The Sensitive Periods in 3-6 year olds
an excerpt from
COSMIC EDUCATION by Ursula Thrush
The sensitive periods are transitory periods in the child's life during which she is prompted by an inner urge to focus her attention on certain elements in her environment. The activities and impressions resulting from this activity help the child to form a faculty with which to fulfill a tendency.
"Children pass through definite periods in which they reveal psychic aptitudes and possibilities which afterwards disappear. That is why at particular epochs in their life, they reveal an intense and extraordinary interest in certain objects and exercises which one might look for in vain at later age. During such a period the child is endowed with a special sensitivity which urges him to focus his attention on certain aspects of her environment to the exclusion of others. Such attention is not the result of mere curiosity, it is more like a burning passion. Keen emotion first arises from the depths of the unconscious and sets in motion a marvelous creative activity in contact with the outside world, thus building up consciousness" (The Secret of Childhood, Montessori).
When a sensitive period is at its height, we may compare it to a searchlight coming from within the mind and illuminating certain parts of the environment, leaving the rest in comparative obscurity. The effect of this luminous and selective ray is such that where before there was confusion and chaos there now comes into being order and distinction. The intense and prolonged activity which is aroused and sustained by a sensitive period does not cause fatigue, on the contrary, it energizes!
"It comes for a moment, but its benefits last for a lifetime." Montessori
After a spell of work done at the imperious bidding of this inner urge, the child, or individual, feels better, stronger, calmer--simply because he has been creating herself. A sensitive period has a beginning, a high point, and a fading out phase. It has a period of building and a period of perfecting.
It was Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries who first discovered the periods of sensitivity. They are observable in animals whose development has to go through several stages or metamorphoses as in the case of the butterfly.
"Like a good mother, the female butterfly instinctively lays her eggs in a sheltered spot at the angle formed by a branch with the trunk of the tree where they will be safe and sheltered. What will tell the tiny caterpillars when they break out of their shells that the tender leaves which they need for food are above them at the end of the branch? It is light! The caterpillar is extremely sensitive to light. Light attracts it, fascinates it, and as a consequence the tiny worm inches its way up to the end of the branch where there is the most light.
"There among the tender leaves it finds food to satisfy its ravenous hunger. The remarkable fact is that just as soon as the caterpillar has grown large enough to eat coarser food, its sensitive period passes and it loses its sensitivity to light. . . (The Secret of Childhood).
The Sensitive Periods are:Language & WritingLanguage
For a certain period of his life, the child is endowed with a special sensitivity toward a certain element in his environment, language. It enables him to establish a new faculty--speech. the faculty of speech fulfills his tendency of communication.
The infant absorbs the language spoken in his environment, that is, the sensitive period for language has begun long before the child can speak. At four months he watches the mouth of the speaker. His muscles begin to vibrate in harmony with the spoken word he hears but it is only the human sounds which attract him in this manner. At six months he makes sounds--these are the elements of the words to come. These sounds exercise his vocal cords, that is, they prepare and animate the organs of speech.
"When the child is born, the sounds in its environment form a confusion, then suddenly this mysterious urge begins in his soul, this inner flame of interest is lit up and is turned outward as a light upon this dark exterior confusion under its influence sounds separate themselves, though as yet language is not understood. Nonetheless, these sounds have become distinct, fascinating, alluring."
The child's mind now listens voluntarily to the spoken language. Again, first we have psychic factor and then the corresponding physical activity. This is the building phase of the sensitive period for language.
At around two years, the child explodes into speech with the "absorbent mind" he has absorbed and fixed the language spoken in his environment, and now he reproduces it in its totality down to the smallest detail.
From 3 to 6 years is the perfecting phase, during which time the child perfects his own language and increases his vocabulary through experiences and practice. During this phase he can also absorb other languages without any effort. He easily learns the two other factors of language: writing and reading.
In a Montessori environment, we cooperate with the sensitive period for language by offering many nursery rhymes, songs, poems, stories, plus experiences with the correct language to express them. The classified cards, language with the materials, the "I Spy and Question" game and the news period all aid the child in perfecting his language and increasing his vocabulary. The sensitive period for language lasts from birth to 6 years.
The sensitive period for order reveals itself when the child reaches his second year and it lasts for about two years. Its high point is at 3 years. At this time the child has a passionate interest in the order of things in time and space. Everything has to be in its proper place and the actions of the day have to be carried out in an accustomed routine. A child of 2-1/2 years is upset by not getting his usual spoon, or cupboard door [is] left open, or the corner of a rug turned over; or a story being retold with different words or turns of events. Small children can be driven frantic by such infringements [changes in] established order, and they often protest with temper tantrums. The adult might not know what caused the tantrum but the child can not live in disorder. He needs the stability and the security that order gives. [Think how you would react if you went to work and your desk was gone--moved, or you return home and the stove is in the bathtub! I canít stress enough the importance of order for 3-6 year olds!]
The order in the childís environment is his foundation he absolutely needs it for orientation. First, for physical orientation to find his way around, and later in mental orientation and for classification, this sensitive period establishes within him the rhythm he needs in order to fulfill his tendency for order.
In [a Montessori environment] we meet the childís need for order by giving every piece of material its proper place, by presenting materials in the same order of sequence and by teaching the child to replace materials in order and ready for use by someone else.
As the child passes into his 4th and 5th year, the sensitive period for order becomes calmer and his reactions toward disorder are not as violent and disturbing as before. This period lasts from about 2 to 4 years old.
The special epoch of sensations pertains not only to external sensory impressions but also to the childís physical actions. This need is fulfilled by "grace and courtesy" exercises. If we leave these things to be taught at a later age, the special spontaneous interest will not be there. It will have vanished to give way to other interests of a more intellectual nature.
This is why you must really make use of a sensorial periods--donít stress the intellectual [for ages 3-5]. The sensorial lays the foundation for the intellectual, which comes after six.
Beginning in their second year, children are drawn by a particular fascination to tiny objects in their environments; objects so small that they are often missed by adults. These can be bugs, specks of color in a painting, seeds, anything shiny.
"The children have revealed to us that there exists an early epoch of fundamental importance for mental culture in which many cognition penetrate through the senses and through movement in a most efficacious way, and can be stored in the memory in a wonderful manner remaining there until a later stage. So when the moment comes for reasoning on these images they already form a part of their mental equipment, almost as if they were innate ideas. This leads, at this later stage, to a quicker and more accurate comprehension on the abstract level" (To Educate the Human Potential, Montessori).
At age five, children are curious about the world outside their home and school, different animals, people, the solar system, lots of intelligent "why" questions. We give them a sensorial foundation of culture through geography and science, music and food and folk tales of other lands, to build on and give them a concrete experience of "differences."