Have you ever encountered a child who continues to climb everything in sight from the pantry shelves, to the couches, to the chest of drawers in their room. No matter how many times they get told off for it, they are back at it again! They simply cannot help it. They appear possessed like some inner drive has taken over? You would be right – they have. That inner drive of focus or intent is referred to as a ‘Sensitive Period’.
From birth to six years old children go through these sensitive periods, which are essentially periods of focussed development. The child unconsciously knows they need to master a particular skill at a particular time. Learning to walk or crawl is an example of this too, no matter how many times they fall they get back up and keep trying until they master it!
It is really important to allow the child every opportunity that you can to master these skills when they are thirsting for it as once the developmental period has passed, it will be much harder to acquire that skill consciously. Think about how hard it is to choose to learn a second language as an adult compared to that of a child who grows up in a bilingual household – the child simply absorbs the language like a sponge whereas the adult is consciously trying to put great effort to achieve the same skill. It can be so frustrating dealing with a toddler who is literally climbing the walls, but instead of trying to stop them until you are blue in the face, redirect that need to somewhere more appropriate- a park for example, as their need to climb won’t stop – you just have to redirect it to somewhere that is safer and more appropriate. You will both be much happier and peaceful!
Three of these major skills happen during the sensitive period from birth to six years old and are discussed in more detail below.
The child’s ability to acquire language is simply astounding. From crying being the only form of communication at birth, to ‘babbling’ to using syllables, to then saying their first intentional word to later stringing words together; it is truly phenomenal to grasp! The infant is not taught to speak, however learns through immersion and imitates those voices around them. In the language sensitive period, a child may request to be read to (sometimes the same book repeatedly) or take great joy in hearing rhymes, poems or singing no matter how bad you sound!
It is no surprise that the movement phase is at its peak in the first 12 months of life where the child is developing this skill at full speed – from laying, to sitting, to crawling, to standing, to ‘cruising’ to finally walking on their own at approximately one year of age. Children reach these milestones of their own accord without needing to be taught to do so. Once these movements have been mastered the child sets about perfecting these and then adding complex variations to these skills such as later running, jumping, hopping, skipping, balancing etc.
There are four types of order which are important to the child during this period. These are: spatial, social, sensory and temporal order.
Spatial order to a child means that everything has its place. Keeping the child’s environment in the same way is very important as a child uses their environment to orientate themselves and to feel safe. It is not uncommon for a child to become upset if an object is replaced on an incorrect shelf for example or when moving house.
Social order is vitally important. This is relationships, where they fit in and about themself during this time. Family, pecking orders and ‘strangers’ or ‘them’ out there are explored in this period. Great disruption or distress is caused to children if a regular person is no longer present after formally being a consistent fixture in their lives, for example if a childcare teacher leaves or a family member is no longer in the same household.
Sensory order specifically relates to the differences in things. Adults can take for granted that objects are hard or soft, rough or smooth, are different colours or even different shades of the same colour. Adults realise what is safe or unsafe, but this is all new for children. You can help by allowing your child time and space to freely explore their environment to distinguish these differences (let them touch stuff – they’ll likely try to eat it too though…) . It is common for infants to become distressed and cry if this particular need is not met. Sensory boxes/bins are very helpful in this period.
Temporal order refers to the child’s need for routine. Children need a predictable routine to be maintained in order to feel safe and secure within their environment. This does not necessarily mean that each activity (for example lunch time, sleep time) needs to happen at the exact same time daily to the minute, more that the child can recognise cues in the normal daily rhythm of life, such as bath, read a story and then it is bedtime. At the age of three, the child is at the height of this phase and not only do they still need routine but they can create their own order to add to their sense of safety. For example always wanting to eat breakfast first upon waking before making their bed (asserting their independence!). We cover routines and transitions in my course Peaceful and Aligned Parenting
Your child will also move through sensitive periods in this plane which will fuel their thirst for knowledge in the following areas including small objects, music, grace and courtesy, refinement of the senses, writing, reading, spatial relationships and mathematics. Remember when they are in the ‘zone’ for something, there is no point trying to fight it – simply redirect it to a more appropriate option (e.g. climbing the playground equipment is safer than climbing the shelves in your fridge!).
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