The Sensitive Periods

In a recent post I explained the term Absorbent Mind. In this week’s post we will explore another common phrase that is heard in relation to Montessori education: the sensitive periods

Hugo de Vries (Dutch botanist and geneticist) detected the sensitive periods through his research with animals, but Montessori declared that she and her fellow educators discovered it to be true of children as well, utilising it for improving teaching (M. Montessori, 1966).  The sensitive periods in a child’s development establish and control each developmental plane, and are inextricably linked to all other aspects of the child’s development, including internal and external growth (Grazzini, 1979; M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008; Zener, 2003). Furthermore, the importance of early learning experiences is recognised in brain research due to the neural connections made during the sensitive periods (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). Montessori (1966) described the concept thus:

A sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in a process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait, or characteristic, has been acquired, the special sensibility disappears. Every specific characteristic of a living creature is thus attained through the help of a passing impulse or potency. (M. Montessori, 1966, p. 38)

Thus, in connection to the development of a child, they have an innate impulse that drives them to carry out certain acts at certain developmental times (M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008; Zener, 2003). However, Montessori (1966) noted that if a child is unable to act on the impulses of that sensitive period the chance for a “natural conquest” (p.39) will be gone forever. Obstacles to learning or stressful experiences during these times can create a strong negative reaction, as can sometimes be seen in tantrums in the very young child (M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008).

Source: My own image.

The learning experiences during these sensitive periods play a vital role in a person’s neural development (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). During the sensitive periods, the child is able to accomplish and absorb great learning feats with an ease and passion that are unavailable later in life (M. Montessori, 1966; The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2008). As one conquest is completed, the child moves onto the next one, creating a constant pattern of learning and enjoyment (M. Montessori, 1966; Zener, 2003). The child’s sensitivities result in strong interests for some things and a great indifference to others (Zener, 2003): “When a particular sensitiveness is aroused in a child, it is like a light that shines on some objects but not on others, making of them his whole world” (M. Montessori, 1966, p. 42). Joy and excitement in learning become manifest during these times, fuelled by the child’s surroundings and the adults that encourage and assist in this learning. These sensitive periods prepare the child’s mind to absorb and process the world surrounding them, complementing the ‘absorbent mind’ (Zener, 2003).

Strong correlations have been drawn between Montessori’s sensitive periods and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. In both approaches, the teacher observes the child to provide learning experiences that meet the needs and learning requirements of the child at that point in time (Mooney, 2013; Vettiveloo, 2008). However, Vygotsky believed that this support to a child’s learning does not just come from a teacher, but also from peers (Mooney, 2013). Such learning can be seen in Montessori classrooms with the combined age groups (and now in mainstream early education centres as well).

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Reference List

Grazzini, C. (1979). Characteristics of the child in the elementary school. AMI Communications, 29–40.

Montessori, M. (1966). The Secret of Childhood. (M. J. Costelloe, Ed.). New York: Ballantine Books.

Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2008). The timing and quality of early experiences combine to shape brain architecture.

Vettiveloo, R. (2008). A critical enquiry into the implementation of the Montessori Teaching Method as a first step towards inclusive practice in early childhood settings specifically in developing countries. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 9(2), 178–181.

Zener, R. S. (2003). How sensitively timed are sensitive periods? The NAMTA Journal, 28(1), 20–40.

Theories of developmental stages

Several educational theorists believe that there are different stages of development over the course of a human’s life. Some of these theorists include Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Rudolf Steiner. In this section, Montessori’s theory about the developmental stages will be compared to those of the other three theorists mentioned above.

Erik Erikson

Erikson’s theory focuses on the psychosocial development of humanity (Mooney, 2013). He believed that there are eight ‘ages’ of humanity that cover the whole life span (Mooney, 2013). The age brackets seen in Erikson’s theory (refer to Table 1) are similar to those seen in Montessori’s planes and sub-planes, with some comparable terminology as well. Just as with Montessori’s planes of development, as the person passes through each of Erikson’s ages they adopt certain characteristics before passing on to the next age (Mooney, 2013). For each age of Erikson’s theory, Mooney (2013) specified a developmental stage and strength, similar to Montessori’s sensitive periods. However, Erikson also identified ‘weaknesses’ of each stage (Mooney, 2013).

Erikson believed that patterns were developed in the earliest years of life from the strengths and weaknesses acquired during that time (Mooney, 2013). These patterns would “… regulate, or at least influence, a person’s actions and interactions for the rest of his or her life” (Mooney, 2013, p. 55). This is comparable to the significance of Montessori’s ‘sensitive periods’ for a human’s development in the early years. Similarly, Erikson and Montessori both understood the importance of the early years for children’s development. However, Erikson thought that it was possible for a person to go back and ‘renegotiate’ any difficulties encountered in the first three stages.

Erik Erikson (
Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
AgeStageStrength Developed
Birth to 12 monthsTrust vs. MistrustHope
1-3 yearsAutonomy vs. Shame and DoubtWillpower
3-6 yearsInitiative vs. GuiltPurpose
6-11 yearsIndustry vs. InferiorityCompetence
AdolescenceIdentity vs. Role ConfusionFidelity
Young adulthoodIntimacy vs. IsolationLove
Middle ageGenerativity vs. Self-AbsorptionCare
Old ageIntegrity vs. DespairWisdom

Source: Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.

