Dr. Maria Montessori identified “sensitive periods” in a child's life while in the “absorbent mind” stage. These occur between birth to age 6 and knowing about these montessori sensitive periods can make parenting babies and toddlers easier!
Over the last 100 years, this period has only been further refined and supported by neuroscience. Montessori sensitive periods can be defined as stages of development where a child has an innate interest towards gaining knowledge or a particular skill in a specific area.
- WATCH: What Are Montessori Sensitive Periods?
- What is the absorbent mind?
- What is a montessori sensitive period?
- What are the sensitive periods of development?
- How to recognize a sensitive period in your child:
- How to handle sensitive periods:
- Montessori Sensitive Periods PDF Chart
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Movement ~0 to 6 years old
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Language ~0 to 6 years old
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Order ~ 6 months to 4 years old
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Small Objects ~ 1 to 4 years old
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Refinement Of The Senses ~ 2 to 6 years old
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Social Behavior ~ 2 to 6 years old
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Toileting (~18 months to 3 years old)
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Music (~2 to 6 years old)
- Montessori Sensitive Period For Mathematics (~4 to 6 years old)
- What are the benefits of knowing about the Montessori Method Sensitive Periods?
There are 13 sensitive periods of development noted in Montessori we'll cover today, plus a helpful sensitive periods montessori chart for your to print out and keep in mind as your child grows.
What is the absorbent mind?
Dr. Montessori identified the absorbent mind as the period from birth to age 6, where a child literally absorbs everything in the environment without any conscious effort. She noted the absorbent mind can be divided into two stages: the unconscious stage (~ birth to 3 years old) and the conscious stage (~3-6 years old).
Today, Montessori's theory of the absorbent mind is supported by neuroscience which identifies humans primarily spending time in their delta brain waves (the unconscious) during the first two to three years of life and then move to primarily our theta brain waves from 3 to 6 years old (conscious stage as Dr. Montessori referred to it; though we know this is the “subconscious” mind today).
It's hard to say what came first:
Dr. Montessori's theories or the neuroscience as the timing overlaps quite a bit. Some reports suggest that Hans Berger first discovered brain waves in humans in 1925, but didn't publish his work until 1929, and it wasn't widely recognized until 1950. Some note that W. Grey Walter discovered the “delta waves” in the 1930s. Dr. Montessori reportedly began developing her theory while in India between 1939-1945 and published her book The Absorbent Mind in 1949.
What is a montessori sensitive period?
Dr. Maria Montessori observed that children go through periods from birth through age si, where they become completely engrossed in a particular part of their environment. Each of these sensitive periods presents us with a unique opportunity to greatly influence our child's development. Sensitive periods can be thought of like a compulsion, where a child become obsessed with acquiring a specific skill or knowledge.
For instance, when your child is trying to pull themselves upright, and attempts to day after day, without ever tiring or becoming bored. Parents even notice their children tend to skip naps in lieu of practicing this skill.
“Scientists have shown that experiences during sensitive periods of development change the circuitry of the brain. Patterns of connections are made that become part of the brain's “stable landscape” – which is the foundation for future learning and behavior” – How To Raise An Amazing Child The Montessori Way
What are the sensitive periods of development?
Dr. Montessori identified six sensitive periods in a child's life including: language, order, movement, refinement of senses, small objects, and social behaviors.
Though, there is some debate as to how many sensitive periods of development there are. Other's note up to six additional montessori sensitive periods including: toilet learning, music, mathematics, spatial relationships (sub category of mathematics), and reading and writing (subcategories of language). We'll look at all of them below.
How to recognize a sensitive period in your child:
- Intense interest in something (staring, engaging, etc.)
- Child repeatedly engages in the task or behavior over and over and over again; one track focused attention
- Child seems to find joy/peace in what they are doing, never tiring
How to handle sensitive periods:
Sensitive periods happen naturally in a child's development. You don't necessarily need to “do” anything. Remember, not interrupting the child is a key principle of Montessori's findings. So if you observe your child doing any of the above, let them be. Don't interrupt. You can be nearby for assistance, but try to give them the same space you'd like when mastering a new skill.
