility which urges him to focus his attention on certain aspects of his environment to the exclusion of others. Such attention is not the result of mere curiosity; it is more like a burning passion.” (E.M. Standing, pg. 120)

What are the Montessori Sensitive Periods?

In the study of child development, sensitive periods are stages of development where children are more responsive to stimuli and capable of faster mental growth and quicker to learn new skills. As the child grows & develops, they pass through successive phases of development which demand different environments and types of help. The earlier years are the most important – the sensitive periods of infants to six year olds will not be matched by later stages because is a period of self–formation. During sensitive periods, the child works for his own internal satisfaction, which is different from adults who work to achieve satisfaction from external goals.

Montessori observed the sensitive periods of a little four year old girl who worked with the cylinder blocks. The girl focused on working on the blocks and completed on her lesson for forty four times. The concentration of the children working in their sensitive periods is very important, we would never interfere the children when they are concentrating and working in the sensitive periods. We should observe and provide appropriate material for the children when we see their sensitive periods occur for the children can develop the specific skills.

The sensitive periods are impermanent, therefore, we are now aware of the wonderful presents that the children use to develop themselves, satisfy themselves and guide them to their own directions. A sensitive period is an extraordinary sensibility that gained in the infantile state. The particular trait that a child concentrating on is limited and temporary. Once the children gained the satisfaction, the sensibility to particular trait will disappear. The length of the sensitive periods can be short in just a few days or week or long for months or years. They start to work up to a high point and start to decrease after.

The phrase “sensitive periods in development” and the sensibility of little caterpillars

A famous Dutch biologist names Hugo de Vries was the first person who used the phrase “sensitive periods in development”. Later Maria Montessori used it for human development. Truthfully we can say that Montessori’s whole system, theory and practice has a foundation of biology in it. According to the sample of life cycle of a butterfly (Porthesia), when tiny caterpillars come out of their eggs, their mouths are fragile and small that the youngest and most tender leaves are the only thing they can eat. The biologist, de Vries found that the early hatched larvae have a remarkable sensibility towards light. The newly larvae move forward to the tips of branches and eat the youngest and most tender leaves. When the caterpillar have developed themselves bigger and bigger, their jaws are stronger, they gradually lose their sensibility to light. As such result they start to go find food in different area of the tree.

During the growth of specific organisms there come special sensibility periods which are impermanent. The periods of special sensibility help the organism to get specific functions or determined characteristics. When the organisms have achieved the goal of these periods, the special sensibility lessens and replaced by another. The remarkable thing of development during a sensitive period is an unable to resist impulse incites the organism to choose only certain elements in its environment just as long as the sensibility is appeared.

Maria Montessori’s Quotes in the Sensitive Periods

In the Secret of Childhood page 252, Montessori also compares a sensitive period to a flame that burns luminously but does not exhaust. Montessori says “Such instincts are not so much reactions to the environment as delicate inner sensibilities, intrinsic to life-just as pure thought is an entirely intrinsic quality of mind. We might continue to the comparison and look on them as divine thoughts working in the inmost center of living creatures, leading them subsequently to action on the outer world in realization of the divine plan.”

  • A child learns to adjust himself and make acquisitions in his sensitive periods. : He is physically adjusting himself to living in this world and he is gaining new skills that are real neurological developments.
  • These are like a beam that lights interiorly or a battery that furnishes energy. : The sensitive periods are like the light that shines through a child’s soul, or the battery that provides energy.
  • It is this sensibility which enables a child to come into contact with the eternal world in a particularly intense manner. At such a time everything is easy; all is life and enthusiasm. Every effort marks an increase in power. : The sensitive periods allow a child to be involved with the endlessly world in deep concentrated manner.
  • When one of this psychic passions is exhausted, another is enkindled. : The fire of passion and concentration in the sensitive periods is used for a certain task when it completed, another task is ignited.
  • Childhood thus passes from conquest to conquest in a constant rhythm that constitutes its joy and happiness. It is within this fair fire of the soul, which burns without consuming, that the creative work of man’s spiritual world is brought to completion. : From the process of being born through becoming a child, the fire that lights up without exhausting in a child’s soul and his spirit created him to become a completely unique individual person.

For the child who his sensitive periods have been blocked or ignore his skill that he is working on might not be strong and as best. Dr. Montessori states “If during his sensitive stage a child is confronted with an obstacle to his toil, he suffers a disturbance or even warping of his being, a spiritual martyrdom that is still too little known, but whose scars are borne unconsciously by most adults.”

The Brain and Sensitive Periods

Currently, scientists understand that the sensitive periods are neurological based. The brain nerve cells of the child form powerful connection while she is working in her sensitive periods. The sensitive periods are controlled largely by cycles of development in the brain.

