The child is born with an enormous task: creating themselves into a fully functioning human being that is perfectly adapted to their time and to their culture. And when we think about it for an infant to start this process and for a child to continue it seems like an almost insurmountable task, but the child is not left without helps in this process. In that first plane of development, the ages from birth to six, the child is in possession of that absorbent mind, the mind that is just effortlessly taking in information. And this information is used in this process of self-construction. Also, in the first plane of development a child is in possession of what we call sensitive periods. These sensitive periods are working in tandem with the absorbent mind, driving energy and focus for the child in this process of becoming a fully developed human being. A sensitive period is a point in time in which a child is motivated to acquire a specific characteristic or skill. The sensitive periods were not a discovery of Dr. Maria Montessori; however, she was the first person to identify them in the development of children. Sensitive periods had already been identified in plants and in animals.
Hugo de Vries was the scientist, the botanist, that termed the phrase “sensitive periods.” What he observed was in the development and growth of the poppy there was a point in time where this plant was extremely susceptible and vulnerable to the external environmental conditions. This is what he called a sensitive period. Jacques Loeb was a physiologist who was experimenting with a variety of animals, and it was with the larva of the Porthesia, butterfly that he was able to observe sensitive periods. The larva hatched and remained in their nest through the cold winter months. Now, when spring came, and the weather warmed the sun shined more brightly and powerfully. The larvae were drawn out of the nest, and they moved to the very ends of the tree branches, and it was at the very ends of the tree branches was the only food that was suitable for them and those were the fresh new leaf shoots. And they would stay there on the end of the branches until they had grown sufficiently that this was no longer the best food for them. And it was then that they left the ends of those branches for more dense leaves, this was now the better food for them. They never returned to the end of the tree branches to eat those fresh leaves again. Jacques Loeb believed this to be a sensitive period.
Dr. Maria Montessori, being a scientist herself, saw the value in the work of these two men and she began to apply it to what she was observing with children. There is a period allotted for development and progress that governs the process of development. i.e three fold phenomena that Montessori Observed. In the three fold phenomena Dr. Montessori observed that the child has a spontaneous interest in purposeful activity. She observed that the child had the capacity to reach a stage of concentration by the means of interested repetition. A vital unbreakable link exists between the 3 factors that is interest, repetition and concentration. The child is capable of concentration, the capacity to concentrate belong to the nature of the child and she realized indispensable need to concentrate belongs to the nature of the child, and she came to realize the great work the child has to perform and thus his entire future depends on these developments. He definitely needs to concentrate to make achievements. Example: To walk and to talk we have to co-ordinate our movements which, he does to a great degree of perfection.
This spontaneous interest is the spark that is kindled, when a genuine vital need comes in contact with something that attracts the attention of the child. When comes face to face with what will satisfy his need which is attracted to irresistibly then concentration will come and it has to be his work which will satisfy his vital need. He will get immersed in that particular activity. So this spontaneous interest will stimulate the child’s interest and that will bring about repetition and this repetition will help the child to find his satisfaction. This repetition with interest gets the child totally immersed in the activity and the child withdraws from the environment. Depth of the total absorption is a state of concentration that can only be reached with repetition. This concentration is not an end in itself it only servers as a means of the child being active on a deeper level. It also serves as mean of upliftment which helps his development.
Sensitive periods are now widely recognized as being a fundamental piece of child development. We can define sensitive period as special span of time during which the child experiences sensitivity impulse towards activity or interest in environment in order to acquire perfect human characteristics. They’re not always called sensitive periods sometimes they’re called critical periods or windows of learning, but they are all meaning the very same thing. These periods are not within the will of the child to control. They are a psychological phenomenon that appears spontaneously.
These sensitive periods do appear within very predictable time frames though for every child regardless of where the child lives, what race they are, and what gender they are. The difference is the environment in which the child exists. Either it’s going to help support a full satisfaction of the sensitive period or it’s going to get in the way, impeding natural development. When this happens a sensitive period’s work is left undone. It doesn’t mean that learning can’t happen later, but without this sensitive period fully active the learning will be more laborious. Sensitive periods are also transitory, which means they don’t last forever. Once a sensitive period closes, it closes forever. Sensitivities peak and fade up. Depending on the child needs, focus and attraction can be higher. These attractions could fade away if psychic created is not optimum or if its not created or the environment does not respond to his need. These periods are temporary for optimum development. It must be directed by child’s will.
