Sensitive periods are a time in a child’s life when their mental abilities and interests allow for developing a particular skill or ability. You are probably more familiar with the terms developmental milestones or windows of opportunity. Dr. Montessori placed an emphasis on recognizing when a child begins a particular phase so you can adapt the environment to support their development.
Sensitive periods are unique to the first plane of development from birth to age six. There are 4 planes of development, each lasting about 6 years. I decided not to write a full post on the planes of development because my experience is only within the first phase.
The OCD Toddler Phase
Sometime between 15 and 18 months children enter the sensitive period of order. I like to call this the OCD toddler phase because children are more interested in putting things in order and putting things away than just playing with toys. At home this is a great opportunity to teach you child to clean up after themselves. The first “chore” I taught the younger two boys was helping sort laundry into the correct piles.
Trays are popular in Montessori environments because it allows a child to get materials and return them independently.
The sensitive period for order is also the time when children seek routine and repetition. With both Bebop and Doodad, my oldest and youngest, this was a fun phase where I saw (and am seeing) their personalities emerge as they settle into the routine of our family life. When Magoo was 18 months old, we moved and lived in temporary housing for 3 months. It was awful! As soon as we settled into our house and everything had a place again, Magoo also settled down. More often than not, a two year old tantrum is due to someone not following the toddler’s expected routine.
Case in Point: As I type this my oldest turned on his light to read, which is NOT the bedtime routine. Now 2 year old Doodad is having an absolute fit and wants to start our bedtime routine all over again with his special blanket, a sippy cup of ice water, and kisses from everyone in the house.
The ABC’s and 123’s
Sensitivity for language begins at birth, but tends to peak around 4 years old. I noticed with Bebop that his interest in learning to read and write exploded at about 4 and a half years old. Magoo is about to turn 4 and after months of not caring about “school”, he is finally interested in learning letters and numbers.
Before kids, I thought math was all about numbers. My mom, the elementary school teacher, laughs when I say that! Math involves a great deal of vocabulary and is a language to itself. While math and language are taught separately, the interest in both has emerged in parallel in my boys.
Refinement of the Senses
In the later half of the first phase of development, from 3 to 6 years of age, children begin to refine their senses. As I wrote a few months ago, sensory input is more than just hands on tactile manipulation. It also includes taste, smell, movement and hearing. This is a great period to introduce a variety of sensory play experiences to children.
Around 3 years of age is when my two older boys became very interested in music and dancing. Sensory play is the area where I tend to do the least planning. I keep a large stash of crafting supplies in the basement and allow the boys to chose many of our daily activities.
Recognizing the Sensitive Periods in Your Children
I think recognizing the beginning of a sensitive period depends partly on the parent’s (or teacher’s) knowledge of what is typical at particular ages. The other part is simply observing a child. Allow your child to enter a room and start playing without any intervention or direction. I’ve found my boys are attracted to the materials that will help them master the next step in development. Recognizing the sensitive periods in your child is about being a sensitive observer yourself.