Montessori Sensitive Periods for Toddlers
Posted: May 07, 2019
Dr. Maria Montessori was the first female medical doctor in Rome and a pioneer of evidence-based education. Her educational philosophies are still widely practiced today in schools around the world. Parents don’t have to wait until their children are old enough to attend preschool to implement Dr. Montessori’s strategies. Understanding the Montessori sensitive periods for babies and toddlers can help parents practice a Montessori-inspired parenting philosophy from the beginning.
According to Dr. Montessori, children move through a number of "sensitive periods." Most of the sensitive periods occur between birth and age six during the phase of development called "the absorbent mind.
When a child has an absorbent mind, they are busy soaking everything up like a sponge. They are literally always watching and learning!
Babies, toddlers, and young children are in a sensitive period for movement. They learn how to roll over, crawl, walk, run, and jump. From birth to about age 2.5, children are specifically fascinated with gross motor skills. This is why toddlers literally can’t sit still! Gross motor skills involve the whole body. It is important to provide babies and toddlers with a safe area to practice their gross motor skills. Gross motor toys can help them develop skills like climbing and balance. Specific toys, or "materials" as they’re called in Montessori lingo, for toddlers who like to climb can help toddlers explore their natural desire to be active.
A child’s absorbent mind is also in a sensitive period for language. Babies are born with the inherent ability to learn whatever languages are spoken to them. It’s only as people age that learning a new languages becomes difficult.
To support a baby or toddler’s language development, make sure to speak to them plainly and clearly. Avoid "baby talk" and read to them regularly.
Respecting and following the child's lead is important in all areas of life. This doesn't just mean no baby talk - it also means providing books, materials, and items that treat them like a small, developing person and not "just" a baby. For example, many Montessori parents chose to use a sippy cup alternative, like a small open cup, even for infants.
Interaction with other people is important for a toddler’s language development. Studies have shown that classic, low-tech toys like wood blocks and books are far better for encouraging interaction than electronic toys. Selecting non-toxic wood toys also helps ensure a child doesn’t come into contact with potentially harmful chemicals found in some plastics.
Toddlers also have a sensitive period for order. Although toddlers can seem pretty chaotic, they thrive on order and routine! There’s no need to make a strict, to the minute schedule, but following a routine helps toddlers know what to expect. Keeping their clothing, toys, and other items in specific locations also helps them know where to find their belongings. Providing order and structure can help prevent some toddler tantrums.
From approximately age 1-1.5 years, toddlers are in a sensitive period for toilet learning. This does not mean that all children can be fully "potty trained" by the time they are 18 months old! It simply means that children this age and interested in the potty and learning about it. This can look different for each child, which is why Montessori philosophy relies on "following the child." Parents need to watch their child to see what they are interested in. In the case of toilet learning, this may mean providing a potty to a young toddler and practicing sitting on it, even if current cultural norms suggest that it’s "too soon." A toddler can’t be forced to do anything - they’ll either be interested or get up and wander off!
Toddlers are also in a sensitive period for emotional development and learning about social interactions. Treating babies and children with respect, using positive language, and being supportive of their efforts to communicate can help with their social and emotional development.
Following a Montessori-inspired parenting style and paying attention to their child’s sensitive periods and interests can help parents raise toddlers who become caring, thoughtful, and self-motivating children and adults. This is just a brief introduction to Montessori’s educational philosophy - anyone who wants to know more should check their local library for some of her books or books others have written about her work.
Natasha is a certified high school history teacher and blogger at The Artisan Life where she shares her love of crafting and gratitude.