“Sensitive Periods” is a term used in Montessori education. The term was originally coined by the scientist Hugo de Vries (a botanist) and connected the research by scientist Jacques Loeb (physiologist and biologist). Loeb studied butterflies and noticed that the larvae needed very specific leaves located at the top of the trees. They have a period of time when they are more attracted to light so they naturally climb towards the top of the trees and then eat those leaves. As they develop and no longer need that specific food, that attraction disappears. He concluded that this “sensitive period” for light literally saves the larvae’s life.
“It is a strange fact that when the caterpillar has passed through its first stage and is fully grown, it can eat other food, and then loses its sensibility to light. This has been proved in scientific laboratories where there are neither trees nor leaves but only the caterpillar and the light. The caterpillar will wriggle rapidly towards any ray of light that comes through a hole in the dark box in which it has been enclosed for the experiment. After a certain period, rays of light leave it completely indifferent.”
Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood
So how did Montessori connect this to human development?
She observed that children also have Sensitive Periods. These periods give the child an ability to take what they need from the environment to construct and develop certain skills and knowledge. Once the sensitive periods are evolved, they disappear and won’t return again.
It is important for parents to be aware of each period so we can provide the best environment for the child. If the environment isn’t prepared, there will be something missing in the acquisition of the skill or knowledge. Montessori said it is like “drop stitch” in a garment. An acquisition can still be made later, but with a lot of effort and self-discipline.
During a sensitive period, the child will take what they need from the environment with little effort and motivation comes from within. Sensitive periods are universal, observable in any child, any culture, short-lived, appear for a period of time then fade out.
When a sensitive period is taking place, there is an intense interest, both physically and mentally, and the child is engaged in their tasks. Their attention is focused and it is like the child cannot see anything else.
Sensitive periods overlap, but never peak at the same time because they require a lot of energy. There are two aspects to the child’s development: internal and external. Obviously, the internal aspect we can’t see, but we can see the outer manifestation through external aspects that we can observe. For example, an irresistible attraction to part of the environment they cannot avoid (ex looking at adult’s mouth while they are speaking). This interest produces work, repetition and interest, and through this a permanent acquisition is achieved.
So let’s look at some examples of Sensitive Periods (the ages are approximate as every child is different):
spoken language starts around 7 months in utero (hears rhythms and sounds of mother) to 2.5-3 years (when the child has ability to communicate clearly)
one of the longest sensitive periods
symbolic language: 3-6 years-child learns to write and read, there is an explosion around 4.5-5 years
mathematics is part of this (peaks around 4.5 years)
birth to 5 (peaks at 18 months-2 years)
it is so important, it is a human tendency and sensitive period
attraction to small objects
period of acquisition from 0-2.5 or 3 years
progress following myelination
time of refinement is 3.5-4 years
refinement of senses
How You Can Help Your Child:
be knowledgeable about the sensitive periods
observe (to prepare the environment before the period peaks)
give your child independence and freedom without interference
remember that you can’t decide when a task is complete, your child will repeat a task (possibly many times) until they are satisfied in their mastery
provide an environment that allows for meaningful activities, that don’t just “entertain” your child (your child needs activities with meaning)