Montessori for Ages 3-6 – Sensitive Periods

Three- to six-year-olds are marvelous little people! They are curious and studious, loving and oftentimes quite independent. Meeting their needs requires a rich environment where they can feel safe and loved as well as challenged to explore their world.
Surprising ability to concentrate

Children of this age have a surprising ability to concentrate. Maria Montessori observed a little girl of four, much like this little girl, doing the cylinder blocks, this most interesting activity of taking the ten cylinders out, mixing them up and replacing them in the appropriate holes. Montessori watched in awe as the child repeated the entire operation forty-two times! Even when the rest of the class began to sing and to march around the classroom, the child remained fully engrossed in her work.

What is happening in this picture?

Cylinder blocksWhat is so fascinating in this seemingly simple exercise that the child repeated it over and over again?
What is so powerfully compelling?

  1. This child is concentrating.
  2. She is using her pincer grip to hold the knobs.
  3. She is coordinating and controlling her movement.
  4. She is determining relative size using eye-hand coordination.
  5. She is ordering the cylinders from large to small, from left to right.
  6. The cylinders are solid wood, allowing her to feel the weight differences corresponding to size.
  7. The material answers her need for order
  8. It allows for self-correction. If she places an inset in the wrong whole, no teacher has to tell her – she can see it with her own eyes and will experiment until she solves the dilemma.
  9. This material is an external activity that corresponds to all of these internal developmental needs.
  10. The opportunity to meet all of these needs is calming and satisfying.
  11. Not every age child finds the cylinder block so especially attractive, but all young children, during sensitive periods for self-mastery in particular areas of development, seek out actions and activities that correspond with their development. That is the secret of why Montessori schools have been successful for nearly one hundred years and are still gaining adherents and credibility throughout the world.

Working to fulfill inner development
Maria Montessori was trained as a scientist. She observed children with an open mind, unprejudiced by educational dogmas of the day. When she saw instances of profound concentration and seemingly endless repetition, she began to realize that children were working to enhance their own development, not only to accomplish the outer goal of getting the cylinders in the correct hole or the blocks forming the right pattern.
When she saw the same materials attracting children of the same age on several continents, she realized that there were universal laws of development that drove the children. There were periods of special sensibility to areas of the environment that came and went with varying duration. She termed these sensibilities “sensitive periods.”
Maria Montessori on the Sensitive Periods
“A child learns to adjust himself and make acquisitions in his sensitive periods.” Here are two specific things occurring:

  • First, the child is making adjustments to living here, in a physical body, on earth.
  • Second the child is acquiring new skills. These acquisitions are actually neurological developments.

Montessori goes on: “These [sensitive periods] are like a beam that lights interiorly or a battery that furnishes energy.” The sensitive periods furnish energy to explore specific areas of the environment and to master certain skills. Montessori explains: “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.” It is very exciting to realize the ease with which the child can learn during one of these sensitive periods.
To learn more about the sensitive periods, go to Sensitive Periods for a general introduction.
Five year old building and writing wordsIn homes and schools throughout the world following Montessori principles, children at four and five learn to read and write with relative ease. Because there is a sensitive period at this time for these skills, and because Montessori provides appropriate materials for little hands, it is joyful and easy. They learn to count and work in the four operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
It is important to understand that in a well-run Montessori home or school classroom, these materials are demonstrated to children who are ready to receive them, and they choose to do them. A dynamic love of learning develops when children find materials in the environment that correspond with their sensitive periods for learning.
The drama of the sensitive periods
Maria Montessori called every sensitive period a drama: The essence of a sensitive period in human development is a drama of love between the child and its environment. The child experiences attraction to the environment for this to function properly. The sensitive periods function automatically under favorable conditions, but can be thwarted by lack of love or lack of appropriate experience in the environment.
Five year old doing the addition strip boardMontessori goes on to talk about the rhythm of the sensitive periods in her poetic way. “When one of these psychic passions is exhausted, another is enkindled. Childhood thus passes from conquest to conquest in a constant rhythm that constitutes its joy and happiness.” Like waves in the ocean, one sensitive period follows another.
The word passion reminds us of the strength of these sensitive periods, as see in the wave. Children feel intense frustration when there is nothing in the environment upon which to work and exercise the sensitive periods. Young children need concrete materials to fully develop mastery during these periods.
Sample sensitive periods for 3 to 6 year-olds
Language development

