The phrase ‘sensitive periods’ often conjures up thoughts of moody teenagers, but it actually refers to a period of time when a child’s interests are focused on developing a particular skill or knowledge area.
According to Montessori Theory, the most important sensitive periods occur between birth and age six. In other pedagogies, sensitive periods are commonly referred to as windows of opportunity or developmental milestones. During their first six years of life, children move through five main categories of sensitive periods, including: order, language, sensory skills, movement, and social skills. Each sensitive period lasts for as long as it is necessary for a child to complete a particular stage in their development. These periods of special sensitivity are only temporary and fade once the aim is accomplished.
Recognising sensitive periods in your child’s development may be easier than you think. Have you ever wondered why your child wants to repeat the same song or story a million times? It may drive you crazy, but these are classic symptoms of sensitivity.
Other characteristics of sensitive periods may include mimicking, intense concentration, and compulsive or obsessive behaviours. Interrupting a child while they are in the middle of an intense sensitive period can result in a powerful emotional response such as a tantrum. Break a routine that a child is attempting to understand and master, such as getting dressed, bath time or bedtime, and some children will emotionally fall apart. The ‘terrible twos’ for example, are often an exaggerated reaction to small disruptions in order that may not be perceived by adults. This is because they are likely to be in a sensitive period for learning, and their ‘work’ is being interrupted.
The sensitive period for order begins at birth, peaks in the second year of development, and continues through to around age five. This period of development teaches how to develop their reasoning skills, organise information, and understand their environment. Sensitivity to order can be characterised by a desire for consistency and repetition, where children crave routine and structure. During this period of sensitivity, children may be more interested in putting things in order and packing things away, than they are in playing with their toys. To support the sensitive period for order, it is important to establish ground rules, a solid routine, and create an organised environment where everything has a place.
From birth to age six, children are in the sensitive period for language. Sensitivity to language involves three key phases: spoken language, written language, and reading. The sensitive period for spoken language is from 7 months to 3 years of age. It begins when the child first creates sounds by mimicking mouth movements, and progresses over time, as they learn to form words and simple sentences.
The sensitive period for learning to write is from 3.5 to 4.5 years of age. This begins when the child learns the alphabet, and then sight words, which form the foundation for reading and writing skills.
For reading, a child is intensely interested from 4.5 to 5.5 years of age. Reading skills are often developed after a child learns to write as it involves visual tracking skills.
To support language development at home, it is important to immerse your child in an environment that is rich in language stimulation. This involves speaking to your child in clear language, singing and reading with them, and allowing them to speak their needs instead of anticipating them.
Children begin to understand and refine their senses from birth to age five. This period of sensitivity can be characterised by a child’s fascination with sensorial experiences such as touch, taste, sight and smell.
The first phase of sensory awareness, sensitivity to small objects, occurs from one to three years of age. This period can be characterised by a child’s fixation with small objects and tiny details. The completion of this phase indicates that an understanding of order and detail are coming together in the child’s mind.
The second sensitivity phase, sensorial exploration and classification, occurs from 2.5 to 6 years. This phase can be classified by an intense desire to take part in learning experiences that integrate the senses. These experiences provide children with a system to classify objects within their environment.
To support sensory sensitivity, it is important to provide your child with vast opportunities to explore and observe their environment using their senses. At home, you could provide your child with opportunities to group objects with similar traits, describe materials with different textures, and practice sensory based games like ‘I Spy.’
The sensitive period for movement can be divided into two phases. From birth to 2.5 years, children are sensitive to gross and fine motor development. This begins when the infant child learns to crawl, pull up, and eventually walk without assistance. Over time, children also develop fine motor skills through repeating activities that strengthen their hand muscles and improve hand-eye coordination.
From 2.5 to 4.5 years of age, children enter the sensitive period for refinement and coordination of movement. This is when the child begins to hold items using both hands, develop the pincer grip, and control and coordinate movement.
To support the development of fine and gross motor skills, it is important to provide your child with regular visits to the park or an outdoor environment. At home, you can encourage sensitive periods for movement by providing your child with opportunities to practice tasks, such as drawing or writing, washing hands, threading, and jumping.
From 2.5 to 5 years, children learn that they are part of a group and develop an intense interest in social relationships. During this time, children learn to direct their actions, attention and behaviour towards a group of people. This is the stage of development where children learn to develop friendships and participate in co-operative play. The sensitive period for social skills is an appropriate stage to introduce the importance of manners and basic principles of human interaction.
To support the development of social skills in your child, it is important to provide your child with opportunities to socialise with children their own age i.e. at playgroup or childcare. At home, you can model positive social behaviours, and practice grace and courtesy rituals such as saying “please” and “thank you.”
Recognising and supporting sensitive periods
Recognising and supporting sensitive periods in your child’s development begins with a knowledge of what is typical at different ages. The other aspect is simply observing your child and allowing them to progress at their own pace. To support your child during this special time of learning, it is important to provide them with a supportive learning environment that provides stimulus appropriate to their stage of development. This includes ensuring adequate time and materials are available, and by respecting the individual interests and passions of your child. It is through observation that the needs of the child are revealed. As always, follow the child, and tuck away some extra patience for the days they want to sing the ABC song over and over again!