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Define the Term Sensitive Periods, and Explain How the Teacher's Knowledge and Understanding of These Periods Determines His/her Preparation and Custodianship of the Prepared Environment

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Define the term sensitive periods, and explain how the teacher's knowledge and understanding of these periods determines his/her preparation and custodianship of the prepared environment

"A sensitive period refers to a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state" (Montessori, 1966, p.38). Such sensitive periods were first discovered in animals by the Dutch scientist Hugo de Vries, but according to Montessori, are also found in children and are very important to consider in teaching.

Each sensitive period is a "transient disposition and is limited to the acquisition of a particular trait" (Montessori, 1966, p.38). Once such a trait or characteristic has been achieved, the sensibility disappears due to the fact that the development of the brain has progressed past the point at which specific information is absorbed. According to Lillard (1972), these transient periods only occur in childhood up to approximately the age of 6.

Sensitive periods are spans of time in a child's life when they are absorbed with one particular characteristic of their environment (Lillard,1972). According to Montessori, during a sensitive period it is very easy for the child to acquire certain abilities, such as language, discrimination of sensory stimuli and mental modelling of the environment (Montessori, 1966).

Montessori observed 6 sensitive periods in a child's life. These sensitive periods are not consecutive; some overlap and some are continuous. Order is the first sensitive period to appear and may be noticed even in the first few months of life (Montessori, 1966, p.49). During this sensitive period, there is a need for a precise and determined environment (Lillard, 1972) and a positive manifestation of it may be seen in the joy which children show at seeing things in their proper places (Montessori, 1966). The presence of this sensitive period however, is even more evident when the order is somehow interfered with. For example, Montessori describes the agitation of a 6 month old when an umbrella was placed unusually on a table. It was only with the removal of the object that child became calm. In the words of Montessori the "object out of place had violently upset the little girls pattern of memory as to how objects should be arranged" (Montessori, 1966, p.50). The need for order is also displayed by the great lengths young children will go to to put things back in their 'correct place'.

A second sensitive period is that for sensitive refinement. This appears as a curiosity to explore the environment with tongue and hands. Usually coinciding with crawling, the child is seen to regularly pick up objects and put them in their mouth. Montessori believed that the tongue and the hands are more intimately connected with intelligence than any other parts of the body (Lillard, 1972). Children should therefore be given access to objects and activities in their environment

which they can explore freely to allow this sensitive period to occur.

A third sensitive period is that of language. Language plays an important role in intellectual and cognitive growth. Right from when a child is born the baby is 'tuned in' to language, and begins to make babbling noises as opposed to the noises of the doorbell and the hoover! It is clear that "the child must naturally hear the sounds in use among his own people before he can repeat them" (Montessori, 1988, p.106).

A fourth sensitive period is the sensitivity to walking and movement. Montessori observed that during this period, children love to go on long walks (a fact not always recognised by their parents who may place them in buggies when the child would probably much prefer to be on its feet!). At this stage, unlike an adult who walks for a purpose, the child walks for the sake of it, to perfect the skill. Montessori cites examples of children who spent over an hour "descending and ascending steep stairs with very narrow steps" (Montessori, 1966, p.78) and you often find, open stairs in public places will be full of children scrambling up and down perfecting their movements.

A fifth sensitive period is a sensitivity to small objects. At this stage the child may become engrossed in extremely tiny objects, for instance tiny insects barely visible to the human eye (Lillard, 1972). It is often common for children who are now mobile to be fixated with small objects such as ants, pebbles and grass, and they will often stop to examine such small objects when out walking.

The sixth and final sensitive period is a sensitivity to the social aspects of life. Now that the child has become relatively stable in their physical and emotional environment they begin to attend to the social environment. They become aware that they are part of a community (for instance their nursery or playgroup) and he or she "attempts to learn manners and serve others as well as himself" (Lillard, 1972, p.36). Such social interest is shown initially as observation, but later develops into a need for more active contact with peers.

According to Montessori, it is vitally important to support and facilitate these periods during the child's first stage of development. If the child is prevented from following the innate desire of any give sensitive period, a disturbing effect could result on both psychic development and maturity. According to Lillard, 1972, p. 33, "therefore, the opportunity for development in his sensitive periods must not be left to chance". The child must be assisted through the sensitive periods. The adult must assist the child by providing a suitable environment for the psychic embryo. Montessori believed 2 conditions were necessary for a child's psychic growth to occur. Firstly "the child is dependent upon an integral relationship with his environment, both the things and the people within it" (Lillard, 1972, p. 30). Secondly, the child needs freedom. Without these conditions being met, the psychic life of a child will not reach its potential and the child's personality will be stunted. In the words of Montessori, for the children who have "met with severe obstacles during this period, deviations of personality may ensue" (Montessori, 1988, p.178).

Adverse consequences of not recognising and supporting the child's sensitivities may therefore result. A severe example is Itard's account of the 'wild boy' of Aveyron. Isolated in the forests of France as a baby, he was later found as a teenager. His movements and behaviour were similar to those of an animal. Although Itard was able to help this boy develop somewhat normal human behaviours, the boy did not develop language, even though there were no problems

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