Jean Piaget

Piaget followed Montessori’s work, using it as the foundation for his own educational theories (Mooney, 2013). He too believed that children need to do meaningful work for themselves and identified stages of cognitive development linked to age brackets (Mooney, 2013) (see Table 2). Contrary to Erikson’s ‘psychosocial’ stages, Piaget described his developmental theory as ‘stages of cognitive development’ (Mooney, 2013). He focused more on behaviours learned through these times, rather than ‘strengths’ or the broader characteristics identified by Montessori in her planes of development.

Piaget’s sensorimotor stage has strong correlations with Montessori’s first plane of development. They both believed that children first learn through absorbing information with unconscious thought, dubbed reflexive by Piaget (M. Montessori, 2012; Mooney, 2013). Both Montessori and Piaget understood that children process their environment through their senses in the first plane and the sensorimotor stage, and that this is where intelligence formed and cognitive development is started (M. Montessori, 2012; Mooney, 2013). Montessori and Piaget had differing views on the ages of the next developmental stage, with Piaget’s preoperational stage two to seven years of age, whilst Montessori considered this part of the sub-plane of the first plane, and considered the age bracket to be three to six years of age (M. Montessori, 2012; Mooney, 2013). They both viewed learning during these times as forming ideas from life experiences. Furthermore, Piaget recognised the importance of large blocks of time for ‘free play,’ based on Montessori’s theories about the uninterrupted work cycle (Mooney, 2013). Real life experiences were also considered vital by both theorists in children’s learning, providing opportunities for deeper construction of knowledge (Mooney, 2013).

Jean Piaget (
 For the final two stages of Piaget’s developmental theory, similarities are evident with Montessori’s works in that the child moves from concrete thought to abstract thought. Mooney (2013) describes a flexibility of thought, where the child moves towards logical and hypothetical thought, where richer questions can be considered, and several qualities can be held in the brain at one time (Grazzini, 1979; Haines et al., 2000). While Montessori described young adulthood age brackets in detail as part of her developmental planes, Piaget’s stages of development are much broader and end with “11 or 12 years of age and older” (Mooney, 2013, p. 81). 
Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Birth to 2 yearsSensorimotorLearn through the senses; learn through reflexes; manipulate materials.
2-7 yearsPreoperationalForm ideas based on their perceptions; can only focus on one variable at a time; overgeneralize based on limited experience.
7-11 or 12 yearsConcrete OperationalForm ideas based on reasoning; limit thinking to objects and familiar events.
11 or 12 yearsFormal OperationalThink conceptually; think hypothetically. 

Source: Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.

Rudolf Steiner

Steiner believed in three stages of learning, with unique requirements for learning in each (Edwards, 2002). Steiner, like Montessori, viewed the first stage of learning as a time where learning is done through ‘doing’ with hands-on experiences. However, while they both cited this stage as a time for physical, intellectual, and emotional growth, Steiner put a much greater emphasis on the term ‘imaginary play’ (Edwards, 2002).

While this terminology is not seen as frequently in Montessori’s works (and her views on it created controversy), the descriptions of activities and characteristics are similar to the work and qualities of children in Montessori programs. For example, children will “… become deeply and engaged and develop powers of concentration and motivation” (Edwards, 2002, p. 5) through “bodily exploration, constructive and creative play, and oral … language” (Edwards, 2002, p. 4) in both Steiner and Montessori education. Both theorists recognised the importance of an uninterrupted work cycle and a regular schedule (Edwards, 2002). Furthermore, they both emphasised the significant impacts science, literature, music, and education through nature have on children’s learning.

Rudolf Steiner (

However, a noteworthy difference between the two approaches was Steiner’s focus on learning through oral language rather than the concrete to abstract approach that Montessori employed (Edwards, 2002).

Steiner’s Cycles of Child Development
Birth to 7 yearsImitationLearn through imitation and doing; imaginary play the most important ‘work’; educational focus on bodily exploration, constructive and creative play, and oral language.
7-14 yearsImaginationExplore the world through conscious imagination; integrated, multisensorial approach to learning and expression.
High schoolIntellectRational, abstract power of intellect emerges; focus on ethics, social responsibility, and mastery of complex and rigorous subject matter.

Source: Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice4(1)


Montessori’s planes of development have clearly delineated age brackets and characteristics, each of which plays its own significant role in the development of the human. A variety of educational theorists believed in these stages, with connections between Montessori’s theories and those of some other theorists evident. There were, however, some differences in their understandings of where the age brackets started and stopped, and differences in terminology or developmental characteristics.

The sensitive periods of development are evident in brain research as well as educational theory. Educational experiences that are tailored to meet the needs of children in these periods will provide rich learning that will be carried throughout life. Furthermore, these sensitive periods are intrinsically linked to Montessori’s concept of the absorbent mind. The absorbent mind processes and utilises what is learnt during each plane of development so the information can be used appropriately by the person.

The concepts discussed in this paper are evident in early childhood education today. The way children are observed, curriculum planned, and our understandings of child development owe a lot to the theories and research mentioned here. The work of theorists such as Montessori, Erikson, Piaget, and Steiner paved the way for quality, tailored education in modern society.

Reference List

Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1).

Grazzini, C. (1979). Characteristics of the child in the elementary school. AMI Communications, 29–40.

Haines, A., Baker, K., & Kahn, D. (2000). Optimal Developmental Outcomes: The social, moral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions of a Montessori education.

Montessori, M. (1966). The Secret of Childhood. (M. J. Costelloe, Ed.). New York: Ballantine Books.

Montessori, M. (2012). The Absorbent Mind. California: BN Publishing.

Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky (2nd ed.). Minnesota: Redleaf Press.