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8 min read

A sensitive period is a term used in Montessori to describe a time of intense interest and development from birth to age 6. The current term is "time for optimal learning", which describes this period so well. 

This is a time when the child is driven from within to discover and learn something new. They want to repeat, practice, and strengthen their new skills.  

Sensitive periods encourage child to do incredible things. During this time, adults may been in awe of what their child is capable of. It is also during these periods that children may get frustrated when an adult tries to help them or intervene.

The Six Sensitive Periods


While you'll find different information about the timelines for the sensitive periods, the dates listed for each sensitive period come from Montessori Teachers College, ‘Sensitive Periods in the First Years of Life’ (2015).

Sensitive Period For Movement

Age (divided into 2 parts): 

  1. Birth to 2.5 years of age, the child is focused on acquiring new forms of movement, both fine and gross motor movement.
  2. 2.5 to 4 years of age, refinement and coordination.

What Happens During This Period

This sensitive period is recognized by the child’s need to move. It can seem at times that they have endless energy and determination to move.

The drive for this is simple to understand. Children need to move to learn. They learn about the world around them through movement. They learn they can do things for themselves, they can contribute, collaborate, manipulate, explore, etc. Movement allows them to explore.    

How To Support Your Child During This Period

It's important not to restrict a child’s movement during this time.

Ensure that your child:

  • Has plenty of space to move, ideally an area of the home where they can move, free of safety hazards and obstacles
  • Is dressed primarily in clothing that doesn’t limit mobility, i.e. skinny jeans are not ideal on a regular basis during this time
  • Lots of outdoor time. Uneven surfaces (i.e. grass, rocks, sand) and climbing opportunities are a great way to develop coordination and balance. Indoor climbers are great for the colder months or for children that are just becoming mobile. 

For children that are walking, you can also offer maximum effort activities. Go here to get a list of simple maximum effort activities.  

Sensitive Period For Language

Age:Birth to 5.9 years old

What Happens During This Period

During the first year of life, the child is primarily absorbing language.

Throughout the first few months of life, they’ll begin to pay attention to sounds, look for familiar voices, focus on the mouths of those who are speaking to them, and begin to make and copy sounds/facial expressions. 

Around approximately 12 months of age, children will say their first intentional word.  

From 17 months until 24 months, the child will acquire new vocabulary, use different parts of speech and begin to speak in short sentences (one or two words).  

At approximately 2 years, there is a “explosion” into language. This is a pretty remarkable time when it feels like the child wakes up one day and is speaking in long complete sentences. 

From approximately  3.5 years+, an interest in writing begins.

From approximately 4.5 years+, interest in reading begins.

How To Support Your Child During This Period

We cannot directly teach language. By that I mean you can’t force a child to form their mouth the correct way and produce a sound from their throat. All we can do is expose the child to rich language and vocabulary. To do this you can read books and spend lots of time communicating. Serve and return is one of the best things you can do for your child's development. 

For young children, it can help to read the same books over and over. This also appeals to the Sensitive Period for Order.  

The sensitive period for language is also an excellent time for a child to learn multiple languages. Their brains have a special ability to more easily organize languages and switch back and forth during this time.    

Sensitive Period For Sensorial Exploration/Experience

Age (divided into 2 parts):

  1. Birth to 3 years, sensorial experience
  2. 3 years to 6 years, sensorial refinement

What Happens During This Period

Children learn primarily through their senses. In Montessori, they are referred to as “sensorial explorers.” 

This sensitive period is indicated by the child wanting to explore objects and the world around them with all five of their senses. 

How To Support Your Child During This Period

Give child time, space, and freedom to explore. Go on walks without a destination and give them plenty of time to stop and inspect every detail along the way. 

In the home, specifically in their work/play area, it's important that environment is prepared so that your child can safely and independently explore with their senses.

For example, an infant puts EVERYTHING in their mouth. An infant's play area should be free from all choking hazards so they can freely explore with their mouth. 

Another example a toddler playing with blocks. As adults, we may look at blocks as something to build with, whereas a toddler wants to explore what they sound like when they drop on the floor or what it feels/sounds/looks like when they’re thrown across the room.

When we allow them to explore something fully, with all of their senses (including mouthing and making noise), their curiosity will eventually become satisfied and they’ll stop exploring in this way.   

Sensitive Period For Small Objects

Age:12 months to 4 years

What Happens During This Period

Toddlers have a strong attention to detail. They will notice the smallest of things and they're drawn to things that are small.  

They also have a desire to collect small objects that fit in their hands. This is a time when parents often find little treasures in their child’s pockets.   

