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The Absorbent Mind and the Sensitive Periods
P. Donohue Shortridge
Maria Montessori observed that young children learn in a
unique way from prenatal life to about six years old. The
absorbent mind is the image she created to describe, ". . . this
intense mental activity."1
Since the neonate has to learn everything (he has no tools
other than reflexes to survive), but has no language or conscious
will to learn the way adults do, he must acquire his survival
skills in some other way. Montessori said that the child learns
by unconsciously taking in everything around him and actually
constructs himself. Using his senses, he incarnates, or creates
himself by absorbing his environment through his very act of
living.2 He does this easily and naturally, without thought or
Montessori saw the absorbent mind in two phases. During the
first phase, from birth to three years old, the young child
unknowingly or unconsciously acquires his basic abilities. She
called it the period of unconscious creation or the unconscious
absorbent mind. The child's work during this period is to become
independent from the adult for his basic human functions. He
learns to speak, to walk, to gain control of his hands and to
master his bodily functions. Once these basic skills are
incorporated into his schema, by about three years old, he moves
into the next phase of the absorbent mind, which Montessori
called the period of conscious work or the conscious absorbent
mind. During this period, the child's mathematical mind compels
him to perfect in himself that which is now there. His
fundamental task during this phase is freedom; freedom to move
purposefully, freedom to choose and freedom to concentrate. His
mantra is "Let Me Do It Myself!"3
Montessori understood that the baby must adapt to life
outside the mother during the unique time right after birth,
roughly the first nine months of life.4 She refers to the baby
during this time as a spiritual embryo or psychic embryo.5
Whereas the physical baby developed in utero, the mental or
psychic baby must complete his embryonic growth outside the womb.
Montessori said that a man, " . . . is like an object turned out
by hand."6 Once he is born, the baby's specific interaction
with his surroundings casts his mental life and uniquely shapes
him. It is now that he absorbs his mother tongue and comes to
love his place of birth. Thus, this spiritual embryo needs a
concentrated relationship with his parents and milieu to form his
individual self. Montessori observed that adults often fail to
do what is essential at this time, " . . . because of the habit
we have of thinking the child has no mental life."7
A child's wise parents realize that he does indeed have a
mental life and therefore will provide soft, low light, immediate
and prolonged contact with the mother and a reassuring place for
the baby so that the transition into the world is smooth and
inviting rather than traumatic.8
Another of Montessori's contributions was the discovery of
the sensitive periods. A child passes through special times in
his life when he easily incorporates a particular ability into
his schema if allowed to practice it exhaustively during this
time. She referred to it as, ". . . a passing impulse or
potency."9 Her prescient understanding of these critical
periods is now confirmed by scientists and even the popular
culture, with Time magazine calling it "Windows of Opportunity"10
Regardless of what they are called, the sensitive periods are
critical to the child's self development. He unconsciously knows
that the time to learn a specific skill is now. The child's
intensity reflects his need for that particular acquisition in
order to live. However, once the period passes, he'll have to
learn the skill with much more difficulty at a subsequent time.11
Adults often do not realize that a child has sensitive periods,
perhaps because they do not remember them in themselves. But a
thwarted sensitive period will manifest itself in a cranky child.
Montessori viewed these "tantrums of the sensitive periods (as)
external manifestations of an unsatisfied need."12
The child ages birth to six years old will pass through three
significant sensitive periods; those for order, movement and
language. During the period of unconscious creation, the child
acquires the above mentioned abilities. Then, in the period of
conscious work, he concentrates on refining these newly acquired
Montessori referred to four specific types of order to which
the child is sensitive. They are spatial order, social order,
sensory and temporal order. All through the period of
unconscious creation, the child seeks order so he can acclimate
himself to his environment. The youngest child doesn't even
realize he is separate from his surroundings. Order in his world
helps him make the distinction. Thus he uses an external order
to build on his internal orientations.14
He is sensitive to a spatial order; that is, everything has a
place. When his environment is arranged the same way day after
day, he comes to rely on it and can get his bearings. Gradually,
he absorbs the concept that if the table is there, for example,
then I must be here. Personally, I have seen an infant return to
his little bed for just a few moments at a time throughout the
morning, not to sleep, but to pause, seemingly as a way of
The child is also learning about the people around him. This
social order allows him to discern who is who and to distinguish
between himself and the mass of "them" out there. It is critical
at this stage that the same people come in contact with the baby,
over and over, so that he can accomplish this distinguishing
work. Children in child care centers often suffer personal
distress from confusion because of the industry's high turn-over
rate for caregivers.15
The child is sensitized to a sensory order, in other words,
to the differences in things; that some are soft or hard, that
objects have color, different colors, and shades of the same
color. He needs to freely explore his prepared world so he can
differentiate among these qualities. Infants often cry because
of sensory deprivation.16
The young child needs ritual, or temporal order. If his life
has a predictable rhythm and his routine is maintained, he begins
to trust the environment. If his needs for food, sleep and
bodily comfort are predictably met as they arise, he uses this
satisfaction as the basis to feel secure and to explore his
world.17 One child I observed spent most of the morning fussing
and crying. The Guide told me it was this child's first day at
the Center. The unfamiliar place and routine obviously upset
In sum, the child during the unconscious creation stage uses
the external order to begin building his own internal order. By
about three years old, the child has acquired his most basic
order and will refine it during the conscious work stage.
Spatial order is still critical. Whenever I placed a new
material on the shelf in my early childhood room, I wondered how
long it would take before that new material was noticed.
Invariably, the next morning someone would immediately see it and
ask for a lesson. Children have a scanning radar that searches
for any anomaly in their ordered world.