Inside a newborn baby’s brain contains over 100 billion neurons which grows rapidly in just a second during the pregnancy. Neurons start to improve and develop their communications. There are many neurons in the brain that forms connections and they become stronger. The neurons connections develop and grow stronger through use. When the children have enriched environment of loving personal interaction with lots of touch and language, colorful objects, music and sounds, interesting textures and other stimulation —more connection of neurons will be formed. And if the children continue to have these experiences and new dimensions are added —the neural structure will be enhanced.

Dr. Martha Pierson, neurologist at Baylor College of Medicine states “Children need a flood of information, a banquet a feast for the brain. This early stimulation or “education” if you will, shapes the brain’s neural architecture. Varied, early exposure is thought to assist the child to develop the processing capability that will provide the opportunity to handle multiple tasks later in life.”

Not enough stimulation can bore the child and her brain. Too much stimulation can put pressure on the child and she may shut down. Well preparing and balancing the enriched environment in the Montessori classroom for the children to choose and the works that meet their needs are important.

When children have stress, fearful, or anxiety, the teacher must help them feel calm, and safe physically, emotionally and spiritually. We should prepare a safe, peaceful and harmony environment in the classroom that nurture children’s hearts so we can help them to life. While we are helping the children in their sensitive periods, we should provide the age appropriate works and materials to help them achieve their inner goals.

Sensitive periods have two types, one calls Critical windows, in order for some skill to be formed, the brain requires certain particular types of input during the critical windows of development. If the brain doesn’t receive the input during this time, the development will never happen.

For example, human vision and speech. The second type is sensitive periods which most of sensitive periods that Montessori observed are in this category. Children develop natural interest in particular behaviors that last long adequate amount to develop their specific skills. The child will eventually develop his skill even though he doesn’t find the right environment stimulation but not as smooth, perfectly and not as easy. For example, holding pencil, mastering sensorial skills such as grading sizes or musical tones.

Major sensitive periods in two and a half to six year old children

In sensitive periods as mental necessities, it is our obligation to fulfill the child’s need for their development.

Sensitive periods for language

Speaking language in earlier year, one of the earliest and long lasting work of sensitive periods is language. The sounds of native tongue is set up by the first birthday. There is a study at University of Washington by Patricia Kuhl who worked with newborn babies and documented that the babies respond to specific sounds in their own languages. Kuhl compares children brains to forming magnets that all the sounds around them are swept in the brains. Not animal or mechanical sounds but human voice that the child interest during this period of infancy. The child starts to coo, babble, say first words, leading to sentences and full blown language. That is why we need to communicate with our children to help them with their language stimulation.

  • Children who parents speak to them since they are in the womb become more verbal.
  • In the first two to three years of life, the child constructs the mother tongue.
  • The two and a half to six year old period comes the vocabulary developing.
  • From age three and a half to five and a half, children have sensorial interest in tracing letters and matching letter with a similar sound, building words, writing and reading.
  • Later from age 7-9 years old, children enter a sensitive period for grammar, word functions and simple usage.

Sensitive periods for order age 6 months and 3 years.

Order begins in the first year and has the high peak in the third year. In The Secret of Childhood, Montessori explains that the need for order comes from the truth that the child is constructing himself and needs external order to rely on during the work. In this period the child is ordering his mental scheme for the world. The child has a passion and interesting in ordering things, places and times. For example, greeting, breakfast time, reading story time, bath time, putting things in the same area. Ordering help comforting the child the same as adult. The child needs order and stability in the environment for him to be able to construct himself.

Playing hide and seek (at the same place for little kids) or bringing them for a walk at the same route are ones of the great activities to help children develop their minds and help secure and ensure them that things or person will be there at the same place and time. Allow the children to enjoy and take in and process the impressions by slowing down the beat and the physical movement.

There are two forms of sensitivity of order, one is the external environment and the other is the internal order which involves with physical orientation. For example, staying in a hotel room, strange place, strange bed, different smell. The child can be upset because of the new change of the environment and may feel out of his comfort zone. Parents need to comfort the child such as bring his own favorite stuffy toy, blankets, reading story and giving him meals at the same schedule just like home. At a daycare, if the classroom doesn’t have things in order, it can be very chaotic. Little children happy to see things in places and want to work at restoring and maintaining order. For a hundred year, Montessori schools around the world always have and prepare the same environment and order in the classrooms.

Sensitive periods for movement from birth to four year old

For babies, we prepare environment of safety so we can offer freedom of movement for them. Developing the brain is an active activity. The children have a commanding need to interact with stimuli as the brain searches to maintain unity and integrity by continuously integrating new information. It increases the remarkable and relevance of every learning experience.

Refinement and control of movement from age 14 months to four years.

