Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods?

There are many specific terms in the Montessori education. I wrote in a previous blog post about the Absorbent mind.

In today's blog post, I will explore the Sensitive periods, one of those terms used by Montessori teachers that might puzzle parents.

Maria Montessori used a term coined by a Dutch biologist, Hugo de Vries (Mutation theory - 1902) to refer to important periods of childhood development.

In the Secret of Childhood, she said: 

“A sensitive period refers to a special sensitivity which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in a process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait, or characteristic, has been acquired, this special sensitivity disappears.
Every specific characteristic of a living creature is thus attained with the help of a passing impulse or potency. Growth is therefore not to be attributed to a vague inherited predetermination but to efforts that are carefully guided by periodic, or transient, instincts. These give direction by furnishing an impulse toward a determined kind of activity that can differ notably from the adult of that species.”

During a sensitive period, the child is deeply interested into a specific subject. It is therefore extremely easy for the child to acquire certain abilities related to this interest.

The child has an intense interest for repeating certain actions. A new skill will emerge out of this repetition.

Sensitive periods do not appear in a linear way. They can overlap. When the sensitive period is over, the intense desire is gone and the opportunity to learn deeply and easily is gone.

It does not mean that all is lost! For example, it is easier for a child to learn a second language in his early years. If the child did not have that opportunity, then learning another language will require a conscious effort.

Sensitive periods or window of opportunities is a term used in neuropsychology and our current knowledge of the brain shows that there is a specific period for language acquisition, development of movements and cognitive perception.

Both ways to use the term sensitive period are based on the same idea that children have a specific way to learn in their early years and that there is a specific time frame when learning should occur.

In the Montessori community, depending on the training, there is still a debate about what can be considered a “sensitive period” and when they occur. Maria Montessori, in her writings, wasn’t clear about when each of these sensitive periods appear.

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Why it is important to learn about the Sensitive periods

Maria Montessori encouraged adults to observe the behaviour and activities of children to discover what sensitive periods they are in. Observing the child allows the adults to protect the child’s interest and provide activities tailored to their current sensitive periods.

The sensitive periods as explained by Maria Montessori can be used as a framework to observe your child in order to give them as many opportunities as possible. Obviously, it’s important to remember that each child is an individual and although, Maria Montessori explained that those sensitive periods are universal, us, parents might not be able to spot them all.

The 6 main sensitive periods

According to Maria Montessori, there are 6 sensitive periods.

Sensitive period to language

This sensitive period lasts from birth (even in utero) to 6. Today’s sciences corroborate the existence of a sensitive period to language. Neuroscience has shown that the window of opportunity for language acquisition begins to shut at around 5 years old (

Maria Montessori used to say that Montessori said that “the only language men will ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything.

During the sensitive period to language, it is also very easy for a young child to learn another language.

A child by the age of 6, will have acquired an extensive vocabulary, basic sentences patterns and the inflections and accent of his mother’s tongue. That is with almost no direct teaching!

Language refers not only to the oral language but also to reading and writing. Maria Montessori observed that children started to write then to read. 

It is particularly important to talk to your child in adult to child manner, using the proper vocabulary and not a baby language.

Books, reading, storytelling and puppets are great activities that help the child to develop his language.

Sensitive period to movement

This sensitive period lasts from birth to 5 years old. The sensitive period for movement can be divided into different phases.

First phase – from birth to 2.5 years of age

The first phase, the acquisition of gross and fine motor skills, walking and the use of the hands, lasts from birth to 2.5 years of age.

The environment that we prepare gives the opportunities for the child to crawl, pull up and to move freely.

We must allow freedom of movement and avoid the trap of baby devices like playpens and jumparoos, that are supposed to keep our baby safe. Those devices are only convenient for us. Although, the way we parent today may force us to use them as we are often parenting on our own for long hours. If you need a playpen or jumparoos to keep your child safe while you take a shower, try to limit the use to very short period of time.

We encourage walking with or without assistance. Toddlers do not need baby walkers.

We have to give them toys or materials that improve the movement of the hand and improve eye/hand coordination.

We need to give our children constant opportunities, so they can refine their skills.

Second phase – from 2.5 to 4.5 years of age

The second phase, the coordination and refinement of gross and fine motor skills, lasts from 2.5 to 4.5 years of age.

