In this essay I am going to cover the sensitive periods and I will link them to the child’s first stage of development. I will also go over each sensitive period in full and give examples of my own experiences for each of them. I will also give explanations as to why it is important for us as adults to support and facilitate the sensitive periods and also what will happen if they are not recognised or supported at the right time.
I am then also going to explain how the adults understanding of the sensitive periods and child’s unfolding development impacts his/her preparation for a suitable/favourable environment. There will also be examples of what the adults approach should be to best support the individual sensitive periods of children in his/her care and also what qualities the adult should have in order to fulfil his role. Then we will see how the favourable environment and empathetic adult can facilitate/optimise these various sensitive periods.
So to start off, there are three planes of development or also known as periods of growth being; phase one – birth to six years which is known as the Absorbent Mind (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a), phase two – six to twelve years known as Childhood and then phase three – twelve to eighteen years which is referred to as Adolescence. The first phase is basically divided into to two sub stages, the spiritual (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a) and the social embryonic (Montessori, 2007a) stage. The developing child not only acquires the faculties of man: strength, intelligence, language; but at the same time he adapts the being he is constructing to the conditions of the world about him. . . Adults admire the environment . . . but the child absorbs it” (Montessori, 2007a, p56). The spiritual embryonic (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a) is the first sub stage which is already starts from birth and goes up to the age of three and during this time us as adults cannot directly influence the child, it is just merely a time for the child to adapt.
The child learns unconsciously through the interactions of their environment which will include the mother, father, brothers and or sisters, which will be the immediate family and also from their secondary carers. Montessori referred to this unconscious mind as the absorbent mind (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a) and with this she noticed that the children were able to absorb tremendous amounts of information and also develop skills like walking and talking. It is just in the child where it will come naturally to them and Montessori referred to this as the Horme (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a), the child’s inner drive.
The second sub stage is the social embryonic stage which then goes from the ages of three to six. This is when the child’s social being is starting to come out, showing the nature of the society in which they were brought up in. this is why Montessori (2007a) named the child at this stage the social embryo. It is the age where they will start going to school and also when they will start making friends and forming groups that best suit their personality.
The three year old is very egocentric and does not see life in any other way then his/her own. But as the child gets to the age of six, his social awareness has grown and they become to feel sympathy and concern for other children. They also become sensitive to their surroundings. Montessori (1966, p38) states ‘. . . a sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is in a process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait.
Once the trait or characteristic has been acquired the special sensibility disappears. ’ So to make it easier to understand Montessori is saying that each child is born with the need to learn and during the absorbent mind (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a) phase, which is phase one, that need comes alive, where the child is now driven by the horme (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a), a need of practicing and perfecting. These sensitive periods can also be linked to the human tendencies.
The first of the six is order, this is one of the very first to show, already in the first month of life. By the child having order in his/her external environment helps them to make sense of the world and their surroundings. It makes them feel safe, secure and content and it also helps with their exploration and orientation. You will quickly notice that a baby or young child will not be very sure of him/herself and will be very emotional if their routine has been changed, especially if they are in an unfamiliar place on top of it.
I have noticed this very thing with my cousins, they are in this very phase and they do not like it when their routine is turned around, by having gone out, and it is especially worse if it is at a time when they are used to having their bath. They become ratty and irritated. The second is the period for movement, this already starts in the womb because the baby has had the space to already move around. So it basically just continues after birth, the baby will move its arms and kick its legs. They will even move their head.
As the child gets a few months older they will start grasping objects with their hands, they will also learn to roll over, sit, crawl stand and eventually learn to walk, which normally happens from about the age of one. Once the walking has started the child will start to explore, become curious and will also then learn self-control, and with all this a lot of repetition will occur because they will want to perfect what they are able to do. Like for instance climbing up and down stairs, they will fall and tumble but they will carry on until they get it right and once that happens they will stop.
The third is the sensitivity to small objects, and this period can be closely linked to the period of movement. This comes around at about six months when the child is more mobile and then automatically has a larger environment to explore, in which his attention is then drawn to the small objects. This for example could be pebbles, insects and blades of grass. You will also notice that a child will stop numerous amounts of times when walking around somewhere because they will be drawn to all the small objects around them.
So as we can see this period will then come with the human tendencies of curiosity and exploration I have seen this many times with all my cousins, you will still be on your way to the car and they will stop because they saw an ant and they will then follow the ant until they have lost it. And you as an adult cannot get irritated with them because to you it is just an ant but to them it is something fascinating and something they may have seen before but today it is different to the previous time because they might have seen the ant carrying a leaf.
The fourth period is language, which is of major importance. The sensitivity for language already begins in the womb because the baby can hear its mother’s voice but the sensitivity to language is present from birth till the age of about five, by this age most children have learnt the basic sentence patterns. Just because they have the basic sentence patterns does not mean the child has mastered language. Once they go to primary school they then learn more complex sentences and their language and vocabulary will become better.
Most adults think that when their baby is making a noise or sound they are just babbling but they are actually making sounds of human speech. The baby unconsciously concentrates his/her attention on the structure of language and is able to absorb it without any difficulty. If the baby/child is in a multi-lingual environment/household the child can assimilate two languages two languages at once, just as long as it is clear that they are spoken by two different people. With the child being able to grasp the sensitivity to language they become more confident in communicating and they become gregarious.
The fifth period of sensitivity is the refinement of the senses, when the child is at the age of where they start to crawl, he/she will have a natural curiosity to explore the environment around him/her. They will pick up objects and not only look at them but they will also then stick it in their mouth to taster it and they also then feel the texture of the object. This is when the child is now learning to co-ordinate the interaction between all his/her separate senses.
All the different experiences the child has gathered during the absorbent mind (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a) are stored in the mneme, which is the unconscious mind, and that will then contribute towards the child’s development of mental structures. Then it gets to the conscious mind where it is organised. Montessori (2007a) named this form of logical thinking the ‘mathematical mind’. The last sensitive period is the social aspects of life, this happens around the age of three when the child becomes more ready and aware to be part of a group.
If the child starts attending a nursery school at this age you will notice that they make friends easily and early, they are able to co-operate with other children and they keep in mind the needs of other children. You will also find that they will be taught and shown proper manners and social skills by the Montessori teachers because they are at the stage of learning things and they will be instilled in them for life. But it will take a while for them to grasp it, so it happens every day so that it will eventually become natural to the child.
The child’s sensitivity to social aspects is supported by the vertical grouping (Montessori, 2007a) of the classroom and in an ideal environment you will see that children between the ages of three and six are grouped together, so that the older children can help the younger children and they also turn into a role model for the younger children. It is very important for adults to support and facilitate these periods, especially during the child’s first stage of development because the child s at an age of being eager to know and learn and having the sensitive periods just come naturally to him/her but also only for a short period of time. These sensitive periods help the child grow as a person and they are then able to fit into society with ease. The sensitive periods are a crucial time for the children because if we do not support them, the horme (Montessori, 1966 and 2007a) disappears and it becomes harder for the child to then learn because the certain phase has passed.
The child will not be able to cope the way he/she should be and everything just becomes harder to grasp, especially something like language. Once that sensitive period has passed, to learn a language can become difficult and they will not be able to grasp it to their full ability. What the adult can do to help support these sensitive periods is to prepare the environment around them to be able to suit the child and the different phases they are going through. If it is a suitable environment the child will feel at ease and in control, because that means there will be order around him/her.
And if there is more than just one child, the adult can group the children into the different periods that he/she can see in the children and then give each group activities to do that will best support their sensitive period. If there is only one activity per group the children will also then learn to share and tale turns. But the adult must make sure that there is always order around them and see that it is always fair. The adult will also have to keep his/her composure if he/she is having a bad day because it is unfair to the children if the adult then take his/her frustration out on them.
They will also need to teach the children how to behave that if they are busy in a conversation or busy with another child, that the child will just need to be patient and just wait till the adult is done but the adult must also take acknowledge of the child so what will normally happen is the child will gently put his/her hand in the adults shoulder and the adult will touch the hand with theirs. This will show the child that the adult knows they are there and that they are not ignoring them. This helps the child and it is also a form of order to the child.