Maria Montessori and her ‘Sensitive Periods'

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Parents are always baffled by the amount of times a child can repeat an activity or a song or an action and I always get questions about why children are repetitive in some things at certain stages so I thought I’d explain!

Maria Montessori believed that children pass through phases in which at certain stags throughout their development they have a predisposition or sensitivity to learning a specific skill. These stages are called ‘sensitive periods’! Each period last for as long as it is necessary for the child to accomplish a particular stage in his development. These periods of sensitivity are transitory and when the aim of the period is accomplished the special sensitivity simply falls away. In other words it reaches its peak and dies away.

These sensitive periods can be thought of as moments of readiness for learning. Sensitive periods appear as an intense interest for repeating certain actions over and over again, until, out of repetition, a new skill emerges and is mastered. These sensitive periods manifest themselves by a pattern of behaviour. A feature of growth at this stage e.g. a characteristic of such a period is the repeated performance of song actions for no apparent reason. During these periods the child shows vitality and pleasure in performing these actions. If the child has not been allowed to work in accordance with the sensitive periods Montessori said it was like “a dropped stitch in his mental life” because he would lose his special sensitivity and interest in that area and it would affect his whole physic development! Harsh but true!

In Casa de Bambini, Montessori observed that the sensitive periods were not linear. They do not follow each other. Some run parallel and some overlap it was obvious to her that the sensitive periods the child passed through were not only an aid to the development of his physic life but they were also an important aspect of his learning process. So in formulating her method of education Maris Montessori identified six major sensitive periods:

  1. Sensitivity to Order:

This appears in the first year and continues through to the second year. During this time, the child is striving to sort out and categorise all his experiences. It makes it easier for them if there is some kind of order in their lives. They liked to be cared for in the same way by a primary caregiver in a familiar environment. The child needs consistency and familiarity so that he can orientate himself and construct a mental picture of the world. This need is particularly evident in the child from about the age of 18 months. During this sensitive period change can be very upsetting for a child, even a minor change can feel like the end of the world to them. Providing order in a child’s life helps the child to become disorientated! This is why the prepared environment is so important for the young child. Order helps the child to orientate himself and organise his mind.

  1. Sensitivity for Language:

The sensitive period for language begins at birth and go the whole way through the first plane of development (0-6 years). A baby hears his mother’s voice and watches her lips and tongue. By the age of six, with almost no direct teaching, the child will have acquired a large vocabulary, basic sentence patterns and the inflections and accents of language. He will continue to acquire more complex sentence structures and to extend his vocabulary throughout his childhood. If a child has not been exposed to language (reading, listening, singing, writing etc.) regularly, during this period he may be irrevocably damaged! Maria Montessori believed that it was particularly important for adults to converse with children throughout this period, continually enriching their language and giving them every opportunity to learn new words.

  1. Sensitivity to Walking:

When the young child learns to walk at around 12 to 15 months, he has a need to perfect the skill, and will walk and walk as told in Maria Montessori’s book “The Secret of Childhood”. It is under estimated how long a child can walk for, once they are allowed to do it at their pace, however the adult must be aware that they have no concept of time and they love to explore…. During this period the child is moving from being helpless into an active being and as we all know this is when the real fun begins!

  1. Sensitivity to the Social Aspects of Life:

At the age of about two and a half years to three years, the child becomes aware that he is part of a group. He begins to show and intense interest in other children of his own age, and gradually starts to play with them in a co-operative way. There is a sense of cohesion which Maria Montessori believed came about spontaneously and was not directed by internal drives. She noticed that at this stage, children begin to model themselves on adult social behaviour and they gradually acquire the social norms of their group. This is an ideal time for developing social convention and manners, rules, grace and courtesy are very important throughout this sensitivity. During this period you may find that children need and want to be accepted by anybody including parents, friends, family etc. Circle time, group play and Grace and Courtesy lessons are all extremely beneficial to a child in this period.

  1. Sensitivity to Small Objects:

When the child reaches its first year and becomes more mobile and has a larger environment in which to explore, he is drawn to small objects such as insects, pebbles, stones and grass. He will pick something up, look at it closely and perhaps put it in his mouth. The urge to pay attention to detail that children of his age have is part of their effort to build up an understanding of the world. This sensitive period allows children follow the Practical Life materials.

  1. Sensitivity to Learning Through the Senses:

From the moment the child is born, he receives impressions from the worlds through his five senses. Firstly, the senses of sight and hearing are active, and then gradually, as movement develops, the sense of touch and smell play a role, followed by a sense of taste, as he is able to put things into his mouth. By taste and touch the child can absorb the qualities of the objects in his environment, therefore allowing the neurological structures of language to be developed. The tongue and the hands are more connected to man’s intelligence than any other part of his body. Montessori referred to them as ‘the instruments of man’s intelligence’. This interest in sensory experience and the activities which they stimulate help to refine the child’s senses. Maria Montessori recommended that a baby be kept close to his caregivers so that he can see everything and hear what is going on around him. Then as soon as he can move around, he needs plenty of freedom so that he can explore. The child needs this sensory exploration in order to develop to its potential.

They are the main sensitive periods that Montessori believed that every child passes through. A child can have smaller sensitive periods also, for example a child can have a sensitive period for pouring. Throughout this period you may find that a child will repeat this actions for long periods of time on a daily basis. This can often be mindboggling to an adult but often the process is more important than the end result to a child. We pour things to move them from one place to another but the child’s focus is on the simple act of pouring in itself.

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  • Aisling Farley
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