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What are Montessori Sensitive Periods of Child Development?


She defined Sensitive Periods of Development within the concept of the Absorbent Mind. The Montessori framework recognizes several essential stages in a child’s learning. Sensitive periods are critical milestones where children are particularly open to acquiring specific skills.

These distinctions help adults structure their kids’ learning activities. Furthermore, knowledge of this concept allows adults to understand a child’s development and how to plan the learning environment accordingly.

A child working in a Montessori classroom

Montessori broke the Absorbent Mind down into two phases:  the unconscious (from 0-3 years old) and the conscious (from 3-6 years old)During the earlier period, the child unknowingly gathers impressions from his environment and begins to develop the “self-concept” and life skills, such as independence. 

Once he enters the latter development period, the child consciously takes in his environment. He does not experience new impressions but instead seeks ways to give order to or create a system for those impressions gathered unconsciously during the prior development period.

Movement and liberty are significant inner drivers at this time. This is the “let me do it by myself” stage, and we adults should allow that to happen. His absorbent mind fades as he reaches six years of age. 

Montessori Quote - The Absorbent Mind

What are Sensitive Periods?

Sensitive Period Definition

The sensitive period definition builds on the idea that children aren’t consistently receptive to learning experiences. In other words, a child may not be interested in an activity because he has yet to enter that particular sensitive development period.

In addition to noticing distinctions between different children at one point, you’ll observe that individuals vary over time.

A sensitive period of development can manifest in different ways. For instance, a child might go through a stage where she’s particularly receptive to learning about communication or exploring her mobility.

Related Read: 12 Characteristics of a Successful Montessori Presentation

Sensitive Periods of Development

Sensitive periods describe the pattern the child follows in gaining knowledge of his environment while Absorbent Mind explains the quality and process by which he gathers this knowledge. {Montessori: A Modern Approach}

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Sensitive periods are blocks of time in a child’s life when he is absorbed with one characteristic of his environment to the exclusion of all others.”

E.M. Standing writes, “Montessori observed sensitive periods in the child’s need for order in the environment, the use of the hand and tongue, the development of walking, a fascination with minute details objects, and a time of intense social interest.”  

A butterfly on a flower

Metaphors in Biology

Montessori’s background in biology lent effective analogies to these periods in a child’s life. For example, she describes one metaphor: a young butterfly lays eggs on a leaf, where tiny caterpillars hatch and, with a keen sensitivity to light, seek out the softest leaves to nourish themselves in dangerous spots on plants.

Once the caterpillars grow and are strong enough to eat more rigid leaves, this sensitivity to light disappears. Another analogy is a searchlight (coming from the mind) illuminating only certain parts of the environment.   

Like creatures in science, the child will show an intense interest in a specific activity. Therefore, the child is driven to repeat the exercise again and again for no reason but to satisfy an inner urge to make contact with and then make sense of his world.

Related Read: What Parents Should Know About W Sitting 

The dire aspect of this point lies in the belief that once a child leaves a sensitive period, the opportunity for a “natural consequence” is lost. More notably, later development will be impeded.

So, as soon as adults witness a child entering a certain sensitive period, the adult must do all possible within their power to cater to the child’s development.  

Learn about Montessori's Sensitive Periods of Development

Six Sensitive Periods of Development

This evolution goes beyond a kid being more interested in certain activities on specific days — or less receptive to learning when they’re hungry. Dr. Maria Montessori grouped child development into six distinct periods, including:

  • Reading & Writing – a period extending from 3 to the age of six but arguably starts at birth
  • Order – starts during the first month or year of life and persists through the second year.
  • Movement – starts at birth and continues with walking, typically at about 12 to 15 months.
  • Social & Emotional – often occurs at around age two or three, beginning at birth.
  • Small objects – happens when kids are about one and last for a few years
  • Sensory learning – begins from birth


Children are born with limited control of movement. Gross and motor skills, however, develop quickly. Learning to use their bodies (about others, balance, fine motor skills) is very much integrated with children developing cognitive abilities.

Montessori Quote on Movement

It’s important to note that the timeframes associated with each sensitive development period vary. In reality, the learning opportunities, examples, and challenges that adults provide for children to have a significant effect.

Kids who receive more healthy stimuli and feedback may be more apt to learn. For instance, exposure to the outdoors may help with the small object-sensitive period of development — Rocks, grass, sticks, and other natural items make safe, interactive learning aids.

A Child Explores Nature - Sensitive Period to Touch

The Sensitive Period Concept Within a Broader Context

Another critical point to remember is that the sensitive period definition ties into the idea of growth stages — what Dr. Montessori called the Planes of Development.

There are four broad Planes of Development that Montessori schools use to group kids in classes:

# 1 – The Absorbent Mind

From birth to age six, children have an easy time taking in information. By using their senses, they develop culture, language, and knowledge. These critical skills became the building blocks of their personalities and thought patterns.

# 2 – Conscious Imagination

From age six to twelve, children develop their abstract thinking skills. They also learn to reason and evaluate the effects of their actions on social relationships. Notably, kids at this second plane of development like to be in control — They want to ask questions and investigate things they’re interested in learning.

#3 – New Identity

From age 12 to 18, adolescent kids start learning more about their newfound personal growth. This stage marks a definite transition toward adulthood.

#4 – Maturity

Mature young adults seek economic independence and control over their futures. During this period, they’ll begin forming more solid desires relating to personal goals and social lives.

Sensitive Periods & Child Development

Adulthood may seem like a long way off, but it’s not just a matter of time. What you do in the early stages affects everything to come. It’s important to realize that the planes of development aren’t some unchanging, universal framework. Adults need to recognize that children aren’t always predictable.

To put it differently, don’t always assume that your kid is merely acting out when they disobey. They may try to explore the world around them at a particularly receptive time. The sensitive periods can also be intense for younger children, who might feel overwhelmed by sensory input.

How can you cultivate your children’s learning habits during their unique development? Being patient and guiding them forward is the best way to foster their growth—your tone in the classroom or at home ripples through their lives. Always try to set an excellent example of how fun learning can be.

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