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The Sensitive Periods of Development: Birth to Age 6

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  • 0:07 Example & Definition
  • 1:35 Characteristics
  • 2:41 The Sensitive Periods
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

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.

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Additional Activities

Sensitive Periods in Childhood Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 1:

A sensitive period is a time when a child's brain is most receptive to a certain type of stimuli. Once that period has passed, the activity can still be learned although it will not be learned as fully and will take more conscious effort. If parents can stimulate their children during the first six years of life, a sensitive period for many skills, the children's brain will be able to maximally absorb the information. Imagine that you are a psychologist who has been asked to give a talk to teenage mothers, who are at high risk to not fully attend to the needs of their young children. In three to four paragraphs, describe what the sensitive period is, what skills if affects, and how to stimulate those skills maximally. For example, language is a skill that has a sensitive period. Parents should verbalize to their infants and young children very frequently, avoiding electronics in favor of as much conversation as possible.

Writing Prompt 2:

Imagine that you are a teacher in a preschool classroom. You notice that one of the children, Charlie, does not climb on the playground equipment or go on the swings. He can walk, but he appears clumsy when running, throwing a ball, and jumping. He has been examined by a pediatrician and has no physical abnormalities. Write one to two paragraphs as to why this might be the case, and what you could do about it. For example, it may be that Charlie's parents are extremely protective of him physically, and do not allow him to use his gross motor skills at home. To rectify this, you could introduce Charlie to small gross motor movements at preschool and build on them while he is still in the sensitive period.

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