Sensitive Periods: What Are They?

Sensitive Periods

Yannis and I went to a playgroup recently. It was a lot of fun to meet other Japanese children and moms. While Yannis was playing, I was reminded of the fact that he is deep in the sensitive period for order. How do I know?

He loves vehicles right now and was quickly drawn to the play areas’ collection of cars. Instead of just driving them around, he meticulously created a long line of trucks, buses, and other vehicles. One behind the other, he placed them carefully so that the nose of one car just touched the back of the other. In this way, Yannis was creating order from chaos. You might think this is surprising to see in a 22-month-old child. However, according to Dr. Maria Montessori:

“…the little child’s need for order is one of the most powerful incentives to dominate his early life.”- Absorbent Mind 

According to Montessori, young children are interested in creating order from about ages 1 to 5. However, when this sensitive period appears depends on the child. For example, some children might exhibit this interest at about the age of 1. But, many others might not show interest in order until they are 2 or 3.

So, what are sensitive periods exactly?

Have you ever noticed how young babies naturally have an inner desire and need to learn to walk? This is a great example of a sensitive period. When babies are 6 months old or more, at some point, they’ll become fixated on walking. They force their parents to help them learn this skill and often abandon other interests. In a similar way, children also have a special fixation on other interests. These periods of interest or fixation are called sensitive periods. According to Montessori, all children have some sensitive periods in common. For example, from birth through about age 6, children have a special interest in language. First, they learn to talk and acquire vocabulary at an astonishing rate. Then, they become interested in words, reading, and writing. Another sensitive period is that for order. Many children feel a strong need to line up their toys and shoes just so. They feel uncomfortable and upset in a messy space. This extends to a strong preference for routines and predictability. For this reason, young children often become upset if they skip a nap because of a special activity.

How to Respond to Sensitive Periods

Sensitive periods are like windows of opportunity. When your child’s motivation and interest in a certain skill or idea is high, you should take advantage of it! So, if your child shows an interest in lining up cars, follow him. You might offer a ribbon or a strip of tape and then invite him to line up cars, or dinosaurs, or other figures on top of the ribbon. In addition, provide a cleaning routine every afternoon in which you put away toys or materials together. After cleaning, you might encourage a “detective walk” in which your child tries to notice if anything is out of place.

Other sensitive periods, like counting, learning letter sounds, and others, are equally important. Try inviting your child to different activities and notice what they are interested in. Once you know what your child is most sensitive to learning, follow their lead and provide appropriate activities.
Sensitive periods are an invitation for us to follow our child’s interests. Pay close attention and try not to miss them! Because, as any mom knows, once a child’s interest changes, the old interest is abandoned completely.

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