Sensitive Periods

June 10, 2016

Dr. Maria Montessori observed that young children go through a number of different intensely-focused periods of learning and concentration. These periods are what we now call the “sensitive periods.” Brain research from Stanford University Neurobiologist Eric Knudsen echoes Dr. Montessori’s findings, stating “When the effect of experience on the brain is particularly strong during a limited period in development, this period is referred to as a sensitive period. Such periods allow experience to instruct neural circuits to process or represent information in a way that is adaptive for the individual” (Knudsen, 1412). The brain actually uses the information learned during a sensitive period to hard wire brain circuitry. These strong connections between the experience a child has and new brain function help build a positive “stability landscape”, leading to more efficient information processing capabilities. These brain connections must be used repeatedly to form and grow properly, leading to the repetition and concentration we see in the child experiencing a sensitive period. 

Dr. Montessori noticed that young children were able to more acutely understand specific concepts, like 1:1 correspondence of sounds to symbols and quantities to numerals during sensitive periods through exploration and repetition.  Dr. Montessori discovered that it was important to have materials for the children that emphasized refinement of the senses and movement. The Sensorial and Practical Life areas offer the first concepts of sequence, measurement, calculation, and exactness.  At some point the child pours water from one pitcher to three pitchers, exercising repetition and exactness. “The training of the senses must begin in the formative period of life if we wish to perfect them later through education and make use of them in any particular human skill,” (The Discovery of the Child).  The Montessori curriculum is the natural outcome of the preparation for intellectual development which begins in the Practical Life and Sensorial areas of the classroom.

Primary-aged children experience a number of sensitive periods during the three year cycle such in the areas of language, order, social behavior, small objects, cultural subjects, and mathematics. The child who is experiencing a sensitive period for order will thrive under a precise schedule and routine, and will become upset or frustrated with unexpected changes in his daily activities. This child may want to repeat experiences until he feels it fulfills his need for order. During this time, the child will also enter a sensitive period for social behavior i.e. Grace and Courtesy. This is an important time for children to observe how their actions affect those around them, and how their words and choices can have positive and negative consequences. Each of these sensitive periods has a common thread: the child must learn through repetition and experience.

The Primary classroom offers children precision, exactness, and order through manipulation of materials.  “In our work, therefore, we have given a name to this part of the mind which is built up by exactitude, we call it the “mathematical mind,” (The Absorbent Mind). Preparation of the mathematical mind is crucial to further development of intellectual pursuits.  Abstract forms and calculations are introduced by orderly and concrete materials.  Each particular quality of an abstract idea can be presented in isolation. “This system in which a child is constantly moving objects with his hands and actively exercising his senses, also takes into account a child’s special aptitude for mathematics,” (The Discovery of the Child).

Likewise, the system in which a child is always actively engaged, both verbally and with manipulatives, takes into account the child’s aptitude for language. Language acquisition begins in utero, as the child hears the voices of his parents, music, and noises in his environment. It continues through his entire life, though the sensitive period for language is thought to end around six years of age. We encourage the child’s language through exploration: singing songs, reading aloud, conversation, answering questions, narration, and observation of new sounds. We also assist the child by allowing him to communicate his needs on his own- not doing too much or anticipating his requests, rather, waiting for him to demonstrate or verbalize his needs.

The importance of these sensitive periods and recognizing, cultivating, and embracing these times cannot be understated. According to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, preschool is the time in which the brain determines which connections to keep and which to discard. Connections within the brain that are not frequently accessed will weaken in order to strengthen the more active connections. The Montessori curriculum is all-encompassing, designed specifically to engage the child’s whole being. Because the child learns by doing, the brain is actively forming connections based on first-hand experiences and initiative.

Lastly, psychologist Jane Healy states, “Early childhood programs that implement a directed academic curriculum often replace essential, hands-on learning activities with skill-based performance and rote-learning tasks. In doing so, they risk the developmental growth necessary for children’s future academic success.” Extensive use of rote-learning tasks can distort the natural progression of typical brain development. The promising long-term effects of brain-appropriate early childhood education have lead to new legislation in many states, mandating state-funded early intervention education programs. Dr. Montessori’s method is one of many early intervention strategies, but her awareness of brain function and sensitive periods and their integration into the Montessori materials makes the method not only effective, but an imperative.

Knudsen, Eric I. “Sensitive Periods in the Development of the Brain and Behavior.”Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 16.8 (2004): 1412-425. Print.

Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. Brain Development and Early Learning. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 2007. 2007. Web.