Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods? - The Montessori Family (2023)

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.

Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods? - The Montessori Family (2)

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 (

(Video) What are the Montessori Sensitive Periods and How Can You Support them?

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!

Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods? - The Montessori Family (3)

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.

Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods? - The Montessori Family (4)

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.

(Video) THE SENSITIVE PERIODS | Montessori parenting#6 | Montessori at home |

Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods? - The Montessori Family (5)

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.

Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods? - The Montessori Family (6)

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.

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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!

(Video) 07 Sensitive Period for Movement

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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.

Join my newsletter and receive your FREE Sensitive period quick guide with activity ideas.

(Video) MONTESSORI AT HOME: 5 Ways to Support the Sensitive Period for Order

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Montessori theory: What are the sensitive periods? - The Montessori Family? ›

Maria Montessori, there are six sensitive periods: order, language, walking, the social aspects of life, small objects, and learning through the senses. Each of these periods takes place during the early childhood years, typically during the first six years of life.

What are the sensitive periods in Montessori? ›

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.

What are the sensitive periods in Montessori from 3 to 6? ›

3 to 6 year-olds are exquisitely sensitive to order in their environment and often cry out in frustration if things are not the way they are “supposed to be.” Children desire to keep order, especially if we demonstrate a simple pattern of using materials and putting them away when we are finished.

Why are sensitive periods important Montessori? ›

Through her years of study and observation, Maria Montessori discovered what she called “sensitive periods.” Sensitive periods are developmental windows of opportunity during which the child can learn specific concepts more easily and naturally than at any other time in their lives.

What is a sensitive period quizlet? ›

Define a sensitive period. A sensitive period is a period of time during development when an individual is more responsive('sensitive') to certain types of experiences or learning.

What are the 4 sensitive periods? ›

Dr. Montessori identified four main Sensitive Periods: Order, Spoken Language, Movement and Sensorial Activity. These are universal. All children have the same Sensitive Periods all over the world at approximately the same time in life for the same developmental purpose.

What is an example of sensitive time period? ›

The relative vulnerability of the developing fetus to teratogens during the first trimester is an example of a sensitive period (Spreen, Risser, & Edgell, 1995).

What are the three periods in Montessori? ›

What is the Three-Period Lesson? At its most basic, the three-period lesson is simply a lesson in 3 parts. The lesson is designed to move the learner from an introductory level of understanding to mastery of any one concept or object. The three-period lesson includes: Introduction, Association/Recognition, and Recall.

How a child experiences the sensitive period? ›

Sensitive periods are periods of psychological development in the child. This period is a time of limited duration. During the sensitive periods, the child has very powerful capacities. The child is able to do great things and make very important acquisitions, like language and movement.

What are the stages of a three period lesson in Montessori? ›

A trademark of Montessori education is the three-period lesson. It is a method all Montessori primary teachers use to introduce new vocabulary and concepts to a child that involves three key steps: naming, recognition, and recall (more on this below).

What is the explanation of sensitive periods? ›

Knudsen (2004) has defined sensitive periods as “when the effects of experience are particularly strong on a limited period in development (p 1412).” In contrast, he defined critical periods as when particular experiences are “vital for normal development and lead to permanent alteration” in neural circuitry (p.

What are sensitive periods behavior? ›

When the effect of experience on the brain is particularly strong during a limited period in development, this period is referred to as a sensitive period. Such periods allow experience to instruct neural circuits to process or represent information in a way that is adaptive for the individual.

Why is this sensitive period so important? ›

Sensitive periods are optimal times in development when certain areas of the brain are most ready to benefit from experience. The brain's plasticity is high during sensitive periods, meaning the brain has a strong ability to adapt to and learn from experiences.

What are the 6 sensitive periods? ›

Maria Montessori, there are six sensitive periods: order, language, walking, the social aspects of life, small objects, and learning through the senses. Each of these periods takes place during the early childhood years, typically during the first six years of life.

What are the 11 sensitive periods? ›

We refer to these as the Montessori sensitive periods.

She later narrowed these skill-sets into 11 different categories, know as the sensitive periods. The 11 Montessori sensitive periods are: movement, language, order, small objects, sensations, emotional control, music, math, writing, reading and toilet learning.

What is the first sensitive period? ›

The first sensitive period category is language which occurs between birth to six years of age. During this period of development, a child pays attention to vocal sounds and is often more attracted to human speech than other sounds. The child begins to mimic sounds and form words.

What are examples of critical and sensitive periods of child development? ›

Summary and Conclusions

Examples of putative critical/sensitive periods in biobehavioral development include the establishment of social and food preferences (imprinting), shaping the structure and function of sensory systems, and possibly in the area of language and language acquisition.

What is the most important period of life Montessori? ›

Montessori wrote, "The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man's intelligence itself, his greatest implement is being formed.

What is the period lesson in Montessori? ›

In Montessori, a teacher uses the Three Period Lesson to introduce a concept or vocabulary and demonstrate the purpose of a material. These lessons allow for a slower, easier absorption process and allows for isolated concepts and reinforcement of each step or component of a lesson as necessary.

What is the first period in Montessori? ›

First period

In this period the concept is introduced, for instance, a color or an animal in a language activity, or perhaps size and volume for a math lesson. In this initial stage of a 3-period lesson in Montessori, teachers will often use nomenclature cards which are also known as 3-part cards.

What is sensitivity period in child development? ›

The sensitive period of development is the overlapping periods of child development in which children are sensitive to specific stimuli or interactions and is a critical period in child development. The sensitive period occurs between birth and six years of age.

What are the sensitive periods for sensorial? ›

The sensitive period for sensory perception occurs from birth to around age 4.5. Young children are absorbing sensorial impressions around them and refining their five senses (taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight).

What are the three period lessons in Montessori? ›

In Montessori, a teacher uses the Three Period Lesson to introduce a concept or vocabulary and demonstrate the purpose of a material. These lessons allow for a slower, easier absorption process and allows for isolated concepts and reinforcement of each step or component of a lesson as necessary.


1. Guide to Discover the Child's Sensitive Periods
(Master The Montessori Life)
2. Montessori Toddler: Sensitive Periods
(The Discovery School of Jacksonville)
3. 3 things you must know about Montessori Sensitive Periods
(Master The Montessori Life)
(Sheryl Ann Kabigting)
5. The Montessori Classroom: Sensitive Periods of Learning
(Alasha Alqudwah)
6. 09 The Sensitive Period for Language
(Educational Video Publishing)
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