Monday, 9 August 2010


When are the critical periods for a child to learn specific functions?

According to "How to Raise a Brighter Child" by Joan Beck (Ch. 2), there are critical periods in which the child’s brain is being “hard-wired” for specific functions. Learning those skills is easiest during those critical periods – and far more difficult once those periods have passed. Below describes the critical periods for visual, language, music, sense of orderliness and read, write & understand numbers:

• Age 2 – 4 months – Visual

The brain’s visual cortex has a growth spurt between 2 and 4 months of age – the period when your baby stares wide eyed at everything around him as if he is drinking in information visually. He is. If babies miss out on this period of visual input, they never learn to see. That lesson was learned the hard way with babies born suffering from cataracts. Doctors once waited until babies were older and stronger to remove cataracts, but the children remained permanently blind. Now doctors remove cataracts as soon as possible, before the brain becomes hard-wired without learning the senses of sight. It is also why it is so important to do eye-sight test for newborn.

• Birth - age 4 – Sensory

During this sensitive period, the child uses all 5 fives – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing – to understand and absorb information about his environment. A great deal of frustration in many children is caused by parents’ constant admonitions not to touch anything. Allow your child to touch as many things as possible. The most repetitive (and therefore most important) of these will strengthen neural pathways, while the less common, although initially detected, will not provide enough brain activity to develop sensitivity to them. By age 4 or so, the brain has finished its "decision-making" about which stimuli are relevant, and worth attending to. Other stimuli will be ignored. This period, then, is important for helping the child attend to differences in sensory stimuli, which in turn can lead to a greater ability to impose a mental order on his environment.

• Birth - age 5 – Language

The brain’s auditory cortex, which processes sound, explodes with new connections from birth until age 10, and it is closely linked to the ability to hear, speak, and learn languages. The connections form the pathways that a child will use to process the words he hears, the thoughts he understands, and the words he speaks back – all the rest of his life. Thus, a child can learn a second or third language easier at this time than he ever will again. When a child learns a second language early on, his brain can still form new neural pathways to process it. His fast-growing brain has dendrites and synapses to spare, and it can easily and automatically dedicate them to hearing, understanding and speaking something even as complex as another language. But the excess capacity will have dwindled dramatically by the time he is 10 or 12 years old.

Babies make all of the sounds of all of the languages on earth during the early months of their lives as they babble and experiment with making noises. But after they learn to talk, they gradually lose the ability to pronounce sounds that are not part of their native language. By 6 months old, babies prefer the vowels common to their native language. By 12 months old, a baby’s babbling has acquired the sound of his native tongue. Babies whose mothers talked to them more had larger vocabularies. At 20 months, they knew 131 more words than those with less talkative moms. At 24 months, the gap had grown to 295 words and the child enjoys story telling. The time to learn languages is when the brain is receptive to these kind of things, and that’s much earlier, in preschool or primary school.

Deprivation of language stimuli during this period can lead to severe language defects. Without stimulation, the synapses of Broca's area and related language-processing areas of the brain will literally waste away. By age 15, if he hasn’t learned to speak another language, he will never be able to do so without an accent. It is a pity that in some countries, youngsters only starts to learn a foreign language in secondary school.

A child who is exposed to 2 or 3 languages during the ideal period for language pronounces each with the accent of his teacher. It is often argued that it is useless to expose a small child to Chinese if he lives in a non-mandarin speaking community and will not continually hear and use these Chinese words while he is growing up. But even if your child forgets the foreign words he has learned, if he studies that language or visits a country where it is spoken later in life, he will discover that the basic units of that speech are still stored in his brain.

• Age 1 - 3 – Keen Sense of Order

Dr. Montessori observed that children develop a keen sense of order between ages 1. Peaks at about age 2 and subsides when the child is 3 years old. This is the age when your child insists on routine. It reflects a period of special sensitivity when a child’s growing brain is trying to form generalizations from observations and formulate concepts from perceptions. Insisting on routine and ritual gives children a sense of order and continuity from which they can draw conclusions. External order include keeping most material objects such as furniture, toys and clothing in the same location from day to day, following the same daily routines for meal time, when family chores are done, when family members depart and arrive and using the same procedures in doing things with the child such as how baths are given. You can use this special period to teach your child orderliness and good working habits. Children in Montessori schools are taught to put away every item of equipment they use before starting a new activity. They are encouraged to see every task or game as having a beginning, a middle and an end and to finish each cycle before starting another. These children show great satisfaction in completing self-chosen projects before beginning new ones.

