Sensitive Period for Order
To finish up the discussion of sensitive periods, I will turn to the fourth period that Montessori identified in the young child. It is the sensitive period for order. This, to me, is one of the more fascinating. It is a strong part of the human tendency to orient oneself to one's environment, assists with the creation of abstractions, and runs contrary to many of our assumptions about children. (A child, orderly?)
In her various writings about development, society and education, Montessori tells a number of anecdotes in which children become extremely distressed and the adult cannot figure out why. In one, it is because a mother is carrying her coat on her arm instead of wearing it. In another, it is because someone has opened an umbrella inside the house. When she was observing the children in her first Casa de Bambini, Montessori questioned some children who were carefully moving and rearranging a table. They told her that it had formerly been in a spot right under the lamp and had been moved, so they were trying to put it back in its original position.
Montessori concluded that order must be essential to the child. If we think about it, it makes perfect sense. The child has come into a totally alien world and must orient himself to every aspect of it. He is working to understand the rules and categories that will help him make sense of it all. Routines, a neatly organized environment, boundaries, consistency - these provide both security and a basis for understanding.
I was so grateful to know about this need for order before Alex arrived. It enabled me to think carefully about his room arrangement so that it could be a stable, comforting environment for him right from the start. A few short months later, I was surprised at just how stable he wanted that environment to be.
Before he was born, I had placed a couple of photographs on the wall beside his bed. In his early weeks, these became a favorite focal point of his and we noticed that when he was tired of being handled, he enjoyed lying in his bed staring at these pictures. One day, I thought to myself that he might like some variety, so I added another picture to the wall. That day, when I placed him in his bed, he fussed and fussed. I noticed that his gaze was directed at the new picture. Hmm, I thought to myself, maybe I have thrown his world into a tailspin by adding this new element to a formerly predicatable and comforting place. I began to imagine myself in his position - waking up and suddenly noticing this new, bright picture where it had never been before. I removed the picture and the fussing stopped. It was amazing.
This episode reminded me to be sensitive to Alex's need for order. This doesn't mean that routines or layouts or ways of doing things can't ever change, but it does mean that change should be carefully considered and carefully done, and that its after-effects should be observed. Now, when I change something about his room, I try to make sure that he's present. We are working to establish a bedtime routine that can be done anywhere so that he'll have consistency even when we travel. I try not to introduce him to new toys or environments when he's tired and less able to handle change.
It will be interesting to see how this need manifests itself in the coming months. As he begins to learn the "rules" of our world, I wonder how he will handle aberrations from the norm. Will routines help him when we must stay in unfamiliar places? We shall see!