Montessori for Infants and Toddlers (0-3 years old) – Sensitive Periods

Maria Montessori identified the primary sensitive periods for the birth to three-year-olds to be movement, language, orientation to the environment and order.
Fitting geometric shapes into the correct shaped holesDevelopment of Movement

  • Movement and physical development have specific sensitive periods.
  • Birth to age four is the crucial time.
  • Movement starts early in the womb, beginning in the seventh week, peaking at fifteen to seventeen weeks when the neurological wiring is being developed.

After birth it takes up to two years for the neurons in the cerebellum, which control movement, to fully mature.

  • A child simply cannot sit, crawl, stand or walk until the cerebellum reaches a certain critical mass of development.
  • The development of coordination and locomotion is far more standardized and controlled by primary brain development than the highly individualized uses of the hand.
  • The hand can develop more varied activities, and this development takes place under the direction of the conscious will.

Movement and tummy time
For the young child, maximum time on the floor on the tummy is one of the best gifts a loving adult can give. Glenn Doman, from the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, researched childcare practices around the world and discovered an amazing correlation. The more babies were held and carried, the lower the IQ. The more babies were given time on their tummies to explore their environment, the higher the IQ.

Why time on the tummy is so important

To function properly, the brain’s two hemispheres need to be well connected.

  • Cross-pattern movement, as in creeping and crawling, effectively helps the hemispheres form these crucial connections.
  • Every time the child moves an arm or leg, a signal goes to the motor cortex of the brain. The more such signals are sent to the brain, the stronger the connections and the more fluid the movement.
  • A safe, comfortable and attractive environment with objects that stimulate interest will enhance development.
  • General rule of thumb: the more free movement a baby has on his tummy, the greater the brain development.

Movement and Montessori
Dr. Maria Montessori developed an entire method of education for infants and toddlers as well as older children, based on movement. In her observations of children, she saw that they were always moving, always exploring with hands, mouth, eyes and ears. Her conclusion was that movement is the law of the child’s being and the way to his brain is through his hands.
In Montessori classrooms and homes established on the principles of learning through movement, children can learn to coordinate movement, develop clear sensory impressions, read, write and do math operations through simple hands-on activities.
Movement and the law of maximum effort
By age two-and-one-half, children demonstrate what Maria Montessori calls the “law of  maximum effort,” which means they can easily and joyfully take long walks. It is a great time for walks to explore the environment.
During this time, children develop the ability to walk and carry things at the same time. They display a need to flex the muscles of their new development.


One little two-year-old discovered that he could lift a gallon of bottled water. He rejoiced in carrying it to and fro and if anyone wanted to assist him he would shout, “Mine!” It was not the water that was his, it was the self-mastery that he was guarding.

In the next period of life, from three to six, children will pass through a more extended period of coordination of movement and its application to deliberate tasks. They will learn to skip, hop, pour their own juice, button their own buttons and learn many things to become more independent and participate more fully in daily living and playing.
What a day!
A series of vital sensitive periods occur for the acquisition of oral language and, specifically, the ability to reproduce the sounds of language.

  • Neurological wiring for the recognition and production of speech sounds is established in the first year.
  • Your child learns to reproduce the sounds of his mother tongue.
  • If your child hears several languages, he will retain the ability to hear and formulate the speech sounds of each of those languages.
  • Once neurological wiring is complete, the more words the child hears, especially in the 2nd year, the more words he will know and the more easily he will learn more words.
  • Exposing your baby to lots of oral language is one of the best investments you can make in his future development.

Babies, toddlers and order
Babies and toddlers are very sensitive to order. Keep a rhythm to your day. This does not mean you have to operate on a strict schedule, but keep daily activities such as lunch, nap, dinner, bath, story and bedtime in the same basic order.
During these early years children depend on external order to assist them in developing mental order. It is not the best time to move or rearrange your house. If you do, be aware your child may need a little extra comforting to get familiar with new surroundings.
Emotional development
Joys of communicationThese early years are also the time for intense bonding with parents and close caregivers. Babies learn the give and take of human relationships in the first months of cooing back and forth with mom and dad. Researchers have determined that babies actually initiate much of the communication between parent and child.
Your responsiveness to your child’s attempts to communicate builds his self-confidence that he is worthy of care, his exploration is worthy of respect and that his ideas are worthy of being listened to. It also helps the child build and express complex ideas — in other words, to think.
There is also a sensitive period for developing self-control which occurs in the first year of life. Every time caregivers pick up a crying baby and pat her and help her calm down, they assist the development of the neural network for self-control.
Babies who are left to cry for long periods of time often develop into individuals with little or no self-control. Authors Robin Karr-Morse and Sharon Wiley explore neglect and abuse of young children as the root cause of violence in their book Ghosts from the Nursery (1997.)
Sensitive period for math concepts
While the importance of the early years for movement and language is widely known, a more surprising sensitivity is for math.
Numbers can be part of your child's environmentThe brain has a sensitive period from birth to four years for setting patterns that will

  • assist in lifelong mathematical ability.
  • Toddlers exposed to simple math concepts do better in math later in school.
  • Mathematics is like a language. The more children are exposed to it in natural living situations, the more they become adept in thinking mathematically.

The infant and toddler years are exciting times for children, alive with many vital sensitive periods. When we understand the compelling needs at each stage of development, we are better able to provide the external environment and materials they need to carry out their development.
The sensitive periods first observed by Maria Montessori in the early years of the last century are being verified in this new century by scientists. Sensitive periods demonstrate neurological growth and represent a timetable of stages of human development. When we provide external activities that correspond to the internal development of sensitive periods, we see happy children who are developing their maximum potential.
Learn more about the Sensitive Periods
Recommended reading:
Nurturing Your Baby’s Soul, by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, with Dr. Joye Bennett and Nancy Hearn
Understanding the Human Being, by Silvana Q. Montanaro, M.D.
Maria Montessori Her Life and Work , by E.M. Standing
The Secret of Childhood by Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori