What Are Sensitive Periods?

What Are Sensitive Periods?

Before the age of six, human beings are in a unique period of learning and development.

At this time in our lives, certain information is absorbed by our personalities without conscious effort.

Young children learn to walk, talk and do hundreds of things without formal instruction or being aware of learning. Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian physician, described these stages as sensitive periods of development.

Sensitive periods are characterized by five observable behaviors.

Children seem to be drawn to certain work and we see the following:

1) A well-defined activity with a beginning, middle and end.

2) The activity is irresistible for the child once he or she starts it.

3) The same activity is returned to again and again.

4) A passionate interest develops.

5) A restful and tranquil state comes at the finish of the activity.

Once the sensitive period is over, children are not drawn to certain activities as before. Three-year olds love to wash their hands because they are in a sensitive period, whereas ten-year-olds are not.

There are five major sensitive periods of development from birth to age six:  


Sensitive Periods Language

From birth to six, children are in a critical period of language development, when the spoken word develops naturally.  Ninety percent of our adult conversational language is in place by the age of six. 

If a child does not speak by age six, it is improbable that the child will acquire spoken, written or sign language beyond a two-year-old’s comprehension level.

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sensitive periods order

Children are trying to create order out of chaos as they make their way out into the world. Language, movement, family relationships, and the ability to discern sensory information, all connect in the child’s mind to create order and make sense of the world.

At this age, children learn by repetition by doing the same thing over and over, such as reading the same book, saying the same prayers, and singing the same songs. It is how they make order out of chaos.

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Sensitive Periods Refinement of the Senses

Between the ages of birth to four-and-a-half, children are in a sensitive period for refining their senses.

Children at this age are capable of learning to discern hundreds of qualities of the things around them. Perfect pitch is acquired before the age of six. Too often adults stop giving information after certain basics are mastered.

Take the names of shapes. When a child can identify circle, square and triangle, we tend to stop.

Keep going!

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allowing opportunities for movement

A kid’s got to move.  Observing a few minutes at a playground will attest to that.  You don’t see children sitting around if they have the chance to run, jump, climb, or skip.  Children are in a sensitive period of development for movement from birth to about age five-and-a-half.

Around age four-and-a-half, children have a growth spurt where their legs may grow over an inch per month.  During this time, it is difficult for children to sit comfortably.  They will squirm or refuse to sit in their chairs at the dinner table.  They will appear to wander aimlessly about in their preschool classes.  At this time, it is important to allow lots of opportunities for movement such as long walks and other outdoor activities.

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Sensitive Periods Social Relations

Between ages 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 children are learning social skills and manners that will be the foundation for their social interactions. Between the ages of 12 to 15, there is another developmental period when young teens are open to developing and polishing social skills. This is one reason that dance lessons and cotillion are offered at this age.

Between ages three to six, children are learning social cues, such as, when to say please and thank you and to whom, how to meet people, shake hands, and on and on. Children are also learning how to care for themselves: dressing, tying shoes, eating, washing, bathing, brushing hair and teeth are among the many self-care skills children are learning at this age.

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NORMALIZATION: The Process of Natural and Normal Child Development

Another Montessori idea closely aligned with the child’s sensitive periods of development is the idea of the process of normalization, or natural and normal development.

You may enjoy these articles about how to see your child’s natural and normal development:

Preparing Your Home The Montessori Way

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