These sensitive periods are not gradual, it can overlap and run parallel. They do not appear in isolation. It lasts for different time period. Sensitive periods are knowingly unknown. First phase of absorbent mind is unconscious, we see sensitive period when child repeat activity again and again. They are also called as spotlight on human characteristics. They highlight human characteristics excluding all other aspects.
The two facets of sensitive periods are 1. Inner creative process and 2. Outer manifestation. Through her extensive scientific observation of young children, Maria Montessori discovered that these sensitive periods are also creative. For example, the language development in child, child starts talking between 18 to 24 months, his language progresses. He must have gathered raw materials. It is very important to notice that they are not absorbing language or movement, but they are creating them.
Every coin has two sides. If sensitive periods are obstructed or not fulfilled, there will be manifestations in the child’s behaviour. They will show unnatural behaviour. They will be angry, upset or always crying. Their internal development is hampered. This is due to poor environment. The human functions and capacity develop under sensitive period and so sensitive periods are indispensable for human life. These are very essential for the construction of human personality.
Teamwork of Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods:
“The child is not born with a little knowledge, a little memory, a little will power, which have only to grow as time goes on. We are not dealing with something that develops, but with a fact of formation; something non-existent has to be produced, starting from nothing. The wonderful step taken by the baby is to pass from nothing to something.” – Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind (23)
That is why Montessori believed the period from birth to 6 was the most important time of life. The child grows from an unconscious to conscious learner. The child learns more in this period of life than any other. Sensitive periods and the absorbent mind are two aids to the child’s pattern of development. The impressions and interactions the child gains from his environment does not merely enter his mind, they form it. We are aware that freedom and the environment are essential for the child’s development, because the child’s unconscious activity prepares the mind. Just by living child absorb everything without efforts during absorbent mind. Absorbent mind is not selective but sensitive periods are selective.
Maria Montessori identified 6 sensitive periods of a child.
Sensitivity for Language:
“It was not simply a single child but rather many who showed this same surprising ability. They obviously had a special sensitivity for words and were ravenous in their desire to master the written language.” – Discovery of the Child, Page 221
The sensitive period for language is from birth up to 5.5 to 6 years of age. There are several aspects of language from spoken language, to written language and reading. This is an integral part of a child’s life to be able to use words to use words or language in order to communicate. It is the progression from babbling to single words to phrases to two- or three-word sentences, with a continuously expanding vocabulary and comprehension. A second language is also learnt very easily at this time. The sensitive period for learning to speak is from 7 months to 2.5-3 years of age. The prenatal influence on language development is important. By age three the child is ideally speaking 2-3 word sentences. The environment we prepare for this child is speaking to them in clear language, reading to them and allowing them to speak their needs and not anticipating their needs too much that there is no need for the child to try to communicate verbally. This can be a common occurrence that adults are often not aware as we try to be helpful at all times to the needs of children. The sensitive period for learning how to write is from 3.5 to 4.5 years of age. This occurs with the preparatory work of the child using the alphabet. For reading, a child is learning intensely from 4.5 to 5.5. From the basis of writing, they can learn to read. It is important then that a child is read to at least once a day, if possible, for about 20 minutes not necessarily continuously especially for younger children.
Sensitivity to Refinement of the Senses:
“Psychological studies have shown that it is necessary to isolate the senses as far as possible if some single quality is to be brought out.” – Discovery of the Child, Page 104
Sensitive period for refinement of the senses starts from birth to 5 years. It is most apparent at the time that the child begins to crawl and explores the environment. The child takes objects from the environment and puts them in his mouth. The child does not only taste but is beginning to coordinate all his senses to make sense of the object. This period is characterized with the child’s fascination with sensorial experiences (taste, smell, sounds, weight and touch). This results in the child learning to observe and make increasingly refined sensorial discrimination. Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses. The quality of the stimulation that his environment offers will have a profound effect on his direct learning. The Montessori environment has excellent teaching materials that help the child’s refinement of the senses.
