Sensitive Period of Growth
We’ve talked a little bit about sensitive periods, but now we will take a closer look at what exactly they entail. A sensitive period can be seen as a child’s burning inner fire of interest or excitement, something that really ‘sparks’ their passion for learning that can be seen during engagement with a new skill. They are developmental windows of opportunity where your child can learn new and specific concepts more easily and naturally attune to them more than in any other period of life. You can always tell when a child is inclined towards a particular sensitive stage as they will show a dramatically increased interest and excitement towards a certain activity, skill or exercise. This links with the child-based approach to learning that we will cover in more detail later.
It is crucial to understand that a child learns better when they’re given the freedom to choose their own activities. Self-discipline will then become a natural process of integration and development, as there is no ‘overbearing’ or dominating authority figure telling them what they can or can’t, should or should not do.
Sensitive periods differ slightly, but one aspect that remains constant is that once a sensitive stage of development is missed, it cannot be re-established. This does not mean that your child will never be able to learn or acquire a certain skill or ability if they do not acquire it in the sensitive period—just look at some world-class musicians, composers, artists, or experts in their chosen fields who began learning later in life. It does, however, imply that it is crucial to make use of sensitive periods for your child to have the best possible journey of learning and development;
The basic sensitive periods were identified by Dr. Montessori herself after years of in-depth research and observation. They are as follows:
- Interest in small objects
- Emotional control
- Mathematical patterns
- Letter shapes and sounds
Let’s look at these in more detail.
Children aged six months to three years have an innate need for order and structure. This is rooted in psychological needs and the basic ‘natural law and order’ of the world. Just look at how everything in nature is inherently designed to achieve homeostasis and work in order and harmony. Many parents don’t realize their child’s need for order, as it is assumed to be something one develops with maturity as they reach adulthood. However, a Montessori environment with the habit for order and structure in place is exactly what your child needs for their development.
Furthermore, Dr. Montessori discovered that a lot of ‘tantrums’ were due to the child’s sense of order being disrupted, either by a teacher, parent, or the environment!
Children are born with limited control and sense of movement. As they learn to use their bodies and connect to them consciously, they are able to gain fine and gross motor control. Cognitive abilities also link to movement, as the better able a child is to control their motor senses and reflexes, the more able they are to develop cognitive abilities.
In the words of Maria Montessori, “The hands are the instruments of a man’s intelligence.”
The reason why so many studies suggest teaching your children different languages from a young age is that this is the period when are best able to learn and retain them. The ability to learn vocabulary is tied in with many other skills, such as reading, writing, music, and the interest in sensations.
Interest in small objects
Children experience an intense sensitive period for small objects between the ages of one and four. This leads to the development of fine motor control and skills and what we know as the pincer grasp—the strength in the fingers and hands. A child’s interest in small objects is essential for writing and many other important skills. The fact that Montessori encourages certain activities that other systems overlook is part of why this method is so successful.
Infants and babies learn about emotional connection and control from the moment they are born. They are constantly in a state of learning, observation, and development and pick up on sensory stimuli and external cues from their environment. They also acquire emotional senses before they leave the womb, as they have spent nine months listening to their mother and other loving voices supporting them and encouraging their healthy and happy growth. Emotional control is the basis of an educated and well-developed mind.
Babies are actually born with mathematical minds and are hardwired from birth to be mathematically inclined. It is interesting that many autistic children have incredibly advanced mathematical, musical, or unique skills that far transcend the “norm”. Many people believe and are aware of the power of binary, and there being natural geometric shapes and patterns found in a physical and energetic universe. Exposing your child to math patterns and sufficient levels of learning at the correct age will help their growth and development significantly.
The sensitive period for music is at age three, when children begin to develop particular sensitivities for learning rhythm, pitch, melody, tone, harmonies, and more. Music is intrinsically connected to academic, emotional, cognitive, and social growth and any child who thrives in musical ability and skill will most likely excel in areas such as math, writing, and creative storytelling.
