Monday, March 20, 2017

Montessori: Sensitive Period for Order

Dr. Montessori observed four sensitive periods: order, coordination of movement, development and refinement of sensory perception and language. Let's start with the sensitive period for order, which goes from birth until 4 1/2 years old. I wrote in my introductory post about the sensitive periods that the periods are active from birth until 6 years old, but that is not entirely accurate. To clarify, only one sensitive period, language, goes until 6, the other sensitive periods all end at 4 1/2.

A few things to know about the sensitive periods before we go further. Montessori borrowed the term "sensitive period" from the Dutch biologist, Hugo DeVries (1848 - 1935). DeVries studied genetics, but not on humans, rather on fruit flies. In his work on Porthesia Butterfly's Life Cycle, he described how as a caterpillar, the Porthesia species is strongly sensitive to light. It's this sensitivity that prompts the caterpillar to move from where it hatches in the deepest, darkest part of the tree where the branch meets the trunk, to the end of the branch, where the most tender leaves, the only leaves the caterpillar is capable of eating at its tiny size, are located. It's as if the caterpillar is attracted to the light by an irresistible and impossible to ignore voice. Then, the sensitivity to light, no longer needed, vanishes and the caterpillar is completely indifferent to light once it's a bit bigger. But that period of sensitivity to the light is critical. Without it, the caterpillar might look for food in the wrong places and perish before finding any.

Just as with the butterfly, sensitive periods in children last for a determinate amount of time. Parents will often tell me they're planning to have their child start Montessori when they are four instead of three. But I have bad news for these parents. The Montessori classroom is designed and perfected to welcome children at three years old (younger in infant/toddler communities) largely because of the sensitive periods. If a child starts at four, and there are only six months remaining in three of the four sensitive periods, and in most cases, this limited amount of time means that the child will not become fully functional in the routines, structures, methods and movements that make the improbable Montessori class set up possible in the first place. In some cases, it works out because the child's home life is amenable to the pace and framework of the classroom. But, this is rare because life outside the Montessori prepared environment is structured around and designed for adults, not children. Most children have a low degree of independence, have insufficient unstructured time in which to focus on their developmental tasks as dictated by the sensitive periods, and are rushed far too often. My kids included. Life cannot always move at their pace. We make great efforts to respond to their developmental needs and give them the time and space to follow their whims, but it's not always possible or safe. That's why Montessori schooling is so wonderful. When a child arrives at three, there is time to lay a strong foundation before the sensitive periods for order, coordination of movement and sensory perception end.

So how can we recognize and foster the sensitive period to order? Sensitivity to order in children can be observed in their extreme attention to detail and precision, aversion to messes and insistence on things being in their proper place. For example, it's not unusual for a toddler to go around and close drawers that have been left open. Toddlers also pay close attention to very small things, like ants, and can spend a very long time (an eternity for a bored adult waiting for them on a walk;) just watching them move and studying their very existence. Some children like to line things up and order manifests itself this way. A parent is usually pleased to see their toddler closing drawers, but may be tempted to pull them away from the ants, or jump in and show them how to build with the train tracks instead of lining them up, but to do so would interrupt their developmental work.

The developmental goal of the sensitive period for order is for external order as created and dictated by the child to act as a foundation for internal order and mental organization. Making this possible is the use of the hand as an instrument of the mind. And ultimately, through manipulation of their environment, the toddler becomes a well-oriented child with an orderly mind.

If the toddler prefers to line up the train tracks side by side, like tally marks, we must let them line them up. It's not hurting anyone and they're not damaging the train tracks, so why would we stop them?! When left to their own devices, a toddler will line up the tracks, then sit back and admire them for a moment, and most likely, gather them up and do it all again. Repetition is a hallmark sign that a sensitive period is at work. Children will repeat, tirelessly, until they feel satisfied. Allowing a child to follow their inner drive and exercise their hand as an instrument of the mind is critical to allow the sensitive period for order to do its work. Another supportive piece is having reliable and predictable routines in place that allow a child to predict and know what's coming next and develop that mental organization.

The photo of Gaudí apartment building was taken in Barcelona by J. I included it for two reasons - one, because this building would probably be very offensive and terrifying to a child in the sensitive period for order. It defies all predictability and preconceived notions we have of what a building is. Its form is completely unexpected and irregular. But, lest you should begin to think that the sensitive period for order leaves no room for unfettered creativity and imagination, that is the second reason I included it. Being well-oriented to one's world and surroundings and having an orderly mind is the very fertile breeding ground of creativity, imagination and expression. One cannot create and conceive of interesting or compelling ideas from a place of confusion, misunderstanding and disarray. A successful sensitive period for order sets the child up for complex and intricate thoughts, ideas and actualization across all disciplines.

