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Learning and Brain Development-Sensitive Periods

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It is essential to introduce an academically rich environment for young children in order to support children’s sensitive periods of learning. Montessori observed children experiencing sensitive periods in order, language development and movement (walking). Thus, as a result of her observations she created her academically rich curriculum to support their natural tendency to learn.

The innate ability of a child from 0-3 to acquire the language of his/her home is an example of the receptive sensitive period of language.  This sensitive period of language is expressive and observed by others when the child begins to speak.

“These explosive happenings and eruptions in his powers of expression continue in the child well after the age of two.  There is the use of sentence simple and complex, the use of verbs in their tenses and moods, including the subjunctive.  Co-ordinate and subordinate clauses appear in the same unexpected way.  So become established the mental structures and the language mechanisms of expression. This is a treasure prepared in the unconscious which is then handed over to consciousness, and the child, in full possession of his new power, talks and talks without cessation” (The Absorbent Mind, p.103-104).

Later in the child’s development the sensitive period of language acquisition moves from learning the language of their home to more advanced language skills of reading and writing.  Dr. Maria Montessori realized through extensive observation of children that there are periods when the child becomes repetitive in action and seems to be mastering a certain skill.  These sensitive periods are phases where the child will be very absorbed in his/her activity to the exclusion of others, Dr. Maria Montessori referred to them as “creative sensitivities.” During the second sensitive period of language acquisition the child will be very interested in letter recognition and writing.

During a sensitive period, caregivers need to support their child by providing the proper environment. As brain studies have shown, if times of growth are not supported they can be lost and brain connections may not be made.  Some of the major sensitive periods are order and language.  These sensitive periods are recognizable as the child becomes very concentrated on certain tasks.  For instance, a child between the ages of 1-3 will become very interested in ordering things in his/her environment and may become upset if this order is disrupted.

The Montessori environment provides the freedom for the child to be able to satisfy sensitive periods of learning. The child who loves math can focus on math activities and the child who loves writing stories can focus on that area.  Children receive lessons and work with activities from all of the Montessori curriculum areas but may choose to focus on a specific area of interest such as Mathematics for a certain period of time.  Today, companies are beginning to recognize the benefits of employees who have graduated from Montessori schools as being creative and innovative thinkers.
Globe and Mail article

“A child learns to adjust himself and make acquisitions in his sensitive periods. These are like a beam of lights interiorly or a battery that furnishes energy. It is this sensibility which enables a child to come into contact with the external world in a particularly intense manner. At such a time everything is easy; all is life and enthusiasm. Every effort marks an increase in power. Only when the goal has been obtained does fatigue and the weight of indifference come on “(Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, p.40).