With that said, a prepared environment is also a key finding of Dr. Montessori. As your child approaches these sensitive periods, you can prepare the environment so materials are available to them when they are ready. There is NO NEED to rush forward. It's not like your child turns 2 and a half and all of the sudden ready to learn the shapes of letters like clock work! Remember, Montessori is a child led approach and these sensitive periods are just a general idea of when you'll start to see a child take an interest.
Montessori Sensitive Periods PDF Chart
Montessori Sensitive Period For Movement ~0 to 6 years old
Gross & Fine Motor Development ~ Birth – 2.5 years
From birth your child will begin to develop fine and gross motor skills. Give them as much freedom to move around as you can.
This means placing them on the floor instead of a baby swing. Skipping the swaddle altogether or unswaddling around 4 months.
Encourage rolling over and crawling by placing items of interest just outside their reach. It's helpful to have low, sturdy furniture around for them to practice pulling themselves up on too.
As our daughter learned to walk, one thing we always did is let her hold our hand for stability versus us holding her. This way she innately controlled the pressure, balance, and support she needed, versus us enforcing it and messing up her internal equilibrium.
It's helpful to have puzzles or serve foods (peas or small bites of whatever) that encourage the pincer grasp. And set up activities that encourage gross motor skills like hopping/jumping games, balancing beams, running, etc.
Coordination by means of experience ~ 2.5 to 4.5 years old
This is the second phase of the movement sensitive period. During this stage your child will begin to coordinate and refine their gross and fine motor skills.
This is where practical life skill activities THRIVE. Invite your child to everyday household chores you're doing like sweeping, dusting, cleaning the windows or walking to a room while holding a glass with both hands becomes prevalent. You'll also likely notice your child begins to run and jump, takes an interest in gymnastics, or learning to kick a ball during this stage.
During this stage, Montessori observed what she called “maximum effort” where kids really like to push their limits and carry heavy objects while building/learning their strength. Try not to intervene or baby them but instead observe your child (they know their limits better than you!), provide safety within limits when appropriate, and help them help themselves.
Montessori Sensitive Period For Language ~0 to 6 years old
Your child is constantly developing language from birth to 6 years old. Some believe it even begins in utero as baby can hear!
The below sensitive period for language chart is a breakdown from Dr. Montessori's “The Absorbent Mind.”
Spoken Language ~ 7 months – 3 years
The spoken language sub-sensitive period occurs between ~ 7 months to 3 years of age; though many believe it starts in utero as baby hears mom's voice!
During this stage, you may notice your child beginning to mimic mouth movements, then begin to form words, and eventually speak in simple sentences.
As a parent, it's helpful to speak directly to your child. Meaning in their line of sight (but no need to force it), so they can watch your lips and tongue move. Read to them often and speak to them throughout the day. This could look like narrating the day, using simple 1-3 word sentences to communicate basic needs like “help me” or “down please.” Remember to keep things short, succinct, and as clear as possible. Repetition is also your friend.
Letter Shapes & Sounds ~ 2.5 years – 5 years
Around 2.5 years old your child will likely begin to take an interest in letter shapes and sounds. This is why Montessori teaches the phonics (sounds) of letters before the names of letters.
Activities you can do at this stage include tracing letter shapes using Montessori sandpaper letters with their middle and index fingers while making the sound of the shape they are tracing. As they're ready, you can begin having them trace letters in fine sand next. Once your child can recognize letters and their sounds, and you introduce the moveable alphabet and sound trays.
For instance, take a sandpaper letter and then do a scavenger hunt around the house where you collect items that start with that sound. Eventually you could take a small figurine of a cat and the moveable alphabet and ask them to pick out the sounds they hear in the word cat.
You can play games with sound baskets where you have a cat and a ball and the letter C and ask them which item doesn't belong. As they master this, you can add more items. You can also have them sort items by sound.
If you do choose to send your child to a Montessori preschool:
I'd talk with them before doing anything else in this sensitive period. Many montessori schools teach the alphabet in phonetic chunks (so the the sounds of the letters c, m, a, and t first and then, the letters s, r, i, and p next, and so on) during this sensitive period rather than teaching the names of the letters alphabetically.
