The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.
The Sensitive Period to Movement
The Sensitive Period to Movement is evident from the first moments of human development: arms flail, muscles tense and relax. Even in the early hours after birth, infants placed on their mother’s bodies will move toward food and nurture. In the next few months, the infant’s intrinsic motivation to move can seem to overpower almost all his or her other instincts. There is little a child needs, except time and a sturdy environment, to compel him to wiggle, roll, scoot, crawl, stand, and, eventually, walk, all in the matter of a relatively short window of time.
The Sensitive Period to Movement persists past that first year, though. Take some time to observe your toddler: sit still and watch how many steps your child takes in even a few minutes. Watch as he or she moves around the room, picking things up and placing them down, carrying items from one side of the room to the other, moving baskets or trying to climb on the furniture. It’s not a lack of attentiveness that drives this constant movement: movement is, indeed, the way that toddlers learn. The more they move, the better coordinated their gross motor control becomes. The more they move, the more nuanced their fine motor control grows. And as they master their bodies, they become increasingly able to direct that mastery toward particular activities. Consider the amount of self-restraint it requires to sit still at a table and complete a puzzle. A child who has not first developed his or her own muscular control will be hard-pressed to regulate his or her own impulses when a new task requires concentration.
As movement develops fine and gross motor control, it also gives the child opportunities to test his or her environment and to learn from the response. Our goal, especially with toddlers, is to give them ample opportunity to learn that the world is a safe and reliable place that will respond to them consistently. With that in mind, Montessorians will encourage parents to prepare environments for their children in which the physical response matches the child’s action. In other words, the world around the child should respond the same way to the same stimuli, over and over again. Avoid bouncy chairs or seats with motors that increase the impact of a child’s movement. When a child bounces gently, his or her chair shouldn’t respond noticeably. To do so undermines the truthfulness of the lessons the child is learning about his or her strength or impact. Choose riding toys that allow your child to cause the action independently, rather than motor-driven toys that only require your child to sit still to move. Offer your child multiple levels to climb, various textures to amble over, and sufficient time to navigate his or her own environment independently, even when doing so may not be the most efficient for you as an adult!
Respecting a child’s Sensitive Period to Movement requires other accommodations in the environment. If you are to allow your child to move freely, you must also provide an environment within which it is safe to do so. Design particular rooms or areas of your home that are prepared for the free-exploration that comes with free movement. Put Grandma’s fine china away for a while. There will be plenty of time to enjoy it after your child has mastered the movement of his or her own body.
Provide a low bed that your child can get in and out of independently, even from infancy. Avoid high chairs that require your child to be belted in to place, and look, instead, for chairs that are small enough to allow your child to place his or her feet on the floor while sitting. Offer objects of various size, shape, texture and weight with the express purpose of being moved: baskets filled with items to carry from one side of the room to the other or bags to hoist over shoulders as your toddler ambles about.
And most importantly, understand that your child’s motivation to move, especially in toddlerhood, is beyond his or her ability to control. It is through the movement that self-control develops. Insisting on your child sitting still will be no more effective against this inner drive than asking him to balance on the tip of his nose. When you’re planning out your child’s activities for the day, look for the opportunities to satisfy this inner drive: walking to the store instead of driving, toddling alongside a stroller until his or her legs are too tired to walk independently, carrying a small bag with his or her own belongings. Your child will not see these opportunities as chores. Instead, a child in a Sensitive Period to Movement will embrace them with fascination.