The child’s natural love for her social and physical environment sparks the potential for absorption and an intense attraction in those aspects of her environment which are stable and alive, this attraction during Sensitives Period allows her to meet her needs by manifesting her tendencies and potentials as periods of development. Sensitive Periods are globally and culturally universal stages in human development which occur in the absorbent mind to trigger the latent tendencies and potentials into action. Montessori defines sensitive periods as ‘animating impulse[s] leading to the performance of wonderful, staggering actions…The adult can do nothing from the outside that will affect these different states…They are energies starting from non-existence, to bring to existence the basic elements fro which the child’s psychic world will eventually be constructed(1). Montessori likens the transformations of a child to Hugo de Vries description of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, a natural leap from one state of being to another which cannot be hurried and though unseen makes profound changes.
During the sensitive periods exceptionally intense urges, hungers or impulses command the child’s absorbent mind to act and with ease and joy she is able to manifest complex characteristics which, before the sensitive period, were not present in the child’s behavior, for example walking and speech. Each sensitive period is marked by a period of intense preparation leading to self-creation and a less active period of consolidation, in infancy the period form conception the three is an unconscious period of absorption, and not latency as is often assumed, after which the child practices and manifests her skills in a conscious way, for example in the first year the babies bones ossify and vocal chords are strengthened allowing her to sit by herself at eight months and utter a first word at one year. Once a sensitive period is completed it recedes allowing other periods to come forward; for example order is an earlier sensitive period, sensory refinement comes later and after the age of six reasoning, imaginative capacity, moral awareness and herd instinct are sensitive periods which replace those acquired at infancy. The more fully each sensitive period is experienced the better the child can develop and respond to the next sensitive period.
While the child is in the grip of a sensitive period the characteristic being acquired is absorbed to the exclusion of other stimuli, for example acquiring speech focuses the mind on human speech to the exclusion of other sounds in the environment which are quickly dismissed. That said sensitive periods also run along side each other and effect each other and each period inter-relates wit the others, so the sensitive period for order is related to that of speech, where sounds are organised into abstractions, and co-ordination, when movements are ordered into patterns and actions.
Montessori divides each sensitive period into three parts, known as the ‘Three Fold Phenomena’, firstly a spontaneous interest in THAT appeals to the child, then a desire to repeat an action which relates to THAT and a state of concentration where the whole being is fascinated, in a state of rapture. An example in speech acquisition is that in the infant context of the predisposition to love, the characteristics of the absorbent mind and tendencies towards gregariousness and language, which act to fulfill her needs, give way to the sensitive period for language in which a spontaneous interest arises in the human voice. This is manifested firstly as a desire to gaze at the speakers mouth, secondly to repeatedly babbling and finally a state of concentration in which the infant transforms herself into a speaker by producing her first syllable.
A child given freedom of choice and movement will automatically follow the tendencies which arise during the sensitive periods and so will spontaneously choose those which provide the exposure to stimuli and work necessary for repetition to happen and give way to concentration, self-perfection and normalisation. Sensitive periods coincide with increased activity from certain groups of nerves and being able to follow the tendency and strengthen the neural network provides the child with deep inner joy and the experience of rest and renewal, rather than fatigue. The child’s Horme is strengthened and the Mnene will record this success, encouraging positive expectations for future challenges which will help her to feel secure and independent.
During infancy there are four sensitive periods, for order, language, the refinement of senses and for co-ordination of movement. The sensitive period for order begins at conception and lasts till six, the child has a vital need to find the relationships between people, objects, places in her environment and to do this consistency and stability in her surrounding, daily routines and the relationships between people are essential. She learns to classify and catagorise, fulfilling the tendency to abstract, makes discoveries, fulfilling her tendency towards curiosity and is increasingly able to make predictions, building her progress towards knowledge, social life and providing her with security. This time-frame also marks the sensitive period for language, which begins when the child hears sounds in the womb and continues as the infant grasps, without difficulty all languages and their abstract, technical and atypical features resulting in two peak periods, firstly at 11 months, just before the first word is spoken, and the second peak period at 2.5 years and two ‘explosions into language’ firstly at age 2 to 2.5 when flurries of meaningful sentences are suddenly spoken secondly at three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years when the child ‘explodes’ into reading and then writing.
