The phrase ‘sensitive periods in human development’ may sound like it refers to moody teenagers, but it actually refers to periods of time when a child easily absorbs information in a specific way. The most important sensitive periods occur between birth and age six. Learn more in this lesson.

Example and Definition

Meet two-year-old Ronnie. Ronnie is fascinated by small objects. He will spend hours picking up small items to examine them, and he is learning how to manipulate them in his hands. Why is Ronnie obsessed with this behavior?

One answer to this question may be that he is going through one of the sensitive periods of development. Sensitive periods is a term developed by the Dutch geneticist Hugo de Vries and later used by the Italian educator Maria Montessori. The term refers to several overlapping periods of development where a child is sensitive to a particular stimuli or type of interaction.

According to Montessori, from birth until about the age of six, we seem to learn from our environment without any conscious effort. Young children become skilled at numerous activities without formal instruction. They may not even be aware that they’re learning. According to supporters of the idea of sensitive periods, this occurs because it is very easy for children to acquire certain abilities during a specific sensitive period. Also, once a sensitive period is passed, the development of the brain has progressed past the point where that particular ability can be easily absorbed. After this, the ability must be formally taught, it will take a great deal of effort to learn, and will not be as readily acquired by the child.

Characteristics

Montessori also notes that there are five observable behaviors that characterize sensitive periods. First, you will see the child engaged in a clear activity with a beginning, middle, and end. Second, the activity will be irresistible to the child. Third, the child will return to the activity again and again. Fourth, the child will develop an emotional attachment to the activity. And fifth, the child will appear satisfied when the activity is completed.

Let’s use Ronnie again to illustrate these observable behaviors. Ronnie is clearly engaged in the activity of stringing buttons. The activity begins with a string and some large buttons, which he will continue to add to the string until he has used all of the buttons. He will always choose this activity when it is presented, and he will do it over and over again. If the activity is taken away before he is finished, Ronnie will cry and throw a tantrum. If he completes the activity to his satisfaction, he is always happy and calm afterwards.

The Sensitive Periods

Now that you know what a sensitive period is in general and how it is characterized, you probably want to know what the specific sensitive periods are and when they occur. Some sources will break the sensitive periods into chronological order. Others will split the sensitive periods into categories and then subcategories. For the purpose of this lesson, we’ll keep it simple and describe the five main categories of sensitive periods that occur between birth and age six. These categories are language, order, sensory skills, motor skills, and social skills.

The first sensitive period category is language. This category takes place from birth all the way to six years old. During this sensitive period, a child would be extremely sensitive to vocal sounds and mimicking. A child would be more attracted to human speech than to other sounds in their environment during this period. Without language stimulation at this time, severe language deficits can occur.

The second sensitive period category is order. This period occurs roughly between the ages of one to three years old. During this period a child is learning to draw conclusions and organize information to make sense of the environment. There are four subgroups: spatial order, social order, sensory order, and temporal order. If a child is unable to accomplish these skills during this period, they may later experience difficulty with reasoning and learning.

The third sensitive period category is sensory skills. This period occurs between birth to about four years old. During this period the brain is quickly developing and is taking in information about the world through sensory input. If a child does not take in enough sensory information during this period, they may have difficulty discriminating between what sensory stimuli is important and what is not.

The fourth sensitive period category is motor skills. This period occurs roughly between the ages of eighteen months to four years old. Motor skills can be split into two categories: gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills involve the use of large muscle groups for activities such as walking or reaching for objects. Basic gross motor skills are usually in place at the beginning of this sensitive period and the focus will shift to that of fine motor skills. Fine motor skills include activities like learning to use scissors or draw with a crayon. Hand and eye coordination is also increased at this time. If fine motor skills are not well developed during this period, it will take a great deal of effort for a child to learn them.

The fifth sensitive period category involves social skills. This period occurs from about thirty months to six years old. At this time, a child begins to notice the social environment. They will begin to observe behavior closely and learn what’s expected of them, as well as others, in various situations. Children who are deprived of varied social interactions during this period will be less socially confident and may not handle social situations in an acceptable way.

Lesson Summary

Sensitive periods are several overlapping periods of development where a child is sensitive to a particular stimuli or type of interaction. The term was developed by a Dutch geneticist named Hugo de Vries and used by the Italian educator Maria Montessori.

Young children seem to learn many different skills without any conscious effort between birth and the age of six. They may not even be aware that they’re learning. This ability may exist because it is very easy for a child to learn certain abilities during a specific sensitive period. Once a specific sensitive period is over, it can be much more difficult to learn a skill, and it will require formal teaching.

Sensitive periods are characterized by five observable behaviors. There will be involvement in a clear activity with a beginning, middle, and end. The activity will be irresistible to the child, and they will return to the activity over and over. The child will also develop an emotional attachment to the activity and will appear satisfied when the activity is completed to their liking. For the purpose of this lesson, we kept it simple and described five main categories of sensitive periods that occur between birth and age six. These categories are language, order, sensory skills, motor skills, and social skills.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be prepared to:

  • Describe what Hugo de Vries and Maria Montessori call sensitive periods
  • Identify the five observable behaviors that characterize sensitive periods
  • Name and discuss the five main categories of sensitive periods