If this need is not met, the child's ability to reason and learn will be precarious, since he may not be able to consider his conclusions reliable.

• Age 1 - 10 – Music

A growing body of evidence suggests that learning to play a musical instrument is easiest from about age 3 to age 10, and that children who learn to play during that period perform at a more advanced level than do those who start later. The earlier in life the musicians started playing, the larger was the area of the cortex devoted to playing music. Very few musicians who reach concert level started playing as teenagers or later. The late Japanese violin master, Shinichi Suzuki believed that young children could learn music much earlier, the same way they learned language – through listening and repeating. He pioneered a method for teaching toddlers to play scaled-down musical instruments as soon as they could hold them. Great emphasis is placed on playing by ear; children do not learn to read music until years later. I have done a post of the Suzuki Method:

• Age 1.5 – 2.5 – Interest in Small Detail

The sensitivity to small detail draws the child to the tiniest objects, the separated fragments, the faintest noises, the hidden corners. Also, when the child is drawn to a small thing, the sensitivity holds the child’s attention there for an extended period, fostering the ability to focus on that one small stimulus to the exclusion of all else. For example, your child will be on all fours following with great interest the zig-.zag crawl of a little black ant.

• Age 1.5 – 4 – Coordination of Fine and Large Muscle

Coordination of movement essentially means bringing the body under the control of the will: being able to use one’s fingers, hands, legs, feet, mouth and so on, precisely the way one wishes to. There is an involuntary inclination to perform and repeat movements purely for the sake of gaining greater and more precise control. For example, your child age 3 might loves washing hands, not for the sake of getting them clean, but simply to be able to work on the manipulative skills of turning taps, holding slippery soap, rubbing to make lather, rinsing and ginger-drying.

After this period, neural control of the muscles is relatively fixed, and improvement in fine motor skills comes only with considerable effort.

• Age 2 – 4 – Aware of Spatial Relationships, Matching, Sequence and Order of Things

The child is aware of Spatial Relationships, Matching, Sequence and Order of Things.

• Age 2.5 – 4 – Social Relations

In this sensitive period, the child pays special attention to the effect of one’s behavior on the feelings and actions of others. The work of this sensitive period enables recognizable affections and friendships to develop, allow play to be somewhat cooperative and makes mischief begin to appear conspiratorial. The child is also quite interested in basic rules of social relations such as manners, mealtime customs, graceful movement and showing consideration for others.This sensitivity to social relations helps to orient the child towards intellectual development after age 6, which occurs mostly in social setting and consists largely of the acquisition of social and cultural knowledge.

Children who are, for whatever reason, largely or entirely deprived of social interaction during this period will be less socially confident and perhaps more uncomfortable around others, a feeling which may take substantial effort to overcome.

• Age 3 – 6 – Interest and Admiration of the Adult World

The child wants to copy and mimic adults such as parents and teachers.

• Age 4 – 5 – Interest in Art and Craft

The child’s tactile senses are very developed and acute, and he enjoys using his hands and fingers in cutting, writing and art.

• Age 4 – 6 – Read, Write and Understand Numbers

Dr. Montessori also concluded that the sensitive period for learning to read, write and understand numbers is between the ages 4 and 5. The disadvantaged slum-area children she taught in Italy read and wrote beautiful script before they were 5 years old. You may see that your 3-4 year old is interested and eager to read and write. She may identify labels on cereal boxes in the supermarket because she has seen them on TV. He may pester you to teach him how to write his name, your name and the names of his favourite toy animals. He may delight in having you identify words in the books you read to him. These important signs of special motivation should not be ignored. The child who is eager and interested in reading and writing at 4 may already be past his optimum period for developing these skills by the time the school is ready for him at age 6 or later!


- Basic Montessori Learning Activities for Under Fives by David Hettman

- How to Raise a Brighter Child - Kindle Edition - Kindle Book (Feb. 21, 2001) by Joan Beck
- How to Raise a Brighter Child - Paperback (Sept. 1, 1999) by Joan Beck

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