Maria Montessori posited that children go through “sensitive periods,” times during which they are primed to learn specific things. The Montessori curriculum is based on these sensitive periods, and when we, here at Aidan Montessori School, refer to “developmentally attuned curricula,” it is to these sensitive periods that we are referring. Maria Montessori divided children’s development into three-year groupings, and she folded the eleven sensitive periods that children go through during those three years into the curriculum for those levels.
This became glaringly clear to me when my son was four. He went through a sensitive period. He was learning how to button, a skill that you and I take for granted and likely do not remember struggling with as a child. Over a short period of time, my son could not stop himself from buttoning. I am sure that it started in the classroom on the Dressing Frames, which are a Montessori work that isolates the skills necessary for zippering, buttoning, etc. From there, he took on winter coats in our front hall closet and dress shirts in the laundry pile. Then, he came running down the stairs with his party shirt on exclaiming, “Papa, I buttoned my whole shirt by myself!” That would have been a fine ending to this story, but it gets better: We went to the party for which he had donned his party shirt. As we were leaving, the hostess graciously stooped over in order to thank him for attending. As she did, he reached up and buttoned her top two buttons without missing a beat in the conversation.
I heard another parent tell the story of how she had tried and tried to teach her daughter how to tie her shoes, but to no avail. Rather than “pushing” her to learn how to tie, the daughter’s teacher waited for the child’s “teachable moment.” When the child was sensitive to learning to tie, the teacher showed her how to do it twice, and the child got it. Suddenly, she was tying all of her friends’ shoes at recess and pick-up time. The mother was amusedly taken aback when she found every shoe in her closet tied.
There are numerous sensitive periods, and this approach carries through all the levels of Montessori education. Just as toddler and primary children are sensitive to language, the senses, small objects (and much more!), elementary students are sensitive to many things including social justice, relationships, money, and society. Adolescent Montessori education incorporates curricula that makes the most of those children’s sensitivity to the outside world, long-term projects, group work, and understanding social structures.
Thus, is the legacy of Maria Montessori. So many of us use the phrase “their minds are like sponges” without consciously realizing that it was Maria Montessori who coined the phrase “The Absorbent Mind” and wrote a book by that title.
Our children are primed for learning in so many ways. Our teachers are well-prepared for facilitating that learning. Whether it is preparing the classroom in such a way that our children will engage in the activities that are most beneficial to them or identifying the missing step that a child needs to make to reach that next hurdle, our teachers are adept at identifying teachable moments and enabling children to pass through their sensitive periods in the most successful way possible.
My son buttons a button, and I am impressed. My chest puffs out, and my eyes well up. It is just a button. But then again, it isn’t.
Kevin Clark, Head of School