Observing your little one whilst they are playing freely is probably something you do all the time; after all, what is more joyous than seeing your child having fun? However, watching what your child is actually doing during their play is something which takes a little practise but is well worth it, as they give you all the information you need to plan and provide appropriate learning opportunities for them.
During their early months and years, children move through several 'Sensitive Periods' or times when they show a particularly strong interest in an aspect of their development. This means that they are primed and ready to develop skills and knowledge in that specific area of learning. You will notice your little one going back to the same toys over and over again and repeating exactly the same movements and behaviours many times. Conversely, if your child is not interested in a particular type of toy or play, this may be because that they have not yet entered that stage of development and are focussed on another skill.
"A child learns to adjust himself and make acquisitions in his sensitive periods. These are like a beam that lights interiorly or a battery that furnishes energy. It is this sensibility which enables a child to come into contact with the external world in a particularly intense manner. At such a time everything is easy; all is life and enthusiasm. Every effort marks an increase in power. Only when the goal has been obtained does fatigue and the weight of indifference come on." Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood
So, what are the 'Sensitive Periods'?
This period lasts from birth to the age of 2 ½ years and you may notice your little one engrossed in perfecting certain
movements at different stages of this time period.
For example, a two month old may spend lots of time simultaneously kicking their legs and stretching their arms; often
they get into a real rhythm doing this. This is because they are driven to build core strength in preparation for rolling
over. If you notice your baby is doing this repeatedly, you can support them by providing lots of opportunities for them to practise. Your little one will benefit from their awake time being spent lying flat on a floor mat rather than in a bouncer or crib.
If you have an older baby who spends all their days pulling themselves up on furniture or sidestepping along it (often
around 9-12 months) their actions are telling you they need opportunities to be upright, work on balance and strengthen
their legs further in preparation for walking. You can help your little one in this sensitive period by looking at how your furniture is arranged so they can glide between objects, let them have bare feet whenever possible to aid balance and try to avoid walkers and bouncers which restrict their ability to use their own strength and posture correctly.
This period lasts from around 18 months to 4 years and is all to do with your child's understanding of how things should
be, based on their previous experience and knowledge. You will know when your little one is in this period when you
suddenly get a lot of objections to things you do or suggest. Many parents explain this away as the "Terrible Twos" but it
is worth thinking about why Toddlers have tantrums in the first place - all behaviour is an attempt to communicate, so if
your little one is in full tantrum mode, ask yourself "what could they be trying to tell me?".
For example, your Toddler may object when you give them a different cup from usual at breakfast time. This is because
they have built a picture of what breakfast time means and if that involves a red cup, then that it has to be that cup in
order for them to understand the 'concept' of breakfast time. So what could you do to help? The most respectful way to
support your toddler in this case would be to offer for them to choose their cup for breakfast themselves, giving them a
chance to change the cup when they feel comfortable with it.
You might also see your toddler's craving for order when it comes to your daily routine. Your little one needs to be able to
rely on knowing what is happening next to feel secure to explore new experiences. So you might face a full on meltdown
if you try to persuade them to get dressed before breakfast today or have a picnic lunch in the garden instead of at the kitchen table. One way to help is to use the 'now and next' method; rather than springing something new onto your child, tell them, for example, "we are playing with the cars now and after that, we are going to have lunch in the garden on the grass". By doing this, you are allowing your child time to process this new way of having lunch so that when lunchtime comes, they will have already absorbed it. For younger toddlers/older babies, you can support this technique with photographs of the things that are happening "now" and "next", providing them with visual and auditory clues to reinforce their understanding.
The great news about this period is that you can harness it to support your little one to tidy up. You'll need to prepare for this by
creating clearly defined places to show your child where things belong. If you can, have, for instance, a dedicated cupboard for your child's cups, plates etc and try to organise toys into separate containers/shelves etc., the same goes for clothes, nappies, shoes, coats ...... . To help even more, you can try adding photos of what belongs in a particular place; this will appeal greatly to their need for order and aid independence perfectly.
