Chapters 7-9: Sensitive Periods

Council Oak Montessori

Chapter 7: Psychic Development

It is strange sometimes to watch an infant at play. They seem fascinated by seemingly trivial things. It is easy to write these interests off, but if we would like to understand and assist their growth, it is important to pay attention. Dr. Maria Montessori observed children for this purpose and discovered what she calls “sensitive periods.”

During sensitive periods, children are particularly responsive to certain stimuli. They absorb all of some kind of thing, be it language or the arrangement of objects, until they have acquired the skill associated with it. 

The child learns with ease and intensity all that it is currently sensitive to. Once the sensitivity is lost, the learning becomes more difficult. Any adult who has tried to learn a new language can probably attest to this.

Sensitive periods can be observed both in the child who is joyfully focused on something, and the child who throws a tantrum at seemingly small discomforts. When children encounter obstacles to their sensitivities they can react violently.

Infants, of course, are sensitive to speech. “As different sounds play chaotically about a child’s ears they are suddenly and distinctly heard as something charming and attractive.” Dr. Montessori suggests speaking in clear tender words. You may notice them focusing clearly on your lips, learning how you produce different sounds.

Another tip for assisting infants in a sensitive period helps them to understand their surroundings. Dr. Montessori suggests laying them on a slight incline so they may observe “the heavens as well as the earth.” Place them in the same spot multiple times so they may get a sense of the objects in relation to each other.

Chapter 8: Order

A very important sensitive period is that for order. As early as the first few months children become fascinated with well ordered objects. However, their reaction to disorder is easier to see.

One example that Dr. Montessori gives is that of a six-month old when a lady entered the room and placed an umbrella on the table. The child began to scream and cry. After several attempts to calm him, his mother had the insight to remove the umbrella from the room.

He immediately calmed down. The introduction of the umbrella had interrupted the pattern of memory the child had been building for the room.

Order persists as a need into older children and adults. However, it is different for the children in the sensitive period. Order allows all of us to “orient oneself within one’s environment and to dominate it in all its details.”

Infants are starting from scratch in the business of ordering themselves. They are learning up, down, left, right, far, and near for the first time. For the child, an understanding of both inner and outer order is necessary to crawl, and to grab objects among other things. With so much to learn, it makes sense that small changes in order can feel overwhelming.

Chapter 9: Intelligence

Knowledge isn’t built up by passive exposure to the world. Instead it is built up quickly, guided by inspiration that comes on swift and powerful as summer rains. That inspiration, Dr. Montessori believed, stems from the child’s reasoning power.

She gives the example of a child of four weeks old who encountered two men, his father and uncle. Both men were of nearly identical height and build. The child became frightened, he had seen them both only separately and thought them to be one person.

The men, having been acquainted with Dr. Montessori’s work, separated. Standing some distance apart, the child could observe them one at a time. Eventually he figured out that they were in fact different people.

Because the men understood the child, they were able to assist him in learning this lesson much quicker. They understood that he needed clarity in the situation. All too often however we misread these situations, distracting and hindering growth.

Unless we see the reason behind the whims of children, we risk delaying their development. Another example comes from the sensitive period that follows order. One could say that it grows out of the sensitive period for order. This sensitive period is that for small details.

The sensitive period which children reach around the age of two attracts them to details that normally escape the notice of adults. Dr. Montessori’s gives the example of a drawing that she was shown by a young child. He asked her to observe a car, but the picture was clearly of a hunting dog.

After he insisted and directed her to it, she saw the car. Behind the dog, and the man with the rifle. Behind the cottage and down a winding road was a dot that clearly represented a car.

This logically follows the period where children can identify objects in relation to each other. They are now looking for the greater challenge that these minute details pose to their observational skills.

Overall, it is easy to mistake the whims of children as trivial. However, as Dr. Montessori observed they are deeply significant. Children follow a logical pattern, passing through various sensitivities to develop the skills that we have come to take for granted.

By understanding their processes, we can assist in their growth. By misunderstanding we can unwittingly hinder it.

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