Many theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Freud and Erikson have examined the idea that every living organism must go through developmental stages. This notion was especially examined by Hugo de Vries (1948-1935), a Dutch botanist and geneticist who spent much of his life researching animal development. His work largely related to the development of animals however he first used a phrase ‘sensitive periods in development’ (as cited in Standing, 1957, p. 118) and this became a starting point for Maria Montessori’s research. Montessori identified that there were many distinct sensitive periods of child development. These were sub-periods within her notion of the planes of development. Montessori, an educator and medical practitioner found the notion of ‘sensitive periods’ of high importance and conducted further research through observation to understand and assist the development of a child.
Before expanding on Montessori’s observational work with children, it is best to begin with the research of Hugo de Vries. DeVries observed the lifecycle of the Porthesia Butterfly. His work examined the first sensitive period in the early phase of development. He noted that the Porthesia Butterfly laid its eggs on the bark of a tree. From these eggs emerged tiny caterpillars with an innate desire to feed. The mouth parts were so small that they could only manage to eat the softest and most tender leaves. As the caterpillars had no experience in choosing food, they held an inherent instinct to crawl towards light and by doing this; they found themselves on the tips of branches where the young soft leaves were. After a while, when they had grown bigger and stronger from eating the young soft leaves, they lost their sensibility to light and they were now able to eat from various parts of the tree. Standing (1957, p.119) further suggests that it is interesting to observe that there was a disappearance of this attraction to light. It had served its purpose.
Montessori pondered de Vries’s observation and examined it in relation to child development. She suggested that we could respond to this study from the standpoint of education (Montessori, 1996. p. 34). Montessori suggested that there were many sensitive periods in child development and children were innately driven to acquire ‘horme’ – defined as life-force energy. According to Seldin & Epstein, (2003, p. 46) Montessori believed that a cognitive plan in each child determined the unique emotional and intellectual qualities that develop and these are developed in sensitive periods. To translate this into my own definition, a sensitive period can therefore be defined as a developmental drive for the acquisition of various emotional and intellectual skills.
Montessori expanded on this work by observing children and she identified eleven different sensitive periods that occur from birth through to age six. She found that a child is innately compelled to acquire areas of intense interest that develops into the acquisition of specific skills. Montessori teachers often observe that children are being driven or ‘inner directed’ by a compulsion during specific sensitive periods (Seldin & Epstein, 2003, p.47). They have an overpowering force or interest that directs them to centre their attention on specific aspects of the environment and thereby exclude all else. It is a transitory state where once mastered, that particular sensitive period disappears (Montessori, 1996, p. 35). These periods are never relived or gained once passed. The sensitive periods are...