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Sensitive periods

In my last post I covered the basic requirements of a Montessori work. To earn the title an activity must ...

  • be practical.

  • allow the child to find their own errors.

  • possess only one variable.

  • have a definite beginning, middle and end.

  • be developmentally appropriate

  • be operated by the child, not entertainment for the child.

  • be comprised of high quality materials when able

That "developmentally appropriate" bit. Yikes! That is where a good chunk of overwhelm can spring up as you are finding your feet in this method. What is developmentally appropriate? How do you know? Where do you even begin?

What are Sensitive Periods?

Maria Montessori coined the term sensitive periods to refer to the phases in a young person's life in which they are naturally compelled towards acquiring a particular skill.

Phrasing it like that is the best I can do, but it falls embarrassingly short of what I have observed over the years. Watching my own children, and those in my preschool, I am daily amazed by the passion with which they approach learning. Children do not passively float through each sensitive period. They wrestle with it. They conquer it. It is such a beautiful thing to watch.

Sensitivity to Order

Let's cover sensitivity to order first. This first begins to appear around 18 months, but it doesn't get into full swing until the child turns two. It then lasts a couple years.

Have you ever served your child bananas for breakfast three days in a row because you couldn't make it to the grocery store? What happened when you tried pancakes on day four? It doesn't matter how delicious those pancakes are, if the child is firmly engrossed in order to sensitivity, a battle will ensue.

"We don't eat pancakes for breakfast, Mom. We eat bananas! Also. That red cup is my cup. Because it is, that's why. Take this blue thing away, you heathen!"

Sometimes parents will proudly (and rightfully!) boast to me that their child is doing such a great job throwing their diaper away. "He helps me sweep!" "She loves to put her spoon back in the sink after we eat!"

The child's natural drive is so strong that a parent need only provide opportunities for independence during this phase. This is both a blessing and a curse! Allowing children freedom and independence is messy and slow; two traits that can wear at even the most patient parent by the end of the day.

Two homeschooled young boys sit on a driveway in front of a home and next to a garden bed. In between them is a row of perfectly lined, small tupperware containers. The containers each hold one captured bee.

Sensitivity to Language

Sensitivity to language begins at birth and runs through six years of age. I suspect that if Montessori had modern resources, she would have placed that even earlier. Babies in utero begin to absorb their mother tongue as early as 30 weeks, once the sensory and brain mechanisms required are developed*.

With or without additional training, every human develops the ability to communicate through sheer immersion. Montessori refers to this phenomena as the child's "absorbent mind". Like little sponges, it is the nature of children to soak up their surroundings.

"To follow a child in his language development is a study of the greatest interest, and all those who have devoted themselves to it agree that the use of words, of names--the first elements of language-- falls at a fixed period in the child's life, as if a precise time-keeper were superintending this part of his activity."

-Dr. Maria Montessori The Absorbent Mind

A one year old girl balances between a low window sill and a kitchen chair. It is clear that she is climbing back and forth between two, and the tipping chair gives evidence to the precariousness of the activity.

Sensitivity to Walking

Ah, sensitivity to walking. This one is my favorite and Montessori observed it at beginning around the first birthday.

I am not Maria Montessori. But if I was, I would not have referred to this period as sensitivity to walking. Let's just call a spade a spade. This is sensitivity to climbing. (Insert all the laughing-until-you-cry-emojis!!) Enough. Said.

Helping a child through this period is challenging for many parents. Where is the line between safety and exploration? I have written a bit more about it here.

Social Sensitivity

Sensitivity to the social aspects of life begins around 2 1/2 and lasts until 5. This is when children first begin to play with others.

Until this time, the most common way children play is referred to as parallel play. Parallel play is when two or more children play independently near each other.

Social play is amazingly complex. It requires the give and take of communication and desire. It requires agreed upon expectations and rules. It requires grace and empathy. It is really quite difficult to master. An argument could be made that while the majority of the leap is made these first five years, our entire lives are devoted to developing social skills.

Of all the wonderful things Montessori has brought to my life, this is one of the only substantial differences of opinions I have. She is amazing and brilliant, but I can not discard my life experiences on the matter. Sigh. When you disagree with a genius you are usually wrong. Still. I have opinions on the matter and you are welcome to explore them in my next post.

Sensitivity to Small Objects

Sensitivity to small objects rests primarily between the ages of one and four. I am quite amazed that this period exists. From a simple evolutionary perspective, it makes little sense that we would become obsessed with chokeable sized objects at a time when we are most likely to try to swallow such items.

Any and all tiny objects cast a magical spell on toddlers. It is very tempting to immediately take these trinkets from your child. If possible, just sit and observe the interaction. There is something soothing in the observation of these tiny treasures for children.

Notice Little Bear below. In all the wonderful, wide world around him, the thing that most draws his attention at this point in time are the bees I didn't even realize were flying around the arugula.

A young toddler in a Montessori inspired homeschool setting stands at the edge of a garden bed staring fixedly at a bee flying around an arugula flower.

Sensitivity to Learning Through the Senses

Montessori records sensitivity to learning through the senses between ages 2 and 6. Size, texture, taste, weight, sound-- all these descriptors help the child classify the world around him. Brother is bigger than me. Pickles are tastier than eggs and sandwiches. When I stack the blocks too high, the crash is loud. The crash is softer on the carpet, but the blocks don't stack as well.

This phase provides the base of experiences upon which future mathematics, science and language are built. It is the phase most at risk of being underappreciated and underdeveloped in this modern push for earlier and earlier formal schooling.

Bringing it All Together

There is a run down of the sensitive periods, but what does this have to do with making sure a Montessori work is developmentally appropriate? Well. Did you buy that toy at Target because it suggested you could teach the A, B, C's to your one year old? Perhaps that isn't developmentally appropriate.

Even the most beautiful and traditional Montessori works are not appropriate for a child if they are presented at a developmentally inappropriate time.

Blessings to you all in your journey!

Buckets and Berries


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