  • In the first year a perceptual map of spoken sounds is established in the brain.
  • Children speak in complete sentences by three and vocabulary expands to the degree that children hear words spoken in the environment.
  • Children perfect proper word order (syntax) and use of tenses just by hearing the language spoken around them and to them.
  • Children are interested in learning to write at about age four.
  • Most children spontaneously show an interest in learning to read around age four or five.
  • A deep interest in grammar and word origins begins at age six or seven.
  • Children can learn perfect pronunciation of foreign languages when early exposure takes place.

Sense of order – from eighteen months to four years

  • 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.

Coordination of movement

  • Once basic movements are established, 3-6 six-year-olds love activity such as the balance beam, carrying objects and movement games that challenge them to further coordinate their movement.
  • There is a powerful impetus for fine motor skills such as holding a pencil.

Sensory development

  • Children learn best when they use their hands.
  • The hands function as a powerful pathway to the brain.
  • Montessori recommends that we “never give more to the eye and the ear than we give to the hand.”

Interest in small objects

  • Children like to handle small objects. When past the stage of putting everything in their mouths and it becomes safe, small objects are useful for strengthening eye-hand coordination.

Basic concepts in mathematics and music

  • The latest scientific research indicates that the period from birth to four is most important for developing foundational concepts of number and pattern.
  • Children who are exposed to as little of one year of concrete math materials in preschool are found to be ahead of their peers all the way through high school.
  • Music uses nearly the same neural structure as mathematics and has sensitive periods for development of basic music from three to ten.
  • Children exposed to music before age seven are virtually the only individuals, (including career musicians) who develop perfect pitch.
  • Early keyboard and singing experience dramatically increases a child’s spatial intelligence.

The Right tools at the right time
During sensitive periods opportunity exists for optimal development, when it is easy to learn. Learning during the sensitive period is as thorough and complete as it ever can be. Without the right stimulation at the right time, the child’s development suffers what Maria Montessori called a dropped stitch. The garment of the child’s development is not quite as strong and well-developed as it might have been.
But for some sensitive periods, it is far more urgent that stimulus is present – it is virtually a case of ” use it or lose it .” (See Parents’ Place , What You Need to Know about Your Child’s Brain for details.)
Educational significance of sensitive periods
One of Montessori’s most valuable contributions is her understanding of the educational value of the sensitive periods. When the education of children is based on and organized around the sensitive periods, children work with an enthusiasm and sustained interest that is truly amazing. Their development is strong and steady.
Maria Montessori proposes that we prepare an environment where the child educates himself through materials that correspond to his sensitive periods.
This can be as simple as having puzzles and bead stringing when your child begins to want to handle small objects.
It can mean offering a small broom and dust cloth for your child to accompany you when you clean.
It can mean you provide movable letters for which you teach the sounds, so the child can begin to build words.
Your child’s internal fires of development literally use an external activity to promote and facilitate its development and expansion.
Learning that takes place during the sensitive periods is powerful and long lasting. It is powerful because it is inwardly driven rather than outwardly imposed. It is long-lasting because in their early years children are forming themselves out of the raw material of their experiences. When they form themselves and build their brain with ample connections from enriched experiences, they have the apparatus they need for a productive future.
Suggestions for further reading:
Maria Montessori Her Life and Work by E.M. Standing
Montessori: The Science behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard
Montessori Today by Paula Polk Lillard
The Secret of Childhood by Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori
The Child in the Family by Maria Montessori
(out of print, but a jewel if you can find it.)
The Formation of Man by Maria Montessori
Any other books by Maria Montessori