It's more helpful to stay consistent/in alignment with what they are doing at school than trying to do this at home. If you are homeschooling, then choose a phonetic alphabet system you'll follow and begin to introduce more activities around that as your child shows an interest.
Writing (~ 3 years – 4 years old)
Between 3.5 and 4.5 years old, your child will take an learning to write. This really begins once they've learned the alphabet and have some sight words under their belt. Once your child has those foundational skills they'll begin to show an interest in writing and reading.
Reading (~ 3.5 years – 5 years old)
The Montessori sensitive period for reading occurs once your child has learned to write, they'll become interested in reading. This builds off the writing skill as it involves visual tracking. It typically occurs between ~4.5 and 5.5 years old.
For further reading on the montessori approach on these sensitive periods, I suggest: Montessori Read & Write: A Parents' Guide to Literacy for Children by Lynne Lawrence
A NOTE ON LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT:
While I agree, technology is NOT a substitute for real interaction with your child; nor is technology in alignment with Montessori. Modern times call for modern solutions. We struggled with a “speech delay” despite doing ALL the things. So when we introduced screen time the things we found personally helpful were “Songs For Littles” and “Alphablocks” on Youtube. My daughter also enjoys the Homer app over ABC Mouse.
Montessori Sensitive Period For Order ~ 6 months to 4 years old
Somewhere around 6 months to a year old your child will enter the montessori sensitive period for order that will last until about 2.5 years old; and usually peaks around 18 months.
Under two years old, children are in the unconscious mind phase where they primarily operate in their Delta brain waves, just organizing and sorting all the information they are inputting. They have this innate need for order and predictability. Chaos or sudden changes can through them off internally as they are building this “sorting and operating” system in their mind.
This period is typically marked by tantrums and seemingly unexplained crying/fussy spells. While it may look like “my kid is crying for no reason” it's usually because something got disrupted in their sense of order and they are having a hard time processing it.
You can support your child during this stage by:
- Creating a flexible, predictable routine
- Talking to your child about what is coming next
- Put your child's toys away IN FRONT of them (not when they go down for a nap) and encourage them to help you (likely won't help consistently until ~2 years old though)
- Setting standards: everything has a place
- Staying calm and guiding them through a routine for finding misplaced things or creating flexibility (e.g. child wants the blue cup not the green cup and begins to cry, stay calm and observe “oh you want your blue cup today! We left that outside and it's dirty, so we can't drink from it right now. That happens sometimes. Let's use what we have and tomorrow the blue cup will be ready for us.”
- Activities that refine sense of order (e.g. cause and effect toys like an object permanence box, sorting activities, clean up time into a game, etc.)
Montessori Sensitive Period For Small Objects ~ 1 to 4 years old
Around 12 months your child will become fascinated by small objects. Don't be surprised if your child is more interested in the tiny pebbles, seashells, or ants going by rather the large ocean or tree you were originally pointing out to them. Remember to not interrupt them as they study these small things, this is where their concentration develops further and helps foster independence. During this stage, your child will likely notice the tiniest crumb or smallest detail on your shirt.
This sensitive period is sort of a culmination/integration of others. They are mastering fine motor movements with the pincer grasp when picking up these small objects. They are also diving deeper into their understanding of order and details.
Don't be surprised if your toddler starts putting these objects in their mouth either. It's their way of understanding the world. When setting up activities, it's wise to focus on transfer activities using edible items.
Try to keep child size tools around to support this stage. For instance, a small jar for collecting the treasures they find or child size cutlery. If your child has been using child size cutlery for a while, don't be surprised if they prefer a something similar but more challenging.
For example, my daughter in this sensitive period began to want an actual measuring teaspoon to eat her blueberries, versus her child size silver spoon. I think she enjoyed the fact that she could really only get 1-2 blueberries in the teaspoon which allows her to focus and study the small objects one at a time, versus her usual spoon which could fit 5-6.
