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What are Montessori sensitive periods?

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

Montessori Sensitive Periods from Birth to Age Six Mar 12

First identified by Maria Montessori, then observed by Montessori educators around the world, a sensitive period is a phase or window in a child’s development where he has an inner compulsion to master a certain skill. During these windows, a child seeks and absorbs the particular skill unconsciously and with very little effort. Montessori identified eleven sensitive periods from birth through the age of six, as illustrated in the diagram below. A chart laying out the Montessori sensitive periods from birth to age six. Though these are general time frames for each sensitive period, every child’s development differs. It is helpful to be aware of the sensitive periods while observing your child. When your child is in a sensitive period, you’ll know it because they seek out activities to master that specific skill, are very engaged and often keep repeating the same task over and over again. Let’s take a look at each of the sensitive periods and see how we can prepare the environment to encourage our children’s development in each area. Movement [birth to 6 years] The sensitive period for movement can be further divided into large movement and refined movement. Large Movement [birth to 2.5 years] Children are born with very limited control of movement, and in the first 2.5 years, put great effort into developing large movements like lifting their necks, rolling, sitting, crawling, standing and walking. The developing control of their limbs can often be observed in a top-down fashion, beginning with their necks and arms, and moving down to their torso and legs. To support the sensitive period for large movement, we can provide open, safe spaces for our children to explore freely. We can spend lots of time outdoors and refrain from using restrictive furniture like harnesses, walkers, etc. Refined Movement [2.5 to 6 years] Once they have mastered the big movements, children work on refining their movements. Often during this time, children can be observed seeking out work that involves smaller objects, and more advanced grasping and releasing skills. To support the refinement of movement, we can provide lots of opportunities for practical life work, like transferring, pouring, opening and closing, threading, chopping, painting, etc. We can give opportunities for heavy lifting, as that helps to develop their muscle strength. Number Patterns and Math [birth to 6 years] Dr Maria Montessori observed that babies are born with a mathematical mind. They have a propensity to observe numerical patterns and relationships from birth, absorbing them sensorially through their environment. From age 3.5 onwards, the child begins to compare, classify and abstract these concepts and apply them to mathematics. To support this sensitive period, we can count things in the child’s environment, like cars on the road, or flowers in the garden. We can provide opportunities for sorting objects by colour, shape and size. We can identify patterns and encourage them to recreate the patterns. When they are ready, we can provide manipulative support to help them quantify each number. The golden beads are a fantastic Montessori material for children to understand the concepts of the decimal system, and even mathematical operations. To see how we use them with Ryaan, please visit my Instagram page. Toilet Learning [1 to 2.5 years] Children develop a keen awareness of their bodily functions at around one year of age. Toddlers love to imitate everything that adults do, including using the toilet, so it is a great time to introduce it to them. If toileting is introduced during this sensitive period, it is learned more easily due to the children’s intrinsic motivation. This doesn’t mean that children cannot learn to use the toilet after 2.5 years, it just means that the learning will probably be slightly slower. The use of the term toilet learning, instead of training, suggests that the child is guided to use the toilet when they have developed an awareness and control of their own bodily functions. The toilet is introduced in the child’s environment but the use of it takes place at the child’s pace. To support this learning, we can change their diaper soon after elimination, and we can do nappy changes standing up as soon as they are ready. Putting children in pull-up diapers means that they are more involved in the process and therefore more aware of their bodily functions. Order [0.5 to 3.5 years] Children, especially toddlers, crave routine and stability in their environment because it makes them feel safe to explore the world around them. When order is provided, it brings great satisfaction to children. Having external order aids in developing internal order, which is how children learn about the function of their bodies. This is why Montessori environments are very orderly and clean, with everything having a specific place. To support children during their sensitive period for order, we can declutter and organise our environment, set rhythms and routines in place, and present activities neatly in individual trays. Rotating toys and activities regularly also helps to maintain order in their environment. Small Objects [1 to 3.5 years] Sometime around the age of one, children develop a fascination with small objects and tiny details. The smaller the better. They notice and tune in to the details of everything up close. In this stage, they are also working on their fine motor skills and developing their concentration. To support children during this sensitive period, we can give them supervised opportunities to hold and inspect small objects. We can provide a safe environment filled with natural objects for them to explore. Transferring, matching or vocabulary work with small items are very attractive to children during this time. Grace and Courtesy [2 to 6 years] Grace is simple elegance or refinement of movement, while courtesy refers to politeness in one’s attitude and behaviour towards others. Grace and courtesy help children build the social skills required to interact with others in society. They help children develop an increased awareness of others and learn to be considerate of other’s feelings. Children can be presented with grace and courtesy lessons to demonstrate to them how to be polite and deal with social situations. They can be shown how to greet people, how to interrupt only when necessary, manners, patience and even things like how to wash their hands properly (especially pertinent in current times). Language [birth to 6 years] The acquisition of language from the child’s environment begins in the womb and continues to be a significant part of a child’s experience. In the first few months, babies are highly auditory and will turn their heads towards sounds. Then they become more visual and pay attention to the mouth while someone speaks. At around six months of age, babies develop their first syllables and start babbling. From then on, they are constantly absorbing the language around them and begin speaking, first in single words. Around age two, an explosion of language occurs where words are put together into phrases with correct grammar. By the age of three, the child has already absorbed and constructed the spoken language. Between the ages three and six, the child becomes highly interested in words and their meanings, further developing their grasp of language. To support their language development, we can read to children from the time they are babies. We can talk to them (not in baby speak), sing to them and read them poems. The more they hear the spoken language, the more they absorb. The first three years are the best time to expose them to different languages if in a multilingual family, as they absorb language without consciousness. Writing [3.5 to 5 years] In Montessori, writing skills are developed before reading. Writing is muscular, but reading requires a higher level of intellectual development. Many activities can indirectly train the hand and wrist muscles for writing such as whisking, transferring, pouring, sewing, painting, etc. More direct preparation for writing is done through sandpaper letters, metal insets, the moveable alphabet and lined paper. Reading [4.5 to 6 years] Around six months after they begin writing, children begin to develop a spontaneous interest in reading. We can prepare them beforehand through the use of spoken language - lots of reading, sound games, songs, poems and just having natural conversations. In Montessori, reading is taught using the phonetic method of teaching letter sounds instead of names. Phonetic object boxes and phonetic cards help to prepare more directly for reading. Refinement of the Senses [2.5 to 6.5 years] Children refine their senses by exploring their environment with all their senses. A fascination with sensorial experiences results in children learning to observe and make increasingly refined sensorial discriminations. Montessori materials such as colour tablets, offer children the opportunity to isolate a sensory quality and later, discriminate between them. Stereognostic or mystery bags are often used to isolate the sense of touch and have the child guess the object without looking at it. Similarly, we have sound boxes or bells to isolate the sense of hearing, and touch tablets or fabric matching to isolate the sense of touch. Music [3 to 6 years] During this sensitive period, children are attuned to and readily learn about rhythm, pitch and melody. Numerous studies have found a correlation between musical experiences in early childhood and accelerated cognitive development. To aid this learning, we can sing with children and expose them to real instruments. We can also expose them to a variety of different types of music and dance. Having an understanding of the sensitive periods and the approximate age at which they occur, allows us to prepare our environment for our children.

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