The sensitive period for control and refinement of movement is most powerful from fourteen months to four years. At the beginning of this period, a child has already developed his gross motor skills. The continuing development of the cerebellum and motor cortex facilitate the child’s enhance in his fine motor skills. The activity such as working with the knobs on the cylinders block, using tongs pick up colorful balls and drop them to a tray are the works that help the child on fine muscle control. It’s allow the child to use his muscle, eyes, hands coordination and thinking skill as well as having a joy of the work.

Precision and Interest in small objects from age 1 to 3 years

Montessori understands that base on her observation children truly like precision. We can provide precision in the handling equipment. In the same manner, we show grace and courtesy and other simple refinement of polite movement during this period of time. For example, opening and closing the door, eating correctly, using materials carefully and gently, etc.
When children have the control of their movement, it affects their whole personalities. It also build up their confident, it helps them with concentration and it gives them contentment.

Interest in small objects 1-3 years

About a year a year and a half, children go through a sensitive period for tiny things and objects. Small objects are the bigger challenge to the child who is getting small motor control, thus his inner interest. It relates to the refinement and control of movement. In The Secret of Childhood, Montessori mentioned that early young children would point at tiny little things that we adult couldn’t even notice.

Special epoch for sensation from age two and a half to 6 years

From age two and a half to the later stages of absorbent mind, the child show the concentration of interest in sensorial impressions, the sensitivity includes the refinement of these senses. The activities that help developing the children are such as working with rough and smooth surfaces, tracing shapes and geometry. Dr. Maria names this specific ages the “special epoch for sensation.”

Math patterns from birth to 4 years

The brain has sensitive period from birth to four years for setting patterns which will help in developing children lifelong mathematical ability.

At toddler age, if a child gets introduced to simple math concepts, he will do better in math later. The more children are introduced to math, the more they become adaptive in thinking mathematically.

Math from age three and a half to 7 years

Montessori school offer math presentations after the child has established the ability to focus and follow basic orderly procedures, and after completing sensorial materials that prepare for the math materials. Once the child enters Montessori school, they tends to interested in using math materials around age 3 ½ -4. Many children who started with math in the Montessori classroom are already doing addition and multiplication (and often subtraction and division) with concrete material before they go to first grade. Many of them possess several math facts ex. partially or to fully memorized addition and multiplication tables.
Children are at their peak for learning patterns at age four. Dr. Maria designed the decimal system material for first graders, she thought it was an appropriate age for learning the hierarchy of numbers and place value. Turned out that the first graders were interested minimally but the four to five years old love it and find it easy memorize math facts through the absorbent mind. There was a research in 1992 from Dr. John Chattin-McNichols states that children who had only one year of preschool in Montessori do better than their counterparts in math as late as age fifteen. The Montessori material concept along with the experience of success in mathematics at an early age provide a sense of confidence and self-identity in children as mathematicians.

Music from age 3 to 7 years

There’s a research of Frances and Gordon Shaw of UC, Irvine states a group of three year olds score 80% higher than their peers in spatial reasoning after just eight months of piano and chorus. The neural circuits for math are closely aligned with those for music. Children exposed to music before the age of seven actually develop a physically larger part of the brain called the planum temporale. Those who began their musical exposure after age seven did not develop it.

Sensitive periods for learning to pay attention 3-6

There’s a study shows that children who grow up without structure do not learn to focus their attention properly in their day to day basic. According to the study, the crucial time for learning to pay attention is between the ages of three and six years. During the same period of about 2 ½ -3 through 6 years, the child has met a measure of stability in his physical and emotional growth. He is ready to start to pay attention to his social environment as well as physical environment. The attention and creation of mental order and expectations will help the child feel safe and behave appropriately in the new environment.

Emotional control, development and the love of children

From beginning at birth through two years, there many sensitive periods. There is a cluster of cells in the prefrontal cortex that during this time, it links to the emotional area of the brain. The connection obviously gives a type of control switch, where excitement can calm down through reason. Parents who gently comfort their crying infant versus ignoring them in their cribs are teaching the skill of self-calming. The portion of the brain which regulates emotions, also influences cognitive ability. Clinical observations show that children understand emotional relationships far sooner than they can distinguish physical relationships. The most important things for teachers and parents is loving our children.

Montessori Education During Sensitive Periods

Teachers who are working with children in Montessori school need to understand the materials themselves as well as the children sensitive periods and their inner needs. The understanding comes through practice with material and meditation on what each material gives to the child. It comes through observation of individual child. Children can’t tell us what they need but we can observe and offer what we think they may ready for then move forward.

Teachers must allow independent choices, repetition, and completion of cycles. We may not interrupt them when they are concentrating on their works during the sensitive periods. Always respect their choices and let go of the control. Although teachers have no control over the emotional climate the children experiences at home, but we can create and prepare loving and kindness environment that can be a powerful force for good in the life of our children.