When Maria Montessori discovered the secret of childhood more than 100 years ago, she revealed the child to the world as he had never been seen before. She showed us that from birth, the child is in the process of self-construction, and wrote in The Secret of Childhood,
“We can no longer remain blind to the psychic development of the child. We must assist him from his earliest moments. Such assistance will not consist in forming the child since this task belongs to nature herself, but in a delicate respect for the outward manifestations of this development and in providing those means necessary for his formation which he cannot obtain by his own efforts alone.” (p. 46)
This task of ‘forming the child’ involves several processes of nature, one of which she termed ‘sensitive periods’. Borrowing the term from Dutch biologist Hugo DeVries, she applied it to her investigation of the development of the child. Through his studies of the caterpillar stage of the Porthesia Butterfly’s life cycle, DeVries uncovered what he called “sensitive periods”. He noticed that when the caterpillars hatched they crawled up the tree toward the light, looking for new tender leaves, which is what they could digest. Later when they were larger and could eat the older thicker leaves, they lost the sensitivity to light.
The idea of the sensitive period for development of certain characteristics in nature was adopted by Dr. Montessori and applied by her to the development of the child. She considered the sensitive periods to be a characteristic of the absorbent mind and believed that they are universal to all children. Her scientific observations of children demonstrated that these Sensitive Periods act as inner guides in the child and they direct the absorbent mind in a specific sequence and manner of activities. She wrote,
A sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in a process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait or characteristic, has been acquired, the special sensitivity disappears. (p.38)
During this time, the child’s stimuli for development do not come from the external environment, but rather from within him. The Sensitive Periods give the child powerful capacities for the attainment of specific characteristics, like language, for instance. Once the characteristic has evolved, the corresponding sensitive period disappears. The child now moves on to exercising conscious control of the function if she so desires.
The child is attracted to certain aspects of his environment because of these sensitive periods, and because of this attraction—say the attraction to tiny things—his development can proceed according to natural timetables. These sensitive periods are extremely strong and he experiences an irresistible attraction. As a result of his interaction with the environment he gains a trait or characteristic that lays the foundation for future development. Montessori stated that he becomes passionately involved with this element of his being and wrote,
Growth is therefore not to be attributed to a vague inherited predetermination but to efforts that are carefully guided by periodic, or transient, instincts. These give direction by furnishing an impulse toward a determined kind of activity that can differ notably from that of the adult of the species. (p.38)
Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood. Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, NY 1966.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press, Oxford, England, 1988.
Rhonda Lucas-Sabater is an AMI trained Primary (3-6 years old) guide and currently works as a Primary guide. She is the mother of five Montessori children and the co-founder of a public charter Montessori school in Washington, DC. She is also AMI trained at the Assistants to Infancy (O-3) and Elementary (6-12) levels and is an AMI certified Adolescent guide.