“Again!” This is a word that we as parents and teachers hear all too often from kids! Have you ever wondered why your child wants to repeat the same activity, song or story a million times? It may drive you crazy at times, but these are classic symptoms of what Dr. Maria Montessori refers to as a sensitive period.
In short, a sensitive period is a phase or window in a child’s development when they can learn specific concepts more easily and naturally than at any other time in their lives. During these periods, they don’t tire of that work; they crave it and need it. This is a major reason why the Montessori method is based on “child-led” learning. By allowing children to follow their interests and instincts helps to maximise the power of these sensitive periods.
When the sensitive period passes, this intense desire is gone, and never returns. Rest assured they will likely still develop those skills, but will take longer and with more effort and less joy.
How to spot a sensitive period
While each child is different in their development, there are general time frames for each of these periods. You’ll know when your child is in a sensitive period when they exhibit the following:
- They are engaged, passionate, and energised by working on this specific activity or skill.
- Often return to the activity again and again.
- Feel frustrated when they are not permitted to exercise their sensitive periods.
- Powerful emotional responses such as tantrums when interrupting their ‘work’ or breaking a routine they are trying to master (e.g. bath time or bedtime).
Types of sensitive periods
Most sensitive periods occur from birth to age 6, during what Maria Montessori describes as the child’s absorbent mind. She identified eleven different sensitive periods: language, refining the senses, movement, order, small objects, toilet learning, grace & courtesy, music, reading, writing, and mathematics. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the six major sensitive periods. Keep in mind that sensitive periods do not appear in a linear way; they can overlap.
Sensitivity to Order – birth to 5 years
The sensitive period for order is a strong desire for consistency and repetition. Order peaks around 18 months to 2 years old, which is why you might notice your child lining up all their toys into rows at this stage. You may also encounter the “terrible twos”, where your child can be very disturbed by disorder, and falls apart at the slightest change in their routine. This is completely normal!
- An established routine (especially for bedtime), an ordered environment, and established ground rules will help balance transitions and keep your child from being disrupted by disorder.
- When you make a change, involve them in the process.
- Practice empathy about their strong need for order. Even if something is not as important to us adults, it can mean the world to our children at that particular time.
Sensitivity to language – birth to 6 years
Sensitivity to language involves the spoken language, written language, and reading. Montessori discovered that the sensitive period for writing (3.5 to 4.5 years) precedes the period for reading (4.5 to 5.5 years).
- Narrate everything you or your baby/toddler is doing.
- Introduce magnetic or wooden letters and take turns spelling 3-letter CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words like mom, dad, cat, hat, etc.
- Read aloud to your child every single day! (Check out our Tips for Choosing Books for Montessori Children)
Movement – birth to 4 years
Sensitivity to movement involves acquiring gross (using body and legs) and fine motor (using hands) skills, along with the refinement of those movement skills. Random movements become coordinated and controlled: grasping. touching, turning, balancing, crawling, walking.
- Give opportunity for your child to move freely, and make space for rolling, crawling or walking. At this stage they are not moving to get from A to B, they are doing it over and over to master the skill.
- Go on long walks and explore the outdoors and environment by playing in the grass and sand etc.
- Walk at your child’s pace rather than taking their hand and walking at an adult pace.
Sensitivity to Social Aspects – 2.5 to 5 years
At this time, your child begins to notice they are part of a group. Instead of engaging in parallel play, they start to interact in cooperative ways. They also start to mimic and pattern their social behaviours after adults. During this stage, children crave acceptance from parents, peers and family.
- This is an ideal time to introduce social manners, social graces and courtesies.
- Allow ample opportunity to play with groups of children. It’s an ideal time to enrol your child in a preschool or playschool to help refine their social skills.
Sensitivity to Small Objects – 1 to 4 years
Children experience a fixation on small objects and tiny details. This sensitive period helps lead to fine motor skills and the refinement of the pincer grasp, which builds the foundation for writing and other skills.
- Allow your child to place objects in their mouth to explore taste, but first ensure it is safe to do so and that the object is not a choking hazard.
- For children 2.5 to 4 years old, small objects provide a way to teach and learn language skills and other new concepts.
Sensitivity to learning through the senses – birth to 6 years
A fascination with sensorial experiences such as taste, sound, touch, weight, smell, helps children learn how to observe and make refined sensorial discriminations.
- 0 to 3 years: Involve your child with everything going on around her. Give plenty of freedom to move around to explore the environment.
- 3 to 6 years: Provide plenty of sensory-filled experiences so children can explore and observe their environment through the senses. Spend time outdoors in nature and explore different textures.
Our role as adults
Understanding your child’s sensitive periods is one of the keys to understanding what they need in their environment and why they are behaving in a certain way. It is our responsibility as parents and adults to be aware of these sensitive periods, our child’s needs, and what we can do to satisfy these needs. By preparing and providing the proper environment according to the needs of each sensitive period, this will allow our child to learn more, and with greater comprehension. This is why, at LittleHill Montessori Preschool, children are allowed to make choices, move about the classroom and explore their interests that lead to a deeper understanding of skills and increased confidence.