The sensitive period is a phase during childhood development as defined by early childhood educator Maria Montessori. According to Montessori's sensitive period hypothesis, children go through a number of sensitive periods, during which they are particularly receptive to certain types of stimuli. Montessori believed that the emotional, intellectual, physical and social development of children could be enhanced by providing the right kinds of stimuli during particular sensitive periods.
Between birth and the age of 6, children move through 11 sensitive periods. These tend to occur at specific ages but can occur slightly earlier or later, depending on the child. The sensitive periods overlap, with all occurring at the same time as at least one other sensitive period. It is important to note that childhood development does not cease after these early sensitive periods have passed, but these periods are, according to the Montessori education hypothesis, a crucial foundation for later learning and development.
From the moment of birth, children have already entered two sensitive periods: movement and language. As they learn how to control their movement, they begin to touch and hold objects, roll over, crawl and walk. They also begin to imitate speech and gradually expand their vocabulary. The sensitive period for speech ends when children are about 6 years old. Between the ages of 1 and 4, children become fascinated with small items, including small objects and miniature versions of larger ones.
Children enter four new sensitive periods when they're about 2 years old. These include an interest in music and a greater interest in using the senses to gain information. For example, a child might attempt to eat or chew inedible objects or enjoy playing with tactile objects. In addition, children develop a desire for order in their environment, including routines and rules. Finally, they begin to notice polite and considerate behavior, and when provided with models of such behavior, they are likely to imitate them. Each of these sensitive periods lasts from two to four years.
At the age of 3, children enter sensitive periods relating to writing and reading. Generally, they first become interested in using a writing utensil and paper to copy shapes, numbers or letters. This leads to an interest in what these figures represent, and then in reading numbers, letters and finally words. The sensitive period for writing lasts approximately one year, while that for reading extends until age 5.
At 4 years old, children enter sensitive periods for mathematics and spatial relationships. They will develop an understanding of quantitative concepts and of how objects relate to one another in space. For example, a child will learn the layout of places he or she is familiar with, such as homes frequently visited or the neighborhood in which he or she lives. These sensitive periods last until approximately 6 years of age.
Sensitive periods are transitory, lasting only a few months or a few years. During each sensitive period, a child naturally will focus his or her energy and attention on one or more particular types of interaction or stimulus. If the child is in an environment that enhances the quality of those interactions, he or she will learn more efficiently and to greater effect. A child still can learn the relevant skills once a sensitive period has passed but will tend to have more difficulty doing so.