Reading and Writing
Both reading and writing are skills acquired early on in life. Just like learning a new language or being musically inclined, the earlier on your child can develop these necessary skills, the better able they are to thrive academically. Early literacy development is about the preparation of a child’s mind, cognitive functioning, and emotional maturity and connection. It may not appear at first that emotional control and connection is linked to such literacy-based learning aspects, but they fundamentally are.
Younger children are open to information and sensory and external stimuli during their sensitive period. By providing your child with the correct materials, activities, lessons, and structures for learning, their learning will be natural, effective, and in continuous progression. This continuous progression is what the Montessori approach aims for and why it is so beneficial to children from a young age.
Physical sensation and hands-on engagement are extremely important, especially for younger children. Watching, observing, or listening act as great tools, but ultimately the best way to learn is to actively engage in sensational learning.
Letter shapes and sounds
Children also become very interested in letter shapes and sounds between the ages of two and five. This is because they are naturally curious want to learn and explore through touch, like playing with shapes of letters, attempting to place them through cut-out holes, and matching the sound of a letter with its shape.
A key component of all sensitive periods is the importance of repetition. When a child is given the freedom to engage in an activity for as long as they like, they naturally develop a certain mastery in that skill. There is no real reason to limit a child’s time with the materials or exercises, since allowing them to take their time with them will allow your child eventually develop expertise in that area.
Allow your child to repeat an action until there is little to nothing left to be learned or until they become disinterested in it. This disinterest will then spark their passion in another activity. The period of repetition is all dependent on the child and their interests. For example, repetition can last a few hours to a day, a few days, weeks, or even months. There is no structure that dictates how long it can take for your child to master a new skill or integrate it in the long-term for future learning success.
Sensitive Periods and the Brain
As briefly mentioned, cognitive abilities will greatly develop and expand during sensitive periods. During these periods, the brain will provide signals and cues for how long something takes to complete. The child will learn about linear time and developmental processes through their own subconscious learning, and the brain registers this information. Each developmental task or activity, therefore, becomes integrated into the young child’s understanding of how and when to apply a particular skill and the environment in which it can be applied.
For example, say your four-year-old has spent two weeks attempting to place shaped letters in a building block exclusively for the shapes. Your child may not be consciously aware of it, but with each attempt, your child’s brain is recording how long it takes, how they feel each time they fail and succeed, and how and where this activity can be applied in real life. The experience becomes stored in both the unconscious and subconscious, and it is the repetition of acquiring the skill that transforms the knowledge of how to complete the task into something conscious. Thus, your child can complete the task with greater or perfect ease in future situations.
It may sound simple but as an infant or young child, any new skill takes considerable effort and patience, in addition to self-discipline and a sense of order. Being allowed the time and space to succeed greatly helps with your child’s ability to learn.
Sensitive Periods and Freedom of Expression
Finally, the last important point to share in this section is the link between sensitive stages and your child’s energy. Sensitive periods are crucial as they provide children space to express themselves. This ties in with temper tantrums, disruptions, and frustrations or outbursts of anger. Simply put, if a child is made to repress or suppress their natural feelings during the learning process, they become blocked. It is highly important that your children are allowed to feel and be themselves without shame or reaction, so they can grow and continue on their course. There is a major difference between responding and reacting. When you respond, you do so from a calm, wise, and empathic place which seeks to guide and direct in a helpful, nurturing and supportive way. When you react, you often ‘mirror’ the negative energy and emotions being displayed, which of no real help to anyone.
Learning to respond, therefore, and embodying the guiding principle of the Montessori method, can enable your child to learn and grow at their own pace and without repressing their natural outbursts that come with self-development. Their energy needs to flow, and it can only flow when you are not preventing it through your own behaviors and actions.
Sensitive periods come and go and this is the beauty of a child’s development. By learning about sensitive periods and important cycles of growth, behavior, and development you can be a major catalyst in your child’s journey.