The Sensitive Period for the Refinement of the Senses at two to four years provides information about the world to the still-forming neural centres and the degree of their refinement is dependent on the experiences the infant can access, too much clutter is a burden to the child who absorbs everything, but enough materials must be provided and made ‘alive’ to stimulate the tendency towards curiosity. The sensitive period for the co-ordination of movement occurs between two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half and sees the mind and body working in harmony, the hand is ‘the expression of the mind’ and begins the first conscious activities of the working hand start at around one year, the same time that the lower limbs are able to walk unaided. After the age of one the child practices running, jumping, skipping and carrying to further practice balancing kills. The movements are initially guided by studious imitation of the adult and later repeated; if the movements are graciously demonstrated the movements of the body and psyche are well-co-ordinated and inner harmony is attained. At this period the child is concerned with small details and the senses and hand enjoy colour, texture, natural materials and variety in her surrounding.
Sensitive periods can be blocked if the child is not given freedom of choice and movement and if her spontaneous activities are determinedly distracted or blocked or she is admonished for her repetitive behavior, then feelings of anxiety may overwhelm her interest and determination causing her energy, natural love and joy to be wasted. She needs to make her own choices about her behavior as she has an inner guide instructing her to perform relevant activities. If her environment is not alive with other people and objects to manipulate she will interact with it less, while if it is unstable her experiences are difficult to relate to and understand and her abilities to classify and abstract will be more difficult to develop. Her needs not only for hygiene but also love, security, society, respect and so on must be met to allow her to relax and focus her energies and attention on THAT which attracts her if she is going to be able to enter the necessary state of concentration for transformation to occurs. Unable to act on her tendencies to order, explore, be curious and imitate her being somehow ‘knows’ will miss the work necessary in the sensitive period and so she becomes agitated and grief-stricken causing the behavior commonly labelled as ‘tantrums’.
The child is urgently driven to follow the object of interest as once the sensitive period is over, whether or not the corresponding action has been perfected, the interest and ease of acquiring the development will pass and the child can only acquire the behavior through strenuous, determined activity and many not acquire the characteristic fully. Preventing the child from manifesting the activity prescribed by the sensitive period is also likely to have negative impacts on the child’s psychic development as the Horme will have been thwarted and so weakened while recollections of being powerless, frustrated and unable to work will be laid down in the inaccessible Mneme. Unconsciously remembering this development as an unsuccessful struggle for freedom casts a shadow over the child’s self-esteem which can hinder independence, lead to aggressiveness and neurosis. The weakening of her forming adult will further compounds the difficulties in acquiring this behavior and achieving the potentials of other sensitive periods, leading to the acquisition of maladjustments.
To avoid maladjustments it is necessary for the environment to fulfill the child’s emotional and social needs and provide the necessary work for the tendencies to be actualized during the sensitive period. Once the environment is set up it must not only be maintained, ‘stable’, but personal contact should be made with it to make it come ‘alive’ for the child. Order is also necessary in the social sphere, in the way adults conducting relationships and their own behaviors and the way adults move their bodies should be with grace and care while objects should be used with consistent functions. We can help guide an infants absorption of the language period by using an extended vocabulary, clearly spoken with a careful tone and giving ample demonstrations of greetings, manners and appropriate tones. Senses are best developed in contact with the natural environment, walking at the pace dictated to by the child with stops at places of interest is a good way to manifest the tendencies for order and orientation, curiosity, co-ordination, gregariousness and culture while responding to the sensorial sensitive period. To help with the Co-ordination of Movement being outdoors or in a place with steps helps establish equilibrium while to develop the hand it is important that the child can have purposeful activity, touching objects moreover imitating adults and is allowed to take part in social rituals. Adults in the environment must trust that the child will select the appropriate stimulation and behaviors to follow her inner urges.
(1)Montessori The Secret of Childhood, p.36 and 55.