by Bilal Ojjeh, April 2019
THE CHILD'S MIND - SENSITIVE PERIODS
There is a big difference between animal and human babies. Human babies do not have language and motor skills programmed into them, unlike other mammals who are able to walk shortly
after birth. They have no predetermined instinct to survive on their own and are totally dependent on their parents for food, warmth, movement, communication, etc. The human child
must, literally, learn everything.
“The child is not born with a little knowledge, a little memory, a little will power, which have only to grow as time goes on. […] we are not dealing with something that develops, but with a
fact of formation; something nonexistent has to be produced, starting from nothing. The wonderful step taken by the baby is to pass from nothing to something.” Maria
Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
This is why the first few years in a person's life is the most important in her life. In her development of the 4 planes of
development, Maria Montessori identified the first period as the most important, the period with an Absorbant Mind, with massive learning and loads of neuronal brain connections.
One of the key insights that Montessori has shed on the development of the child is that he had an incredibly powerful brain with an internal pattern of development that would allow him to
learn and self-develop. The child does not have an 'empty head' in need for an adult to pour knowledge into it. Instead, he is totally capable to learn on his own and he does so
in a spectacularly fast way, much more superior to the speed with which adults learn.
So the child will learn in any case. The question therefore is what he will learn and this is where the Montessori education comes into play as it capitalises on the child's natural
development to help him grow and learn the most.
“Before three, the functions are being created; after three, they develop.”
Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Montessori called the first three years as the spiritual embryo where the child unconsciously acquires knowledge through interacting with his environment. Then, the next three years
(between 3 and 6) are ones with rapid sense-making where the Absorbant Mind develops, with its ability to absorb everything. The impressions and interactions the child gains from
his environment “does not merely enter his mind, they form it." The conscious slowly takes over establishing memory, the power to understand, and the ability to reason.
We call this process the absorbent mind, because the child essentially absorbs information about his or her environment unconsciously
from birth to three and between three to six the child makes sense and gives meaning to their learning while continuing to acquire more.
Montessori identified the Sensitive Periods during which a child has the ability to acquire knowledge and learn, without any effort. Every sensitive period is an opportunity in a
lifetime. If the child is exposed to the 'topic', he would learn naturally, seamlessly and without any effort. If not exposed, he can still learn it later, except that this time,
he needs to put the effort to learn it.
Six Sensitive Periods:
The child is strongly sensitive to the external order in order to understand his environment and make sense of it. The child classifies, gives a function, a destination and a location to
each thing and to each person, in time and space.
An orderly environment helps the child build his thinking and understanding of the world. The external order is needed to bring internal order (sense of security) and it helps him to set
his benchmarks, to orient himself.
(I recall how often my son played with his toy cars and spent hours putting them in the right order, again and again)
This spacial movement is key to the child's brain development. He is naturally pushed to the movement. His motor sensitivity will guide him to develop the use of his hands (fine
motor skills) and to acquire the vertical station (gross motor skills). For instance, moving beads from one jar to another helps further down to help the children hold the pen and
write (psychomotor integration).
This particular period in the child allows him to naturally assimilate all languages commonly spoken in his environment. The child spontaneously assimilates the logical construction
of language and the minute details of inflections.
I was impressed when a Greek 3 year old came to our bilingual school not speaking a word of English or French and yet she was able to start singing in English after three
During this period, the child learns his relationship with others. Initially concerned only for himself, he grows to include others as well. This is where he develops empathy,
compassion and emotional intelligence and that the Montessori education encourages through grace and courtesy.
All senses are there at birth but they are developed during early
childhood. The child is sensitive to any sensory element, because it is through the senses that he apprehends his environment up to 6 years. The more we nourish this sensitive
period of our child, the more we help him to know his environment, to have a palette of rich and fine shades, to be in consciousness. When working with a child, we can help them
distinguish the extremes and then develop the nuances in between.
Focus on small things, especially during the period between 18-24 months.