Montessori Sensitive Period For Refinement Of The Senses ~ 2 to 6 years old
Between 2 years old and 6 years old, children are refining their five senses: taste, smell, sight, touch, and sound.
Providing them with sensorial experiences that engages these are key. This could look like:
- Smell: pausing to smell flowers, montessori smelling jar activities, noting how the ocean air smells different, etc.
- Sight: looking at art or books, working with colors, identifying visual differences
- Sound: listening to different music styles, playing with real music instruments, a second language
- Touch: any hands on activities are great here! You can also focus on differences between rough/smooth, heavy/light, etc.
- Taste: your child innately does this by mouthing objects from birth, but don't be surprised if there is a resurgence during this stage. This sense intertwines with the others though.
IMO the easiest/most important thing to do during this stage is provide various foods not from a bag/package. Kids tend to gravitate towards foods from a bag/package around that 18 month peak of the sensitive period for order because they are predictable.
A store bought cracker will always more or less look/feel/taste the same. Don't fall into a rut because “it was the only thing they'd eat at 18 months!” Recognize that “pickiness” had to do with a specific sensitive period (and do what you have to do to get through it!) then get back to introducing various foods that help them refine their senses as food touches on literally ALL the senses.
Montessori Sensitive Period For Social Behavior ~ 2 to 6 years old
Around 2 and a half years old, your toddler will enter the sensitive period for social behavior or “social skills” or “grace and courtesy” or “manners” as some call it.
During this stage, your child will move from independent play to wanting to build friendships and playing WITH others (not next to). It's important for them to spend time with kids around their age, but also seem positive social behaviors modeled at home. Saying please, thank you, and asking for help are all key.
Example: If there's a sharing dispute
the first step is to explain the situation in simple terms. “Oh you want the red truck, but so-and-so is playing with it right now.” Then demonstrate the right way to handle the situation. This could sound like, “Let's ask if we can use it when they're done. So-and so, is it okay if we use the red truck when you finish with it?” Or you could say, “Let's play with the blue truck while we patiently wait until they finish.”
Just keep it short, sweet, and simple. Most kids roll with this quite well if they don't feel embarrassed or belittled in the process.
Other activities to focus on during this time:
- Speaking in a kind tone: no whining or yelling
- Asking for a turn
- How to introduce yourself or greet others
- Opening and closing doors/drawers/cabinets
- How to handle coughing or sneezing
- Giving and receiving compliments
- Respecting personal space and moving around people (not grabbing, reaching over, cutting off, etc.)
- Waiting (including not interrupting while others are talking)
While it is important to model positive social behavior, it's also important to know WHY you're modeling it and critically think about if it's respecting the child/setting them up for success.
Montessori believed children are the key to world peace and I totally agree; yet we have a lot of unhealed and codependent adults walking around taking out their wounding on others.
I think our role as montessori parents is to make sure we are critically thinking about and through the social norms.
For example: it historically has been accepted to force a hug/kiss hello and goodbye in the grandparent/grandchild relationship, but is that something that's actually respecting our child?
In teaching body autonomy and teaching safe boundaries to prevent sexual abuse amongst children with adults and authority figures, it's not respecting the child or setting them up for success. While manners and learning social behaviors in a group are important, it's equally important they know they have a CHOICE when it comes to their body.
We can MODEL a greeting/goodbye that's a hug or kiss, but we can also INVITE them to choose how they do it. This could sound like: How would you like to say goodbye? Do you want to wave goodbye, blow kisses, or give a hug?
Here are the other montessori method sensitive periods that have been identified:
Montessori Sensitive Period For Toileting (~18 months to 3 years old)
There is some debate about this sensitive period discussed in Tim Seldin's book “How To Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way.” Some believe it's between 12-18 months old, other's believe it's birth to 3 years old.
Personally, I'd say that this sensitive period is from 1 to 3 years old, with a peak between 18 months to 28 months. During this sensitive period it's important to give your child exposure to toileting so it's never some “big thing” they have to go through down the road. Normalizing it; not forcing them into toilet learning. Remember, in montessori we follow the child.