The sensitive period for language is present from birth but from around 7 months to 3 years babies and children are
driven to try to communicate through speech sounds. You will notice your baby attempting to copy your mouth shape
initially and this will be followed by simple sounds, babbling (when babies join several 'nonsense' sounds together) and
then first words and phrases.
When you notice your baby beginning to try to copy sounds, they are showing you they are ready to learn more. Lots of face to face play is really valuable here as your baby needs to see your mouth as well as hear the sounds. At this early
stage, your baby will not understand that sounds (words) have meaning, they are just exploring the fact that giving and receiving these sounds with another person gives pleasure.
Once you notice your baby is babbling, they are starting to understand the patterns of language. At this stage, talking to
your baby in short, simple sentences will enable them to hear the intonations in your voice. Singing is a lovely way to
explore this together as well as using lots of language whilst you are playing or caring for your baby. It's important that
your baby learns how conversation works as a two way process so when you talk to your baby, make sure you leave
pauses for them to 'reply' - it can take little ones up to 10 seconds to process what they have heard before responding
so be patient!
Some time around your baby's first birthday they will make some clear attempts at actual words as labels for things; often
this is mama or dada but it could be anything they have heard you name regularly. Your baby will only be able to connect
the words you say to a specific object if you make that clear, so try to repeat and accentuate a name several times whilst
talking about it. For example ... "Let's change your nappy. Can you get me a nappy from the drawer? Oh thank you, you
got me a nappy. Let's put your nappy on now."
Once your little one has shown you that they understand that the sounds we make have meaning, they are ready to
extend this and many toddlers go through a huge language explosion around the age of 18 months. Your role is simply to provide a language-rich environment for them to soak up and explore. Talk to your toddler about everything and anything
(ensuring, though, that you give them time and space to think!), read lots of books, sing lots of songs and rhymes and
don't be afraid to use complex or long words.
Small Details and Sensory Skills
From around 12 months to 3 years children are often fascinated with tiny details and small objects. You will see that
your little one is in this period when they suddenly are fascinated by picking up a minute bit of fluff from the floor or
spending ages studying the same page of a book over and over again. When your little one begins engaging in these tiny
fascinations they are showing you that they are ready to make more sense of the world by gathering more and more information to build a bigger picture of how things work and why things happen.
This is a tricky one to respond to in as your little one's desire to explore little things is going to have
you constantly chanting "choking hazard" under your breath! As your toddler gets older, you can gradually encourage
them not to put objects in their mouths by suggesting "keep it in your hand" (this is a more positive message than
"don't put it in your mouth").
So, how can you provide experiences to support your little one when they show you they are in this period? This is all
about adding breadth to their existing experience and, at home, can be addressed by looking at their world from their
angle (literally). Ask yourself "what looks interesting from down here?" , think about how you display things like
artwork, plants, ornaments etc and consider the range of sensory experiences are available (look at textures, sounds
and smells as well as tastes and sights). When you're outside, try to visit a range of environments when possible, and allow your child time to stop and explore something new ... maybe they've noticed a spider's web or a tiny petal floating on a puddle ... when you're this age, the detail is everything!
To make sense of new experiences. your child is going to try to form categories in their brain and add to them each time they
encounter something new. You can help them with this by playing games which encourage sorting objects which share
similar characteristics - perhaps you could sort the farm animals by type or the cups by colour. Toys which involve
stacking are also ideal at this stage as your little one is developing a sense of understanding that things work together
when organised in specific ways.
Of course all children will show their particular fascinations at different times; the ages mentioned here are approximate guidelines. Some sensitive periods are so intense for some children that they will focus on nothing else for a while. For example, a 13 month old who is determined to take those first wobbly steps by herself and is working on pulling herself up all day long, is less likely to be adding much to her vocabulary until she has mastered the walking.
The key message to take from this is that your little one is a special, unique person who will do what they need to do when they are ready. Reading about baby milestones is something we all do and is useful to a certain extent but only you really know your child and, if you observe them regularly, they will tell you when they are ready to learn something new.