Monday, June 16, 2014

Maria Montessori's Theory of Sensitive Periods

Porthesia Caterpillar, Wikipedia commons public domain

Dr. Maria Montessori described the child's process of self-construction as a self-regulated process following a predicable sequence of development. At birth, the child has the task of self-creation: intelligence, will, memory, and work of movement and language. It is through her own efforts that it comes into actualization. She creates herself as a member of the community and time that she is born into, in a behavior pattern in tune with the time and place of her birth. Through this process of creative constructive development, the child becomes an individual of his time and place. The time she has to do this is all accomplished in the first two years of life. At birth, the child is the spiritual embryo. To do all this work in a short span of time, the child has special powers to learn, the horme, which drives every child to work at her development. The living, conscious memory that stays with the child is called the mneme. But neither horme nor mneme explain how every child takes in the values and patterns of each society. The power that enables the children to incarnate the environment in totality in every society is the absorbent mind.

Before the differentiation of specialized cells, the cells of the blastocyst first multiply identically. It gathers raw materials before transforming into differentiated parts. Each cell has a sensitivity to certain environmental conditions that transform them into something else. And after birth, every element of the environment is taken into the infant as the raw materials which will become the psyche of the child. The absorbent mind's work is not enough for the construction of the human individual. It is important to build that foundation, to start with, but then comes the time to specialize. The work is done within sensitive periods, discussed within The Discovery of the Child, decades before neuroscience would identify sensitive periods.

Sensitive periods are temporary and therefore passing sensitivities. They come and go.

They are exclusive to particular aspects of the human environment. They focus the absorbent mind on particular aspects of the environment.

They are a time for irresistable developmental activity. 

They lead to the construction of specific aspects of the human individual. Through the guidance of the sensitive periods, the absorbent mind can focus on the work of each sensitive period.

The child has the work of bringing into being so many capacities of the human person. We discuss language and movement the most often, because these are the most visible capacities. We observe the child walking and speaking. Adults seldom connect the skill of holding up the head with walking, but the impelling force behind one skill is the previous skill. Montessori writes that the child has secrets about how they learn, and the child cannot show herself to us without the right environmental conditions.

She uses different words for the sensitive periods in her writing, such as periodic sensitivities and instincts, and hereditary urges (The Secret of Childhood). The notion came very early in her career, unlike the theory of The Absorbent Mind, which came after 1940. In the Casa in San Lorenzo, observing the extreme focus and repeated activity of the child, the children taught her that they needed this environment with choice, freedom of movement, and freedom to work with the materials as long as they needed. She observed children all over the world, over the next 13 years, that the children were attracted to the same materials and choice of activity at the same time, wherever the children were. They would work with it intensely and develop those innate capacities as an outcome of that work.

What explains this, that children gain a specific interest in a certain task and then lose that interest after a time? When Dr. Montessori did not find an explanation in the prevailing theories of the time, she theorized on her own as a natural scientist. She came across the work of a Dutch biologist, Hugo De Vries. He had made a study of a particular butterfly, the Porthesia butterfly. In studying them, Dr Vries discovered that these butterflies laid their eggs in the forks of the branches where they would be safe. He discovered that the caterpillars had an irresistible attraction to light, bringing them to the outermost branches where the most tender leaves were. With age, they lost the attraction to light, and they traveled in all parts of the tree eating any leaf. The transient sensitivity to light stimulated the drive to reach the food source. Once the need was fulfilled, the sensitivity disappeared. De Vries was the first to use the term "sensitive period".

If we are to offer education as an aid to life, we must understand the sensitive periods. The work is done in secret, and our adult remedial work is when the work does not happen at the proper conquest. We have to accept their innate timetable, and we assist by providing the environment that supports the activities of that need in a particular time, the development of the psychological organs. The child makes so many conquests while that these sensitive periods are running concurrently-- it is not that one sensitive period follows another.

The acknowledgement of the sensitive periods is the backbone of the Montessori Method. She was convinced that if education, aimed at helping humans life life, was in coordination with the innate laws for development, the child's environment must contain aspects to the things which she is sensitive to, so that she can use those materials for her maturation.


Jeannot Jonte Boucher is a Montessori educator and parent in Dallas, Texas.

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