Sensitive Periods

Besides being the first person to discover the unconscious absorbent mind, Dr. Maria Montessori was also the first to discover the sensitive period.  During a child’s sensitive period they show a very keen interest and are ready to learn a particular trait or skill.  Children can be observed to repeat this activity over and over again until they feel they have mastered it.  It could be movement or sounds or language or math.

Dr. Montessori compared this period to a flame that burns brightly but does not consume.  She would often say that the child is in the throes of the sensitive period, almost as if the child is consumed with learning this trait by using anything in their environment that can assist them.  Science later corroborated her work and confirmed that these neurological developments are occurring.

Each child from birth to the age of six is not only blessed with the unconscious absorbent mind but also gifted with sensitive periods in between.  During a sensitive period the learning appears to be effortless.  The flame burns inside until the child has mastered the new trait or skill when it slowly burns out.

What a beautiful gift.  Naturally, to make the most of any sensitive period, we need to have an environment where the child has all the lessons and material at their disposal.  It could be early reading with phonics, learning multiplication with beads, or pouring water form a pitcher to an empty cup.

This does not mean that if the child misses or we as teachers fail to recognize the signs of a sensitive period, they are not going to learn.  The child will still learn.  It will just be more a conscious learning at their pace rather then the effortless learning during the sensitive period.

Dr. Montessori emphasizes the importance of taking advantage and encouraging a child’s opportunity to take great strides in learning during their sensitive period.   She said, “If during their sensitive stage a child is confronted with an obstacle to their toil, they suffer a disturbance or even warping of their being, a spiritual martyrdom that is still too little known (understood) but whose scare are borne unconsciously by most adults.” 

Here are some signs to watch for so we can help our children make the most of a sensitive period.

Language:  If the child seems to be mimicking phrases and utilizing new words to make them a part of their vocabulary, chances are they are having a sensitive period.  This is a good time to read even more books to them that contain a variety of words and expressions.  You can also name items they find in their environment.  Carry on a conversation with them at every opportunity but avoid baby talk and intonations.  Encourage the child to use their new words and help them translate their thoughts when appropriate.

Detail and order:  You can tell that a child is observing their environment in this way by noticing that they become upset when things are not in the usual order or routine, walks around their environment putting things to rights by closing doors or noticing small objects.  Establishing a daily routine and following it helps the child get this most of this period.  You can also establish an environment where there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.  You can also discuss the details in small items like crystals and sea shells and provide color and art in their environment.

Sensorial exploration:  Your child may start to express interest in how things smell, feel or taste.  They may also be drawn to various colors and patterns.  Provide an environment where they can explore their world with their senses.  You can explore with your child and assist with providing the vocabulary to express what they are sensing.  Expanding your child’s world with new experiences and new places also encourages them.

Grace and courtesies:  A child as young as 2 ½ years old can show interest in manners by noticing a modeling their parents.  So, try to constantly model grace and courtesy in the child’s environment.  Practice and display grace and courtesy at home and their child will gradually acquire them on their own.  Some examples that we also emphasize at our schools are sit up straight, clean up after yourself, use inside voices when appropriate, and always say “Please” and “Thank you.”

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