What is the Sensitive Period?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 14 May 2020
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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.

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Post 4

My daughter seems to be on track with these sensitive periods. She just turned two and started exploring things. We have to keep an eye on her all the time because she is constantly putting things in her mouth and she gets into places she's not supposed to be at. She's like a sponge ready to absorb any kind of information.

Post 3

@fBoyle-- I didn't realize that children have so many sensitive periods either. My son is eight and I've only really noticed two sensitive periods with him. The first was when I weaned him off of breastmilk when he was two years old. He did not take that easily and had a very hard time adjusting. I heard that when infants are born, they think that they are a part of their mother and breastfeeding supports this feeling. So weaning from breastmilk is probably when my son realized that he is separate from me and he did not like that.

The second sensitive period I noticed was when he started kindergarten at age five. Again, it was the issue of separation and spending time away from home and family.

Thankfully, we have gotten through it all and he is doing great now. He loves going to school.

Post 2

Wow, so children are constantly in a sensitive period until about the age of six? So we have to be extra careful with them during this period.

I'm also surprised to know that during ages 2 and 6, children imitate behaviors of their parents and learn many things that form a foundation. My grandmother had a saying that a child can be taught manners until the age of 7 and after that, it's too late. I guess she was right.

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