The Windows Of Opportunity For Learning

The relationship between a child and learning has a very specific foundation and trigger: interest.  In helping guide a child to learning, Dr. Montessori found that if we capitalized on interest, we would know what the child is ready to learn and what their mind is driven towards.  She defined this drive, or almost compulsion, as a sensitive period.  By observing what sensitive period the child is in, we can gain insight into what they are ready to learn and what we should present.  It can also give insight into a child’s behaviors.  Sensitive periods, some short-lived and some lasting for a longer length of time, are windows of opportunity for learning.

Each Sensitive Period described below is described with an age range.  These are guidelines for when they might appear and disappear in a child.  A sensitive period may appear before or after the age range depending on the child; when a child reaches a sensitive period is not a sign of advancement or delay, it only signifies a child’s current learning interests.  The age that will indicate whether a child has entered a sensitive period, but certain behaviors we observe the child exhibiting, such as where his attention goes and what upsets him.

Order:  Appearing from age two to four.  This sensitive period has the purpose of helping children classify the world in order to understand it.  Children develop a fondness for routines, repetition, and consistency.  The often become disturbed by disorder or changes in the environment or the rules.  Children in this sensitive period have difficulty when variability as they are just developing to categorize the things they see in the world.  They need the environment and rules to be consistent while they develop these categories and file things accordingly.  For this reason, the primary Montessori classroom remains in perfect order and children always know where to find things.

Language:  Appearing from birth to age six.  Children are hardwired to absorb language.  From birth they listen to sounds and look at mouths to see how those sounds are made.  They begin to make sounds and repeat them, eventually forming them into words.  During this window of sensitivity, children are able to learn multiple languages as they have a special ability to hear and understand the sounds unique to a language.  At the age of six, this ability begins to drop off in many children as they brain begins to focus on only their primary language.  In the Montessori classroom, we support language by exposing children to vocabulary through song, storybooks, and conversation.

Small Objects:  Appearing from age one to four.  Children at this age are fixated on small objects and drawn to small details.  It is the brain’s way of understanding and observing the little things that make up the world; things that adults often overlook because their brains are focused on the big picture.  Children at this age need time and patience from adults to encourage them to explore these little things…and it’s a great way for adults to take time to remember to appreciate all those little things.  You will notice that many things in the Montessori classroom are comprised of small objects.  This is in order to captivate and draw in the child at this age.

Grace and Courtesy:  Appears from ages two to six.  Children at this age will imitate polite and considerate behavior.  This is the time to expose them to the polite nuances of social behavior.  What they absorb about social behavior rules during this period will become an inherent part of their personality.  In the Montessori classroom, we begin lessons of grace and courtesy about the rules of the classroom and social behavior from the first day of school.

Refinement of the Senses:  Appears from ages two to six.  Children during this period will be drawn to sensorial experiences of taste, smell, sound, sight, and weight/touch.  During this time, children learn to use their senses to understand differentiation in the world.  They learn to understand variation in size, shape, weight, taste, sound, etc.  Given exposure to activities that challenge their senses helps them learn to understand physical variation in the world.  When a child exhibits signs of interest in sensory exploration, a Montessori teacher will direct the child to activities in the Sensorial area of the classroom so he may focus the refinement of his senses.

Music:  Appears from birth.  Children are drawn to pitch, rhythm, and melody.  Exposure to music and rhythm is essential at all ages and help the brain process in ways that positively affect later academic learning.  In the Montessori classroom, we provide children with access to instruments, lessons about musicians and music, as well as songs sung in a group.

Reading:  Appears from ages three to six.  Children reaching this sensitive period become fascinated with letter shapes and formation of words.  They show interest in written words.  When a child exhibits sensitivity and interest in letters, in the classroom, we begin to help them make the phonetic letter-sound relationship through the Sandpaper Letters and begin his journey towards reading.

Writing Fascination:  Appears around ages three to four.  Children spontaneously attempt to recreate written letter symbols.  A child showing interest in making letter shapes in the classroom would be directed to handwriting activities, beginning with making the letter shapes in sand or on a chalkboard.

Spatial Relationships:  Appears from ages four to six.  Children begin to notice and make conclusions about relations in the space around them.  They may begin navigating their neighborhoods more adeptly, focusing on puzzles, or notice differences between sizes, shapes, and measurements.  A child showing interest in spatial relationships, in the classroom, would be directed towards Sensorial activities (particularly visual) in the classroom.

Mathematics Formation:  Appears from ages four to six.  Children become fascinated with quantity and numerical expressions.  Children showing interest in mathematics are first directed towards quantity activities and sandpaper numbers for numerical recognition.  Children at this age want to count everything!

These sensitive periods are only those found in the primary ages, there continue to be more sensitive periods as a child grows older.  These sensitive periods are the primary learning foundations.  A child’s brain begins with the foundation for later development by showing interest in the fundamentals of the world around him.

The most important aspect of sensitive periods is that they are heightened periods of learning.  If a child learns something while their brains are attuned, they learn it more efficiently, deeply, and easily.  On the other hand, if you try to teach a child something while their mind is not attuned (similarly to not being interested), the child is less likely to process the information as adeptly, if at all.  For this reason, in the learning and education process, it is important to observe what the child’s sensitive period is at the moment and focus learning on those aspects.  In Montessori, we consider a sensitive period a window of opportunity; a window that can close.  We want to focus our efforts on guiding those skills the child is trying to achieve while the window is open, i.e. what the child clearly show interest in.  Once it closes or shifts to another period, we lose our opportunity to help the child hone those skills.  By shifting with the child’s interests, we can make sure that we are harnessing the learning sensitivity of the child during the sensitive period.

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