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The Sensitive Periods of Child Development

Feb 13, 2021

“A child’s different inner sensibilities enable him to choose from his complex environment what is suitable and necessary for 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 others, making them his whole world.”

Montessori, M., (1998). The Secret of Childhood, P. 37.

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Dr. Maria Montessori developed the Montessori Method through her observation of children all over the world. One of the core ideas of her work is the Sensitive Periods. She observed that between the ages of 0 and 6 years,  children go through certain special periods of development that last only for a short while and then fade away, and termed this as a Sensitive Period.

A sensitive period is a time for specific capacities to develop because the child is especially responsive to environmental influences. During this period, the child is especially interested in and will focus all their energy on developing skills related to that period. For example, when children go through the sensitive period for language, they are very interested in knowing the names of everything in their environment and when they are going through the sensitive period for movement, they are especially interested in understanding all the ways in which their bodies can move and repeating those movements many times. 

Typically, we see a spark of intense and spontaneous interest in some aspect of the environment. The newborn starts life with the drive to learn, develop, refine and extend his knowledge of the environment that he is born into. The type of environment and experiences offered have a significant impact on the acquisition of their characteristics.

We can see that the child is going through a sensitive period by observing the following signs:

1. Interest - if they show a keen interest in that activity or action.

2. Attraction- if they are attracted to a specific activity more than any of the others.

3. Repetition- if they work with an activity over and over again.

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Sensitive Period for Movement

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You must have surely noticed that young children can rarely sit in one place for long periods of time, they need to keep moving and explore the world around them because they are going through a Sensitive Period for Movement. The Sensitive period for movement starts at birth and lasts till around 6 years of age. Right from birth, we observe that children are constantly wiggling and flaying their hands and legs, and as they grow, they can move more by rolling over, sitting up, scooting, crawling, standing up, cruising, walking and running. In toddlerhood, the child who can now walk is exploring the potential of their body by running, jumping, climbing and moving their bodies in other ways.

The child understands his environment only through movement. Stressing on the importance of movement in early childhood development, research says that our brains would not develop without movement.  Only through movement and connections being made in the brain does cognition and language development.

To support the sensitive period for movement, we must offer the child the freedom and space to move as much as they need to and create an environment that safe and fosters not just gross motor but also fine motor movement.  We can offer the following toys to support the sensitive period for movement - 

Check out the following: Gross motor development - learning tower, pikler, play gym

Fine motor development – puzzles, grasping toys

Sensitive Period for Language

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If your child goes around asking the names of all the things around multiple times a day and asks you to keep repeating them or if you’ve noticed that your child is suddenly speaking and using a lot of new words, they are probably going through a Sensitive Period for Language. Although the sensitive period for language starts at birth and extends till the age of six years, it peaks at typically around two years. Development of language starts about 30 weeks in utero to continues until about 6 years. Babies use body language, sounds, facial expressions and body movements to communicate. First, they are in the receptive phase of language development where they are absorbing language from the environment around them and then move to the expressive phase when they point, use words and sentences.

To support the sensitive period for language, we can offer the child a rich language environment through real life experiences. We must have conversations with the child, always getting down to their level and leaving silences for them to respond. We must describe things in rich detail, narrate everyday experiences to the child, label all the objects around us and be consistent in what we call each object. Reading a variety of books to children every day is not just a language development but also a great parent-child bonding activity.

Sensitive Period for Order

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If you’ve noticed that your child likes to arrange their toys or anything they find in a neat line or from big to small or small to big, then they are going through the Sensitive Period for Order. When a child's sense of order is disrupted, they let you know through tantrums. We use order to make our life easy but order is even more critical for the child as he uses it to orientate himself to the world. This sensitive period is very delicate and often difficult for adults to recognise. It is the strongest around six months to 2 years and reaches its peak around 1.5 to 2 years.

To support the child’s Sensitive Period for Order, we must ensure that their environment is clutter free and things have designated spaces where they are always found when not in use. The child’s things can be kept at an accessible height with a few choices so they aren’t overwhelmed. At this stage, any disorder in the environment or the adult's behaviour deeply disturbs the child. For example, if the we reacts one way on one day and another way the next day to the same action , it interferes with the sense of order of the child. Therefore all the adults must agree on the rules and respond in the same manner. There must also be order in the child’s day – there must be a routine that is followed so the child knows what to expect and we must try to stick to this routine as much as possible as order calms the child and reduces tantrums.  

Sensitive Period for Sensorial Perception

Children understand their world through their senses by absorbing information about their environment. Sensory Perception is understanding  the world and receiving information about things around them through their senses – sight, smell, hearing,  taste and touch. The Sensitive Period for Sensorial Perception happens between ages 0 to 6. This happens in two stages – between birth to three years children are developing their senses and between the ages of three to six years, they are refining the perceptions that they have taken in.

To support the child’s need and sensitive period for sensorial perception, we must offer a safe space for them to explore. Instead of saying ‘NO’ to everything that they want to touch or mouth, we can offer safer alternatives. For example, if you find you child mouthing something they shouldn’t – you can offer them teethers instead. We can offer children experiences of various kinds of materials found in nature, different textures of fabrics and different tastes of food.