The child wants to understand the complexities of
relationships, creating himself socially. Master classes in
social order were conducted daily in my class anytime three four
and one-half year-olds had snack together, with their highly
evolved in-group language patterns and pecking order.
The child is now interested in refining his sensory input.
He wants deeper exploration into sameness, differences and
gradations of same and different in objects and the environment.
Sensorial activities were always popular in my classroom. Some
of the most concentrated, creative work I witnessed was in the
sensorial extensions, particularly with the five and six
year-olds who combined materials in elaborate patterns covering
most of the floor surface, sometimes for days at a time.
The three year-old is at the height of his ritualistic order;
he still needs routines and yet can begin to create his own
order. This is the perfect time to model that activities have a
beginning, a middle and an end. Choosing to do the same thing at
the same time or in the same way is quite a comfort to this
child. I saw the phenomenon extensively in my class. One boy I
recall would paint a picture first thing every day for many weeks
in a row. If the easel was in use, he would wait patiently
because he seemed to orient himself by choosing to paint as his
first activity every day.
The sensitive period for movement is most intense during the
first year of life. Montessori reminds us that, "(n)o other
mammal has to learn to walk."18 The baby, unable at birth to
control any of his movements, doesn't even know he has hands and
feet. But by about twelve months many babies take their first
steps. Walking develops without it being taught. An infant's
need to walk is so strong that he becomes upset if he is impeded.
I have often seen a toddler in motion become frustrated when an
adult came swooping down and picked him up. The boy's
concentration was broken by a well-meaning but hurried adult.
The child's rhythm is so much slower than our own. He walks to
perfect his walking; whereas we walk with purposeful intent.19
During the period of conscious work, the child works to
perfect and extend his movement. He is interested in
elaborations of the basic walk/run theme. It's time to jump,
hop, skip and climb, to carry heavy things, to balance objects on
a tray. I remember one girl who walked on the balance beam. At
first she did it with one foot on and one foot off the beam, then
haltingly with both feet on and arms fully extended, and
eventually more smoothly with arms lower at her sides.
Once the child has mastered walking, his hands have become
free to work.20 He's entered a new phase of his life, that of
Homo(man) Faber(working); one who uses his hands to affect his
world.21 He now focuses on work to refine his hands. Montessori
observed that mental development occurs through movement but only
if, " . . . the action which occurs is connected with the mental
activity going on."22 The child wants to use a scissors, to pick
up tiny objects and to refine his eye/hand coordination so that
his hand truly becomes an instrument of his mind.23
The final sensitive period is that for language. No one
teaches the child to talk. His language, " . . . develops
naturally like a spontaneous creation."24
Of all the auditory stimulation surrounding the baby, it is
the human voice that he deeply hears and imitates.25 By six
months, he's uttering his first syllables, by one year his first
intentional word. By one year, nine months he uses a few
phrases, and by about two years old he "explodes" into
language.26 He talks and talks non-stop. By the time he is three
years old he is speaking in sentences and paragraphs with proper
syntax and grammar. He can fully express himself to get his
During the period of the conscious absorbent mind he will
expand his vocabulary immensely. He wants huge words and funny
words and rhyming words and words in songs. Our Montessori
environments, rich in vocabulary, meet his word hunger perfectly.
If we trust that the child comes into the world with his
unique plan for life and that it is he who will unfold before us,
then we know that these first six years are crucial for his self
development. It is now that the imprints are deepest. He begins
his work of living life on earth by taking from, and adapting to
his environment and thus creates the man he is to become.
1. Montanaro, Dr. Silvana Quattricchi, Understanding the Human
(Mountain View: Nienhuis Montessori, 1991) 83.
2. Montessori, Maria, The Absorbent Mind (New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1967) 19.
3. Alice M. Renton, "The Absorbent Mind," Montessori Education
Center of the Rockies Lecture, Boulder, 23 June, 1998.
4. Montessori 71.
5. Ibid 60.
6. Montessori, Maria, The Secret of Childhood (New York,
Ballantine, 1967) 31.
7. Montessori, Absorbent Mind 69.
8. Montanaro 24-25.
9. Montessori, Secret of Childhood 38.
10. Nash, Madeleine, "How a Child's Brain Develops," Time 3
February 1997: 55.
11. Montessori, Absorbent Mind 26.
12. Montessori, The Secret of Childhood 41.
13. Alice M. Renton, "The Sensitive Periods and the Spiritual
Embryo" Montessori Education Center of the Rockies
Lecture, Boulder, 25 June, 1998.
14. Montessori, The Secret of Childhood 55-56.
15. Renton, Lecture, 25 June, 1998.
16. Montanaro 38.
17. Ibid 66-67
18. Montessori, Absorbent Mind 86.
19. Montessori, Secret of Childhood 88-9.
20. Ibid 85.
21. Ibid 85.
22. Montessori, Absorbent Mind 142.
23. Ibid 27.
24. Ibid 111.
25. Ibid 24.
26. Ibid 124.
Montanaro, Dr. Silvana Quattricchi. Understanding the Human
Being. Mountain View: Nienhuis Montessori, 1991.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, 1967.
Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine,
Nash, Madeleine. "How a Child's Brain Develops." Time 3 February
1997: 48- 56.
Renton, Alice M. "The Absorbent Mind and the Sensitive Periods."
Montessori Education Center of the Rockies Lecture. Boulder,
23 June, 1998.
---- "The Sensitive Periods and the Spiritual Embryo."
Montessori Education Center of the Rockies Lecture. Boulder,
25, June, 1998.
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