Sensitivity for Coordination of Movement:
“It would seem to me that children are very well disciplined indeed when they can all move around in a room in a useful, intelligent, and free fashion without doing anything rude or unmannerly.” – Discovery of the Child, Page 56
At birth movement are instinctive, reflective. The sensitive period for walking and movement is apparent from the first year of life. Even at the age of 1 – the child is also sensitive to walking. At around the age of 2.5, this is heightened. Montessori gives the example of a two and a three-year-old spending an hour going up and down the stairs. Once the child is mobile, he rarely stops. It is important to consider the physical space when considering the environment for the children. Montessori explains that the child has two streams of energy – the physical and the mental. These streams of energy should be balanced. If they are not balanced, the child’s behaviour will be affected. In Montessori environment Exercise of Practical Life helps child in movement. Their movement gets balanced.
Sensitivity for Social Interest or Behaviour:
This period starts around the age of 2.5 to 3 years. You can observe the child learning to become a part of a group. Slowly they tend to start working together, sharing, cooperating, and communicating. Montessori explains that this happens not out of instruction but very naturally – through an inner power/ drive in the child. The Montessori curriculum includes the introduction of courtesy and grace (manners and social skills) to help the child socialise in a desirable way. We are role model for the child.
Sensitivity to Order:
This starts from birth and peaks at 18 months to 2.5 years and prolongs to age five. This is characterized by a desire for consistency and repetition. There exists a passionate love for established routines and is when a child may seem disturbed by disorder. The environment therefore must be carefully ordered with a place for everything and with carefully established ground rules. It is also important to have external order as order in their environment where there is an appropriate place for everything as this helps the child also establish their internal order. It is when you see a child may give out a tantrum since things are out of routine and it affects their sense of order. They may at this time insist on the same routine, and at times parents don’t really have time to respect this in the busy lives. One may even see a child put things in back into place if they are out of order if given the chance. It is important to be aware of this as one of the child’s needs to be fulfilled. Having ordered rules helps a child in this sensitive period.
Sensitive Period for Small Objects:
This period starts around the age of one to the age of three. This can be characterized by the child’s fixation with small objects and tiny details for example, a pendant of mother’s neck, an ant crawling on the floor, a blade of grass, a pebble, etc… This is an indicator that order, and detail are coming together in the child’s mind, and he is building his understanding of the world. Children are attracted to the level of focusing on details. When going out for a walk with the child, the child will slow down many times and stop to examine small objects that gathers his interest. To properly prepare the environment one may get down to knee level and walk it to see the details yourself, fix what needs to be fixed so as the child may not be distracted when doing work. When a child may see something in disorder this may affect their level of concentration.
What happens if we ignore these sensitive periods?
Sensitivity to Language:
If a child is not expose regularly to language during this period of time, his language will not develop to the full potential. He will also become less sensitive to the sounds of his language. Children will affect his ability to express himself, his self-confidence and limit his learning skills.
Sensitivity for Refinement through the Senses:
If the child is deprived of the right environment during his period, it would inhibit the child from learning. Furthermore, the child may become rebellious.
Sensitivity to Movement:
Providing the right environment for this sensitivity is important because children are continuously developing their gross and fine motor skills. The need to develop balance and agility are important for the development of his self-concept.
Sensitivity to the Social Aspect of Life:
Depriving the right environment for this sensitivity, the child will feel lonely hence attention seeking. As a result, the child will become unfriendly and anti-social.
Sensitivity for Order:
If the sensitivity to order is lacking the child may not be able to orientate himself and construct a mental picture of the world, he will feel very insecure and has no confident of himself.
Sensitivity to Small Object:
The lack of right environment for this sensitivity may discourage the curiosity of the child in discovering new things. It will make him less observant of his environment and therefore affect his learning.
Role of Adult and Environment:
What can we as the adults do for our children? We can always prepare the environment. We can make sure that our child has an environment that cultivates curiosity. An environment that feeds a child’s natural tendency towards exploration. That fosters a lifelong love of learning.
This often means giving plenty of time and space for the child to interact with his environment how he chooses. Again, we come back to “follow the child.” When we observe the child, we see what interests him. This allows us to harness that, providing ample opportunities for him to explore what will most motivate him to pursue learning.
Modelling the behaviours and attitudes we want our child to have is also tremendously important. This is a crucial role a Montessori teacher has in the classroom as well. A patient parent or teacher is much more effective than a parent or teacher who simply tells the child to “be patient.”
As parents and educators, it is our honour to nurture these young humans on their way to develop into the unique individuals they’ll become. How exciting that part of our responsibility is simply joining them on the journey; modelling and experiencing life joyfully with them and through their eyes!
Adult must have proper knowledge of child’s need and give time and have faith in this being.
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