During the first six years of a child’s life they have what Maria Montessori considers an absorbent mind. From birth to three, the child is unconsciously soaking up information, unaware they are learning. The child does this effortlessly as they experience language, movement, and practical life. From ages three to six, the child is expanding on what they have already learned, becoming active participants in their learning as they shift to a conscious absorbent mind. During this time, the child experiences a ‘sensitive period’. Maria Montessori says, “A child’s different inner sensibilities enable him to choose from his complex environment what is suitable and necessary for his growth. They make the child sensitive to some things, but leave him indifferent to others. When a particular sensitiveness is aroused in a child, it is like a light that shines on some objects but not on others, making of them his whole world.” (The Secret of Childhood, p.42)
The sensitive period for order (birth to age five) is characterized by a desire for repetition and consistency. During this period, the child thrives on having a set routine and a well-prepared environment. When the child has established an external order, it helps bring forth their internal order. Setting limits can really help a child in this sensitive period.
During the sensitive period for language (birth to age six), the child focuses on the construction and development of language (accents and increasing their vocabulary). The child goes from hearing language spoken, to babbling, to single words to phrases soon leading to what is considered a language explosion.
Next is the sensitive period for movement, which is especially significant since it is during this period when the child goes from being unable to control his movements to taking his first steps. Once the child has perfected his walking, they begin to refine their skills by learning to run, balance, jump, skip, and more.
From the age of one to three, the child is in their sensitive period for small objects and detail and they are enthralled with tiny objects or small details, such as tiny pebbles on a path, ants crawling, fine details in a picture, or even a button on a shirt. Likewise, the sensitive period for refinement of the senses occurs from birth through age five. The child has a fascination that leads them to explore their senses, which can be, done by providing the child with opportunities to taste, smell, sound, and touch.
The sensitive period for weaning refers to the child learning to eat on his or her own. Solids being introduced during this stage can help capture the child’s interest and potentially prevent problems with feeding later. Drinking out of a cup is also introduced during this period.
A child’s sensitive period for numbers generally doesn’t come until around four or five. It is an important time for developing foundational concepts of numbers and patterns. The concepts move from being concrete ideas to more abstract thoughts.
Finally, the sensitive period for grace and courtesy embodies a wide range of activities and lessons for our everyday life. Grace and courtesy includes the desire for building community with others and attempting to learn manners. The child is constantly watching others around them, thus it is extremely important to model the behaviors, which we want imitated, such as saying ‘thank you’ or greeting others.
“If a child has not been able to act according to the directives of his sensitive period, the opportunity of a natural conquest is lost, and is lost for good.” (The Secret of Childhood, p.39) Once a sensitive period has passed, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn that ability. As the adult, we must always observe the child in order to respond accordingly to these sensitive periods. Our goal is to provide an environment that meets the need of the child.
Ms. Liz Dawkins