Next week we'll move on to thwarting by adults and the finality of the sensitive periods in conjunction with the sensitive period for coordination of movement. Montessori theory is especially difficult to write about well. The ideas are not linear, but more like an interconnected web and it feels like writing a circular outline, which is just whacky and almost disorienting. So thanks for hanging in there! And please leave your questions in the comments below! I want to hear what made sense and what didn't. I'll absolutely answer them all. Major kudos to you if you made it this far without falling asleep! xo


  1. Thanks for this post! I strive to make our home environment as conductive to Montessori style learning/play as much as possible. My question is about what to look for in a Montessori preschool. There are many in our area and I'm sure some have a better grasp of the principles more than others.

  2. Thank you for this post. I know that the main point is that relying on the home environment for cultivating the sensitive period of order is not ideal, but it is helpful to see a discussion of what this period entails anyway. I went to a Montessori school for three years as a child and always intended to send my kid to one, but the preschool that was the best choice for my son in my area, for a variety of reasons, turned out to be a nature-based preschool instead (kind of a quasi-forest school place, mostly outdoors and largely focused on child-led activity). He will start when he's 3 and I am pretty psyched about the program, but definitely a bit bummed that it is only possible to choose one of the schools - that I can't simply send him to the forest school AND the Montessori! The forest preschool is relatively inexpensive, mostly since it has very little physical overhead I think, so I was intending to use the money saved by starting him there to put him in the Montessori 3-6 class for a year or two instead of public kindergarten. But I also felt that as far as my parenting flaws go, I have a harder time getting my son outside and active in independent ways (and will especially once the new baby is here) than I have instituting an orderly, child-sensitive, independence-oriented home, so in the end I chose the school that would best complement my current parenting, and provide the things I feel are most lacking in his home life.

    I am pretty good at "independence"-oriented stuff at home - he has a little water cooler at his own height with small glasses to serve himself, and towels for mopping up spills; he sets his own spot at the table; he has a little broom and he "helps" sweep the floor after dinner, that kind of thing. Helps unload the dishwasher, clean windows, put the laundry in the machine. He stores his own shoes and outerwear when we come in, brushes his hair (badly, haha), washes his face (again, pretty badly, but eh). That kind of stuff. But I am....not so good at order, even for myself. I'd say that orderly storage of kid stuff is my first organizational priority, but I know there is more to it than that. I do keep his toys sorted and stored in a coherent way that he can approach independently. Same for clothes (though so far he has little interest in choosing them - a relief, I admit). And I try never to interfere, direct, or instruct when he is clearly engaged in play, however he is doing it (so long as it isn't destructive etc). But beyond that I don't have an easy innate knowledge of what fostering a sense of order entails. It is helpful to see an articulation that it is not simply "being organized" (although that is important) - that it is also about respecting the order the child finds in his world and respecting the time he invests in examining it. And it is very helpful to see a discussion on Montessori principles besides the ones (independence, practical life, natural materials) that most easily come to me.

  3. This is so helpful--so glad for this series! I have a couple of questions. One, you mentioned when children repeat the same things many times this can be a sign of a sensitive period; my daughter loves to pick up an object and drop it to the ground over and over again very intently--what would this be pointing to? Also, I am curious to learn more about starting children in Montessori classes...I was hoping not to have my daughter start school til later--closer to 5 or 6, but would it not make sense to do Montessori school then? Our Montessori school near us offers part time--is part time something that benefits children? Also, if exploring homeschooling, is it enough to have some tenets of Montessori included in your style or is it more of an all or nothing? So many questions! Thank you!

  4. Thanks for this! Jacob and Libby are 23 months, and I definitely see these behaviors, particularly with Jacob. It's helpful to remember that everything they do is appropriate and we should let them (even if it takes an eternity to clean up before bedtime...)

    How I wish we had closer Montessori schools! I went to Montessori, and it was so good for me, but the Montessori schools in our area are not close at all.

  5. This is so very interesting! My son is 2 years 3 months now and have been going to Montessori so I was definitely interested in reading this series. He has been lining up his cars for a few months now and will do it repeatedly. Or he will do something repeatedly (we joke that he's practicing such as buckling his high chair, opening tupperware, closing tupperware, etc). I usuAlly just let him and I'm glad that that is a normal behavior.

    My question is that I read somewhere that autistic kids are very much into order as well. Is there a way to differentiate the 2 types of order? Or is it more of a taking-the-bigger-picture-as-a-whole type of thing?


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