Sensitive Periods: A Guide for Casa Parents
Childhood is marked by a series of phases of development both physical and intellectual. Dutch scientist, Hugo de Vries discovered that animals go through critical periods, where they acquire a special sensitivity while in an infantile state. Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz studied using ducklings and discovered they have a period of two days where they follow the first moving object to pass before their eyes, which is usually their mother. Maria Montessori observed that children also go through sensitive periods. During a sensitive period, a child becomes fascinated with certain things, often to the exclusion of all others. They feel a compulsion towards a specific area and often repeat an action without fatigue. In fact, if the sensitive period is impeded and the child is unable to fulfill their need, a ‘tantrum’ can occur as their expression of frustration. These periods are temporary. Once the desired skill has been acquired, the sensitivity associated with it disappears and a new sensitive period begins. If the needs of the sensitive period are not met, the child will still be able to proceed with their development but the difficulty in achieving that skill will be significantly greater, in some cases impossible. The skills obtained during each sensitive period form the foundation for later development.
The theory that children are biologically primed to respond to certain influences is the basis of the Montessori methodology. The child’s sensitivity is guided by temporary instincts and their environment must be equipped with the materials required to fulfill their needs in order for optimum growth. If the child is not exposed to the correct stimulation the period will pass. The main sensitive periods that occur in young children are language, order, sensory exploration, small objects, movement and socialization. The Montessori classroom and exercises are set up with these periods in mind. The five areas of the classroom are Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math and Culture. It is the role of the teacher to recognize a sensitive period at its beginning and enable the child to connect with the environment so that they can absorb what they require. In the interest of order, all the materials are set of left to right , on the shelves as well as within the exercises. Everything has a correct place and method of use. All of the exercises allow for purposeful movement and there is plenty of room for the child to move around the classroom. Many of the materials include small objects for the children to perfect skills such as pincer grip. Working together in groups, and choosing their own place to sit gives the child opportunity to socialize with peers. Repetition is encouraged for as long as the child feels drawn to an activity by their sensitivity.
The young child learning to speak is an example of the sensitive period of language. Adults require memorization and diligent study to learn an language. Even if they eventually able to speak it perfectly they will always have an accent, and likely difficulty with grammar. In contrast, almost as soon as the child is born they are sensitive to the human voice. Babies can be observed staring at the mouths of anyone who is holding them and speaking to them. Because of this sensitivity, the child is born with the innate ability to learn to speak any language that they hear. As they listen to their native language being spoken they begin to refine their speech to syllables, whole words, and then sentences with correct grammar. By the approximate age of three the child ins fluent in their native tongue. However, if the child is not exposed to any speech during their sensitive period for language their ability to speak will be severely compromised. Parents and caregivers can aid the absorption of language through talking or reading to their children using varied language. Much like the teacher, the parents must observe their child and support a sensitive period when it is recognized by providing them with the appropriate stimulation and allowing the child to repeat actions as needed.
Lawrence, Lynne. Montessori Read and Write: A Parents Guide to Literacy For Children. London: Ebury Press. 1998.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1995.
Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
Seldin, Tim. “Sensitive Periods” Tomorrow’s Child Magazine. Spring 2006. 5-7.