The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.
An Introduction to the Sensitive Periods
“At such a time everything is easy; all is life and enthusiasm. Every effort marks an increase in power. Only when the goal has been obtained does fatigue and the weight of indifference come on. When one of these psychic passions is exhausted another area is enkindled. Childhood thus passes from conquest to conquest in a constant rhythm that constitutes its joy and happiness."
-Maria Montessori, ”The Secret of Childhood”
In detailing children’s development, Dr. Montessori observed certain windows of time during which children seemed to be guided by a distinctly focused inner drive, when they are absorbed by particular actions or demonstrate a particular sensitivity toward certain skills. She termed these windows, “Sensitive Periods,” intense periods of concentration and focus that are best served by prepared and responsive environments. Montessori originally observed in toddlers Sensitive Periods to Language, to Small Objects, to Grace and Courtesy, to Order, to Music, to Movement, to the Refinement of the Senses, to Weaning, and to Numbers, with others appearing in older children’s development and even more identified in more recent years.
Understanding the Sensitive Periods offers an answer key for some of the more curious behaviors your child may demonstrate. “Why does my toddler melt down if she doesn’t have the same fork at dinner every night?” Probably a sensitive period to order. “Why does my toddler insist on picking up pebbles at the park?” Probably a sensitive period to small objects. “Why can’t my toddler sit still when we’re waiting?” Probably a sensitive period to movement. “Why doesn’t my toddler use so many words, but misuse so much grammar?” Probably a sensitive period to language. These behaviors, which can be so befuddling to adults, are likely outside of the child’s conscious choice. Quite the opposite: if a child is in a Sensitive Period, he or she is driven intrinsically toward the satisfaction of that sensitivity. Redirecting won’t change that drive, but preparing ourselves and our environments to support it will.
We’ll consider each of the observed Sensitive Periods individually, understanding too that, as our knowledge about children’s development becomes increasingly nuanced and complex, other Sensitive Periods may still be identified. In general, Sensitive Periods are times when your child will show an intense motivation to learn particular concepts or in a particular way. Although the Sensitive Periods will vary in duration for each child and may vary in sequence as well, a child in a Sensitive Period will be as easily identified by his fascination with particularly actions or materials just as easily as a child who is not in that Sensitive Period will lose interest in the same behaviors.
Consider this internal drive more as an opportunity to support your child’s growth and less of a compulsion to avoid. The Sensitive Periods offer fertile times for children to learn in particular ways. A child in a Sensitive Period to Language, for example, is ripe to adopt even very complicated language structures with relative ease. A child in a Sensitive Period to Grace and Courtesy is perfectly matched to establish social habits that will help him long after the Sensitive Period subsides. Look to the Sensitive Periods both to prepare for your child’s emerging development and to make sense of the confounding behaviors that your child may already express.