This is when the child starts using both hands in coordination of fine movements. He is now able to hold small items with pincer grip and release voluntary.

Gross motor skills consist of coordination of walking, jumping running and balancing while carrying a jug of water, for example.

The child acquires this coordination through repetition of purposeful motor activity. Regular visits to the park and outdoor environments are likely to help with this sensitive period.

Children go through phases of maximum effort During this period. They want to carry heavy loads and they want to push.

Sensitive period to order

The child goes through this sensitive period from 1 to 3 years old. It usually peaks when around the age of 18 months. During this period, the child is organizing his mental schema of the world. The child is able to order his mind and orientate himself when his environment is in order.

He doesn’t really need a sparkling house, but he needs a routine and some predictable answers. The child needs consistency and familiarity.

During this period, the child may become very upset by minor changes in her life.  At that age, the child starts to realise that he can control his physical environment by moving objects.

The child wants to make sure she can find those objects again. That is the reason why children will thrives in an orderly environment.

The child needs activities that will help him refine his sense of order.

Cause and effect toys (such as an object permanence box) will help your child with his sense of order. Any sorting activities work too. Your child will love to sort animals into different categories: the zoo animals, the farm animals…

Sensitive period to refinement of the senses

This sensitive period lasts from birth (even in utero) to 4 years old.

The sensory development of the brain lasts for up to 4 years. The child learns through his 5 senses: s Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch.

It’s important to introduce your child to various sensory stimuli.

Help him develop his olfactory sense by smelling flowers, spices, and perfumes.

Listen to different styles of music and offer him opportunities to play with real musical instruments.

Give him different tactile experiences: rough and smooth, soft, and hard…

Help him discriminate between big and small, long, and short.

Teach him colours and introduce him to art and beautiful things.

Not all our children will become the next Mozart or Van Gogh, but an introduction cannot hurt!

Sensitive period to small details and small objects

This period lasts from 1 to 3 years old.

Imagine that you are at a top of a hill with your child. While you are enjoying the view, pointing to buildings, trees and the blue sky, your child will notice ants marching on the ground or a feather falling down.

While you are reading a book about words and pictures, pointing to the cat, the house and the lion, your child will notice that there is an egg in the bird nest in that small tree, or he will notice that the girl in the picture has a little heart design on her dress.

Paying attention to small details might seem unproductive for our adult’s intellect. We climbed the hill to enjoy the view, not to look at ants. We were reading this book to teach words, not to check every small detail.

What a waste of time, we might think. It is not for the child. That sensitivity to small details fosters concentration and focus that your child will need to learn his whole life.

During this sensitive period, the child will become obsessed by small objects when she explores her environment. This the time when she will develop her pincer grip – grasping between the thumb and index.

You will observe your child wanting to eat green peas one by one or picking dust from the floor. Provide him with safe and edible objects.

Be careful during this stage and supervise your child closely.

Young children are prone to put everything to their mouth.

When they are out of the mouthing stage, you can provide your child with transferring activities with hands, with tongs, with tweezers.

Sensitive period to social behaviour or to manner and courtesy

This sensitive period lasts from about 2 and a half to 6 years old.

During this sensitive period, the child becomes aware that he is part of a group.

It is time to have friends!

Until then, the children play beside each other. They do not interact that much.

Now the child gradually starts to play in a cooperative way.

Children need to observe how to behave in our society.

As adults we are our children’s role models.

We must step in and show our children how to interact with others and help them to solve conflicts.

This is why the concept of vertical grouping in the Montessori classroom is so beneficial. Children who are 5 and 6 will be the role models for the new children who are only 3.

Be aware of your role when you attend activities with your child, such as playgroup and playdate. Stay close by to be able to help your child to play, cooperate and take turn with his playmates.

In the book “How to raise an amazing child” by Tim Seldin, the author lists also the following sensitive periods:

  • Sensitive period to music – 2 to 6
  • Sensitive period to mathematics – 4 to 6
  • Sensitive period to toilet learning – birth to 3
  • Sensitive period to special relationship  - 4 to 6

I encourage you to have a go at spotting those sensitive periods in your child. This will help you to provide activities that correspond to their needs and to prepare an environment that will support their development!

You can read here about how to observe your child.

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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.