In our first post we talked about the "sensitive periods" and promised "more on that later." It is later now so we will discuss what sensitive periods are and why it is important for you to know about them! The term sensitive period was first used by Dutch biologist Hugo De Vries to describe some animal behaviors. When Dr. Maria Montessori was observing the behaviors of children, she realized that all children seem to go through certain times when they are very sensitive to a new skill. It is marked by an attraction to whatever they can find in their environment to develop that particular skill. As Montessori wrote, "A sensitive period refers to the special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in the process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait, or characteristic, has been acquired the special sensibility disappears." In other words, a child goes through a limited period of time where they are trying to develop a specific skill. During this time they are really drawn to something that will help develop that skill. When the skill is achieved, they are no longer in need of the attraction to that particular something. IF what is needed can be found, the child will learn easily and without effort. Sensitive periods do pass and if we can give the child what he/she needs during this time, the skill will be learned. If the child does not get to interact with the necessary environment during this time, they will have to learn later when it is more difficult.
I remember when my son was really into looking at very, very tiny small insects that I could barely see. I always wondered why he was so interested in these teeny things. Dr. Montessori defined this time as the sensitive period for Interest in Small Objects. (Begins right around the beginning of age two.) We can understand a child’s inner life by noticing the way he immerses himself in the contemplation of minute, tiny things which we would pay no attention. This is an indicator that order and detail are coming together in the child’s mind. Children are attracted to the level of focusing on details. SO, what is the meaning for you? Notice what your child is looking at so steadily. Get down on their level and take a look. Provide a magnifying glass and look at it together. Allow your child the time to sit and watch.
Another sensitive period is Movement which is when the child begins to move. The absorbent mind has already taken in the environment. As he starts to move he begins to become conscious. The sensitive period for movement can be divided into different classifications. Acquisition of gross and fine motor (walking and the use of the hands) is from 0-2.5 years of age. The environment we prepare for this is the opportunities for the child to crawl, pull up, encourage to walk with or without assistance. A child is also given toys and materials that allow their hands to hook, bat, touch, turn, insert and grasp small items within their abilities. We have to give them toys or materials that improve the movement of the hand, and improve hand-eye coordination. These opportunities given to them need to be repeated in order for these skills to be refined. Refinement/coordination of movement is from 2.5 to 4.5 years of age. This is when the child may start using both hands in coordination of fine movements, being able to hold small items with pincer grip and release voluntary. Gross motor can be coordination of walking, running, balancing while carrying a jug of water and jumping. The child acquires this coordination through repetition of purposeful motor activity. Regular visits to the park or outdoor environment is likely to help this sensitive period. We also provide these activities in our Montessori environment. We take special care to make sure the child has everything available to them to develop and attain the skills of the sensitive periods.
Elizabeth Hainstock (The Essential Montessori) talked about other sensitive periods:
Birth to three years: Absorbent mind, sensory experiences
Eighteen months to three years: Language development (listening and speaking)
Two to four years: Refinement of the senses (acting on what is observed in 0-3), concerned with truth and reality, awareness of order
Three and a half to four: Writing
Four to four and a half years: Tactile sense
Four and a half to five and a half: Reading (although this can happen earlier!)