How To Support Your Child During This Period

Following the child is important during this sensitive period. Go at their pace, take your time, and appreciate the little things they notice.  

You'll often notice your child fascinated with the lint under the couch or small items they find in nature. It can be tempting to take away their small "treasures" and offer a toy instead. Try to hold back if you believe what they have is safe to explore under supervision.

Here are a few more activities that support development during this period:

Sensitive Period For Order

Age:6 months to 3 years 

What Happens During This Period

Young children, especially infants and toddlers, thrive on consistency and routine. 

Dr Montessori recommends avoiding any significant changes to the home during the first year of life so the child can orient themselves in their environment. 

This is why Montessori classrooms look the same day to day and why the schedule of the day remains the same day to day.

Order creates predictability and predictability makes children (and most adults!) feel safe.  

How To Support Your Child During This Period

External order creates inner order. Creating order in your home means a place for everything and everything in it’s place. Note that this doesn't mean your home needs to be perfectly clean and organized at all times. What will help more than anything is to keep your child's items and spaces as organized as you can manage, i.e. bedroom, their toy shelf, self-care items in bathroom, etc.

This sensitive period peaks in toddlerhood around age 2. The “terrible twos” are not so terrible when we understand and accommodate that it’s a phase of development where order and predictability is of highest importance.  

It's also important to note the age range is approximate, as is the case with any of the sensitive periods. Dr. Montessori herself said, “A child’s sensitiveness to order may be noticed even in the first months of his existence.” (Secret of Childhood) 

She gives an example of a nurse who observed that a 5 month old in her care would express delight when seeing a specific stone in the wall every day during their daily walks so the nurse would take the same route, stop and give the infant time to look at the stone.     

Sensitive Period For Social Interaction

Age: 2.3 years to 6 years+

What Happens During This Period

During this period, children show an interest in becoming part of a community. You'll notice they've entered this period when your child expresses a desire to be with people other than their parents or main caregivers.  

They will also move from parallel play to associative play to cooperative play. This change in play may happen with parents first and then peers, as child builds confidence.   

How To Support Your Child During This Period

You can offer your child more opportunities for socialization by bringing them to the park or play groups. 

You can also model social skills and help your child learn how to "join in". 

In the classroom during a social period, like outdoor playtime, a teacher might notice that one child is pretending to build a house. If there was another child nearby watching and showing interest in this, they might say something like, “Oh look, Eric is building a house. Sarah, you love to use tools too. Why don’t you grab a hammer and work on hammering the roof.”

This article has more info about helping children transition to cooperative play, if you're interested:

Why The Sensitive Periods Are So Interesting

Sensitive periods are considered optimal times to learn certain skills so it can be helpful to learn how to support your child's learning throughout them.

They can also be very frustrating for parents because it can seem like our children have a fixation or obsession with something that will never end. Understanding that these periods are temporary and a part of normal development can give you more patience and empathy. 

Where The Concept of Sensitive Periods Came From

Dr. Montessori’s inspiration for the sensitive periods comes from Hugo De Vries, a Dutch scientist that discovered that animals and insects go through ‘sensitive periods’ in their development.

Dr. Montessori said:

“We know that caterpillars grow rapidly and have a voracious appetite that is ruinous to plants.

The particular caterpillar studied by De Vries was one which during the first days of its existence cannot feed on large leaves but only on the tender buds at the tips of the branches. Like a good mother, the female butterfly instinctively lays her eggs in a sheltered spot at the angle formed by a branch with the trunk of the tree where they will be safe and sheltered. What will tell the tiny caterpillars when they break out of their shells that the tender leaves which they need for food are above them at the end of the branch? It is light! The caterpillar is extremely sensitive to light. Light attracts it, fascinates it, and as a consequence the tiny worm inches its way up to the end of the branch where there is the most light. There among the tender leaves it finds the food to satisfy its ravenous hunger.  The remarkable fact is that just as soon as the caterpillar has grown large enough to eat coarser food, its sensitive period passes and it loses its sensitivity to light” (The Secret of Childhood). 

Dr. Montessori then went on to observe in her schools that children also pass through sensitive periods of development.  

A Final Note: Online Variations In the Timeframes For Each Period 

It's also worth noting that there is some variation between what and when the sensitive periods are within the Montessori community.

There's probably a good reason for this.

Dr. Montessori’s written work has been interpreted and translated from Italian by different publishers over the years and there are variations between them. She used scientific language throughout her books and this may have posed some challenges with the translations.

The dates listed for each sensitive period in our post come from Montessori Teachers College, ‘Sensitive Periods in the First Years of Life’ (2015).

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