Around a year, let them watch you in the bathroom if you haven't already. Explain what is coming out of you, the steps/sequence of events you're doing. Around 18 months, children's nervous systems are a little more developed and they can begin to notice the physical sensations to control their bladder or feel their sphincter muscles moving.
I'll dive deeper into this in the toilet learning series though.
Montessori Sensitive Period For Music (~2 to 6 years old)
Again, since this was not a sensitive period officially recognize by Dr. Montessori, the “beginning” is just an approximation.
Kids are naturally able to learn rhythm, melodies, and pitch. As a precursor to this sensitive period, it's helpful to read rhyming books (also for language/early literacy development). But during this period you may want to add a basket of music instruments like these to your montessori playroom at home.
Montessori Sensitive Period For Mathematics (~4 to 6 years old)
Again, there is some debate about this sensitive period discussed in In Tim Seldin's book “How To Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way.” Some believe it's between birth to 3.5 years old, others believe it's until 6 years old.
In my opinion, it's birth to six years old with many sub-sensitive periods with in that overlap with earlier mentioned periods.
Early Math Concepts ~birth to 3 years old
For instance, early mathematics concepts include sequences, order, and sorting. These would be things we really see before 2.5 years old. This could be things like using a shape sorter puzzle, stacking blocks or sorting them by colors. These are more abstract pathways that traditional math is built upon.
Some activities to begin with including just counting in your everyday life. When cooking together, count the spoonfuls of an ingredient you're adding to the bowl. Count the stairs outloud or steps you're taking. Count your fingers and toes.
Around 2 years old, we tend to see kids start to take an interest in number shapes – and this ties back into the language sensitive period.
During this period, they are understanding early mathematics concepts about quantity too. Toys or matching games that show one-to-one correspondence work great here, especially if there's a control for error.
Traditional Mathematics Concepts ~3-6 years old
Once your child has a basic grasp on the numbers, you can introduce counting baskets where they can take the number from 2D to 3D. So you could get 10 baskets, labeling each one with the number, and some felt balls. Have your child count the correct number of pieces that go in each basket. Or when you're in the kitchen, you can count the bananas and eventually build to subtracting and adding with them too.
Once children in a montessori school enter the 3-6 class, they typically begin to develop a more concrete relationship with the math we automatically think about as adults. For instance the golden beads show quantity, they begin to work with montessori materials on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Montessori Sensitive Period For Spatial relationships (~4 to 6 years old)
During this sensitive period, children develop a deeper understanding about relationships in the context of space/area. For instance, the child finding their way around a neighborhood or being able to handle more complex puzzles.
My daughter has been able to find her way around our neighborhood though since she was 2 years old.
Instead, I look at this more as an advanced math concept (geometry) that kids have been working on since likely 1 years old in these ways:
- Shape sorting puzzles
- Teaching children to understand above and under, teaches spatial relationships.
- Identifying shapes
- Tangram puzzles like this one around 2 years old
- Learning concepts like “volume” around 3 years old
- When your child starts to draw a picture that covers the entire page, rather than layering on top of the same spot
What are the benefits of knowing about the Montessori Method Sensitive Periods?
Dr. Maria Montessori once said, “the sensitive period: it comes for a moment but its benefits last for a lifetime.”
And boy was she right! For parents practicing montessori at home, understanding the sensitive period definitions can allow you to really set your child up for success AND make your life easier.
You'll notice that most of the montessori sensitive periods occur before the age of two during the absorbent mind period (birth to 6 years old). Meaning our babies and toddlers often do no express the skills to communicate their potential or innate interests at this time. By knowing about these sensitive periods you can begin to create a montessori at home environment that supports their innate interests. For instance, toileting can be a lot easier if you begin to introduce books and
By reading this post, and learning about your child's development as it relates to these sensitive periods, you can curate an environment that supports them and helps them go deeper into refining these skills and developing this knowledge.
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- Montessori Sensitive Periods
When are the sensitive periods?
- At Birth:
- Around 1 years old:
- Small objects
- Around age 2:
- Social Behaviors / Grace & Courtesy
- Refinement of Senses
- From 3 years old to 6 years old:
- Spatial relationships