“When a particular sensitiveness is aroused in a child, it is like a light that shines on some objects but not others, making of them his whole world” - Maria Montessori
One of the most discussed phrases in Montessori is “sensitive periods“. In short, a sensitive period is a phase or window in a child’s development when they are most capable of and responsive to absorbing a certain skill.
There are a variety of sensitive periods in childhood, but here are some that apply to toddlers. These include but are not limited to:
Movement: birth to 2.5
Language: birth to 6
Toileting: 1 to 3
Small objects: 1 to 3
Order: 1.5 to 4
Refinement of Senses: 2 to 6
Grace and Courtesy: 2 to 6
Social Skills: 2.5 to 5
Before going into some these in more depth, it can help to know how to spot a sensitive period. Though there are general time frames for each of these periods, every child is a bit different in their development. You’ll know when your child is in a sensitive period because they are engaged, passionate, and energized by working on this specific activity or skill, and often return to it again and again. It can help to keep these sensitive periods in mind to better understand your toddler’s “tricky” behaviors too.
When a child isn’t permitted to exercise their sensitive periods, they will likely throw tantrums to demonstrate their unmet needs to fulfill their interests and goals for that period. They may also lose the ease of doing and interest for the activities related to developing that skill. If they miss the sensitive period of window, they will likely still develop those skills, but will take longer and with more effort and less joy. (For example, adults know how much harder it is to learn one new language than it is for toddlers to learn two languages at the same time.)
Sensitive Period for Movement: Birth to 2.5 years
From birth to two and a half years, children show a sensitive period for movement. It is easy to see this in the great effort infants put in as they quickly transition from lying to rolling to sitting to crawling to pulling up. They use their hands in different ways to explore their environment and materials with more precision every day. Through the second year, toddlers continue this self-motivated movement but with more refinement, coordination, and control. Toddlers’ need to move and exert energy often seems limitless, and it practically is.
D was a late crawler and walker, so her first year was all about fine motor. Now, as a toddler, she is going through a huge sensitive period for gross motor. Every day includes a combination of a toddler-led walk, sliding at the playground, carrying heavy objects around the house, and climbing up and down the stairs on repeat. Giving her these opportunities to exercise her large movements gives her the ability to focus on her smaller work as well as eat and sleep better.
Sensitive Period for Small Objects: 1 to 3 years
Any parent of a toddler has probably noticed this one - they love tiny things. As soon as babies begin to move, they seem to notice every little speck on the floor, and need to pick it up. Toddlers find nothing more fascinating than collecting small rocks and picking every tiny flower. While parents often worry about choking hazards, reacting with panic or ripping small objects out of your toddlers’ hand will only lead to tantrums. We can give our toddlers supervised time to hold and inspect small objects to fulfill this need. Toddlers need this time to tune into the details of everything, and see those smallest features, changes, and qualities up close. They are not only learning about their fascinating environment, but also working on those much-needed fine motor skills and developing their concentration.
Most of D’s favorite works include small objects right now, and at first with reminders (now without), she knows to keep them in her hand. Our rock collection is quite impressive these days. ;) Just the other day she found a tiny lock and key in our drawer, and rather than take it away, I observed her and watched with interest as she used her tiny hands to fit the lock inside and then sigh with huge satisfaction as she went on to repeat this a dozen more times. These little opportunities to work with small objects are huge for her development.
Sensitive Period for Toileting: 1 to 2.5 years
This does not mean that toilet learning can’t happen after 2.5 years, but rather that the toddlers are quicker and more interested in the toilet before 2.5 years (usually before 2 years even). Children develop an awareness of their bodily functions around a year and can usually control their bladder and bowels pretty well by 18 months. Toddlers between one and two years also want to imitate everything we do, and this often includes the toilet, so it’s a great time to take advantage of that. If we start toileting during this sensitive period, we can avoid using bribes and rewards.
Though it’s been a longer process, I am really glad we started toilet learning with D before 18 months, because now, at 21 months, she’s in underwear full-time (except for sleep). There are still some accidents and sure to be more regressions (especially once baby 2 arrives), but we’ve avoided any huge struggle over it. You can read more about this process in previous blog posts.
Sensitive Period for Order: 1.5 to 4 years
Routine to their day is a big component of toddlers’ need for order. Montessori explains, “It is necessary for the child to have this order and stability in his environment because he is constructing himself out of the elements of the environment.” Toddlers crave routine and order in their environment because it provides a safe base from which they are explore everything else in the constantly changing (and big) world. External order helps toddlers and young children develop internal mental order. This is why Montessori environments have a more minimal look to them, and a specific place for everything.
D is deep in this sensitive period right now. She is very particular about the placement of her things. She actually corrected me when I tried to put one of her materials back in a different spot or when I put her shoes in the “wrong” basket. I also find the days that we stick to her routine are much happier than the days we are in and out of the car or when she isn’t sure what’s coming next. Keeping up with our regular schedule most days, giving her a heads up when we can’t, and always having a consistent bedtime routine helps her tremendously with this need for order.