Why kids learn that learning is hard

…and how understanding sensitive periods can help.

Maria Montessori describes a sensitive period as “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.”2 By maintaining an awareness of the sensitive periods, educators and parents can foster the child’s natural drive and passion to learn. We can nurture these delicate tendencies and help the child cultivate a lifelong joy of discovery.
Montessori found that children pass through a relatively standard set of sensitive periods including order, language, movement, and social behavior.3 It is important that we stay vigilant of the various sensitive periods of our children in order to properly facilitate development within this time. By observing the child, we can notice repeated behaviors that might indicate that he is attempting to perfect and internalize a skill. If a child is continually walking around the room and pushing in all of the chairs, he might be in a sensitive period for order. In this case, it would be helpful to maintain an orderly environment and direct the child towards materials in which he can create order.Andy-Godlsworthy-Broken-stones

It seems that if children are allowed to naturally progress within each of their sensitive periods, they are more likely to continue that pattern throughout their lives.
I believe that as we grow older we continue to pass through sensitive periods, but they become more specific to the individual: if a person is naturally inclined to dance, her sensitive period for movement will expand to include the broad spectrum of movement for dance. But often these sensitive periods are exploited. If a child has a natural proclivity towards dance, she may be pushed to become a “dancer” long after she has acquired this trait. She may have an internal desire move on from dance to a sensitive period for architecture, but might feel constrained by the expectations of those around her (and herself) to be a “dancer.”non stop dance party

This seems to be one reason why there often appears to be such a difference between the way children and adults learn. “…when the sensitive period has disappeared, intellectual victories are reported through reasoning processes, voluntary efforts, and the toil of research. And from the torpor of indifference is born the weariness of labor. This then is the essential difference between the psychology of a child and that of an adult. A child has a special interior vitality which accounts for this miraculous manner in which he makes his natural conquests; but if during his sensitive stage a child is confronted with an obstacle to his toil, he suffers a disturbance or even warping of his being, a spiritual martyrdom that is still too little known, but whose scars are borne unconsciously by most adults.”5 I believe those scars are what sometimes prevent adults from continuing to learn with that natural vitality that is characteristic of the learning of a child. If we continue to encourage the process of learning within a sensitive period rather than praising the traits acquired during this time, the child will not feel pressured to remain stuck within a sensitive period after its natural time has passed. She will be able to continue learning in new directions with that intense joy that is inherent to the natural expansion of her abilities.
Many adults maintain a belief that we need to learn certain things in order to succeed rather than allowing ourselves to naturally follow our interests. As a result of being overstressed by outside demands placed upon us, we develop the habit of looking forward to a break rather than enjoying our current situation. We are then always looking towards to the end result, to the point at which we no longer have to force ourselves through the difficult task of acquiring unnecessary information and carrying out menial tasks. Rather than working for the sake of working, we work in order to relax on the weekend, in order to earn vacation time and eventually retire. But what then? We retire but the mentality of living for the future does not. Those who experience this realization at retirement often go back to work, like a prisoner commits another crime in order to put himself back where he’s comfortable.vanishing point

Standing describes this tendency: “It often happens that, in obedience to a set programme of studies, a teacher is obliged to hustle on his pupils to reach a certain attainment by a certain date. His eyes, and therefore those of his pupils, too, are fixed on the future; and the whole atmosphere becomes one of forward-looking tension.”6 When children are forced to acquire knowledge at inappropriate times, when they are not allowed to develop naturally within their various sensitive periods, they begin the habit of looking elsewhere for fulfillment. Many of us have acquired this habit. When we have our minds always set on the future, it’s difficult to keep that tendency from seeping into our classrooms and into the attitudes of the children. But if we acknowledge our tendency to look to the future, we can begin to change and keep our minds and those of our students more focused on the present. We can experience the joy of watching a child thrive within any given sensitive period: “During such a period the child is endowed with a special sensibility which urges him to focus his attention on certain aspects of his environment to the exclusion of others. Such attention is not the result of mere curiosity; it is more like a burning passion. A keen emotion first rises from the depths of the unconscious, and sets in motion a marvelous creative activity in contact with the outside world, thus building up consciousness. The intense and prolonged activity aroused and sustained by a sensitive period does not cause fatigue; rather the reverse. After a spell of work done at the imperious bidding of this inner urge the child feels better, stronger, calmer. Why? Because by means of such ‘work’ he has been creating himself.”7
Given the pace of our modern society, it is sometimes difficult to slow ourselves down enough to take notice of the child’s sensitive periods. “In primitive societies, where work was simple and could be carried out at a relaxed pace, the adult could coexist with children in his working environment with less friction. The complexity of modern life is making it increasingly difficult for the adult to suspend his own activities ‘to follow the child, adapting himself to the child’s rhythm and the psychological needs of his growth.’”8 Perhaps we can take note of the fact that the complexity of modern life is so inconducive to human development. We have chosen this way of life and if we notice that it stands out in such stark contrast to the way in which a child exists, maybe we could adjust our current way of living. Children show us the potential of a human being, young and old. As educators, we are attempting to change the world by creating environments conducive to child growth and development. So why not start with our own environments? This doesn’t require any sort of drastic dropping out of society. Just a change in mentality. Society can move at breakneck speed, but we can choose to slow down and simplify our lives. We can eliminate most of the chaos and confusion of modern life from our own home environments. We can be an example to those around us for the way life can be lived. And in so doing, we can truly adapt ourselves to ‘the child’s rhythm and the psychological needs of his growth’ because we will learn how to meet our own psychological needs. We can remember how to work like children.

“Success in life depends on a self-confidence born of a true knowledge of one’s own capacities…”9 By supporting the child in each of his sensitive periods, he gains confidence in his abilities. If he is able to fulfill his innate desires to grow and develop himself through work, he has a better chance of maintaining this sort of confidence throughout life, always trusting in his own impulses towards his natural interests.  When we observe the child closely, we learn how to create environments that protect that passion for learning so he will never forget that his potential is limitless.






  1. The Secret of Childhood, Maria Montessori, Orient Black Swan, 2006, pg 38
  2. The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori, The Montessori Series, Montessori Pierson Publishing 2007
  3. The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori, The Montessori Series, Montessori Pierson Publishing 2007, pg 166
  4. The Secret of Childhood, Maria Montessori, Orient Black Swan, 2006, pg 40
  5. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work E.M. Standing First Plume Printing, 1998, pg 140
  6. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work E.M. Standing First Plume Printing, 1998, pg 120
  7. Montessori: A Modern Approach, Paula Polk Lillard, 1972, Schocken Books Inc., pg 39
  8. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work E.M. Standing First Plume Printing, 1998, pg 117

1 Comment

  1. In randomly googling searching for domain names I had scratched on a list, I found your site and then this article.

    This is a great paper. My oldest kids go to a public montessori school and even there the demands put on them are largely age inappropriate. They thrive because they are children but still, it makes me long for something better. Thanks for this!

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