The “Sensitive Periods” for Children 0-6 Years Old – What They Are and How to Recognize Them
Written by Carey Youngblood
Maria Montessori discovered that children go through different “sensitive periods.” These sensitive periods are universal for all children. They are also transitory, lasting only for a short time before they are gone. A sensitive period is an interval of time in a child’s development during which the child experiences an irresistible impulse toward a well-defined activity. It is a burning intellectual love between the child and the environment. If allowed to establish deeply within the child, the impulse experienced by the child functions at a heightened level during its respective sensitive period and lasts for the child’s lifetime. For each sensitive period we miss, we lose an opportunity to perfect ourselves in some particular way—often forever! It is like a dropped stitch; the child will still grow into an adult, but won’t be as strong and perfect an individual as he or she could have been. There are 6 overlapping sensitive periods for 0 – 6 year-olds.
1. Small objects (1.25 – 2.25 years): The child has an interest in almost invisible objects. He will bring you the tiniest items off the carpet with great pride and wonder! He loves small manipulatives such as pasting, necklace making, sewing, and sorting. He notices the smallest details when participating in activities such as cleaning, polishing, or sweeping.
2. Order (1 – 3 years): The child has a need for order. She is trying to make order out of chaos. She wants everything in its place and thrives on routine. At this stage, consistency equals safety. The child has a photographic mental impression of the position of everything in her environment. She finds joy in putting things back in place, and only when all is in place can she get on with constructing the self. She is calm and has a spiritual repose when all is in order.
3. Social Relations (2.25 – 6.0 years): The child is interested in his own bodily actions. Good manners can be taught at this time. The child is not self-conscious and is very willing to practice good manners. The child insists on doing things in the accustomed, right way.
4. Refinement of the Senses (0 – 3.75 years): The child has a natural interest in sensorial impressions. She is very sensitive to her surroundings and can make distinctions with a clear perception of the senses. Give your children as much sensorial experiences as possible at this age. Now is the time when their senses are most heightened and open to exploration. The more a child’s senses are exposed to at this age, the greater her ability will be to distinguish her senses for the rest of her life! For example, I wasn’t given much experience with colors as a young child, and now it is very hard for me to distinguish between grades of the same color. In the Montessori classroom, the children could do this with ease. It is good to focus on one sense at a time, e.g., smell, touch, hearing, taste. It is also a good time to work with different colors and dimensions for sight.
5. Movement (1 – 4 years): This is the time for refinement of the gross motor skills of the whole body as well as the fine motor skills of the hands, feet, legs, and arms. If the perfecting of movement and coordination is allowed, then the normal development of the mind will occur. It also will bring the child contentment, concentration, and inner nourishment. If the perfecting of movement and coordination is not allowed then the personality will be out of balance, and the child will be less happy and more insecure. The teachers at Heartsong Music often say out loud to the parents, “It is okay if your children move in class. We honor all types of learning styles.” Now you know even more why we encourage safe movement. (Although running in class is not safe, slower movements, e.g., galloping, jumping, skipping, and hopping are welcome!) Maria Montessori says that movement IS learning and when perfected, creates happy, content children.
6. Language (0 – 5.5 years): Language is the longest sensitive period because it is the hardest and most intricate to master. It is important for the child to master because it maintains the country’s spiritual unity.
• Infants (0 – 2.5 years): Infants are drawn to human sounds. The infant listens, and the sounds are imprinted on the unconscious mind so that the child will be able to begin speaking in an orderly way.
• 2.5 years: Spoken language is acquired along with the structure of sentences, e.g., syntax, order, grammar.
• 2.5 – 4.5 years: Vocabulary is attached to the child’s experience. The child enjoys hearing the sounds of words broken down then built back up. For example, using the word “cat”, first you break it apart for your child: “What is this word? K (make the sound of a “k”), a (make the sound of “a” in “cat”), t (make the sound “t”)?” The child then echoes those sounds, slowly connecting the sounds, and finally gets that it is the word “cat.” This is the precursor to reading. It’s great fun for all!
• 3.5 – 4.5 years: At this age, the child begins to write. He has an interest in the shapes of letters and learns that each has its own sound. This understanding explodes into writing.
• 4.5 – 5.5 years: The child is writing and begins to read.
When you are working with the senses, you often use the language of adjectives, e.g., large/small, round/square, fast/slow, loud/quiet, light/dark, soft/hard, etc. Children love to learn these words. Children love to know the name of every object in their environment. Be as detailed as you can, even getting information from encyclopedias, for whatever your child is interested in. Your child will remember more than you will, and then he or she will be teaching you!
Also, remember that math and music have their own languages! Music Together®'s research shows that the most critical time to develop ones musical skills is between the ages of 0 - 5. I believe this is because it is a language and the child's sensitive period for language is at this same time. It is never too late to develop ones musical skills, it is just easier, the brain is more flexible, and is most open to the language of music at this time.
When my daughter was young, I wish I had known about the Sensitive Periods. Knowledge of these sensitive periods will allow you to know your child is normal when he is needing everything to be in its place, or when she begins picking up each tiny object off the carpet! Also, this information allows you to focus on specific areas of your growing child's life and heighten the exposure of the senses, of language (and foreign languages, also), of movement, of manners. Know that your child is hungry for the above experiences and will be thankful to you for giving him what he is most open to at this young time of his life.