Let There Be Wiggles

Sensitive Periods and the Importance Of Purposeful Movement

by Casey Hardigan


“Stop fidgeting.” “Be still.” “Be quiet.” How often as a teacher do you find yourself berating students with these statements? Imagine a child: bouncing around, babbling, nearly falling out of his seat. Is he listening? This type of behavior can distract us as teachers. Traditional education and our own educational experiences have us teach to most children, while we intuitively know, and research increasingly purports, that every child learns at her own pace, and each child (and adult) learns best in different ways. Some are visual learners; others learn best with kinetic input, and others still by listening. Children calm their bodies and focus in a variety of ways as well. It’s time to let go of what we think a focused child should look like. Let’s help them determine what they need to do to be balanced - whether it’s humming, moving, or laying down - and encourage them to do it, so they are better able to direct their full attention on learning.


Dr. Stuart Shanker, a research Professor Emeritus at York University, Science Director of the Self-Regulation Institute, and former President of the Council of Early Child Development and the Council of Human Development, in his book Self-Reg, describes the “hidden stressors” that children struggle with that can make it appear they have emotional, behavioral, or learning issues, when in actuality they need tactics to help them self-regulate or adjustments in their environment. Some children are overstimulated by certain environmental triggers - a loud classroom, open spaces, etc. - and some are hypo-aroused, needing more physical input in order to return to a calm stasis. The environment is a key component in a Montessori classroom. Teachers are able and encouraged to observe each child and adjust the classroom to meet their needs. A Peace shelf is often a staple in a Montessori classroom, tucked away in a quiet corner complete with sand timers the child may sit mesmerized watching or a sensory bin with materials the child can pull, twist, or otherwise manipulate for kinetic stimulation.



Maria Montessori recognized that children go through “sensitive periods” - windows of time during which the child’s brain and development learns certain concepts easily. From birth to about age four the child is in a sensitive period for movement. In other words, you may notice a child fidgeting in his seat during a lesson because his body literally needs to move in order to better focus. Montessori materials were developed with this tenet in mind. The Sensorial lessons such as the Broad Stair and Pink Tower require the child to not only manipulate blocks with his hand in order to build a structure, they are also presented carefully by the teacher requiring the child to travel back and forth to the shelf many times to complete them. Every Montessori lesson also has countless extensions that allow for purposeful movement and engage the child’s working memory. For example you may observe a child in a Primary classroom removing Geometric shapes from the cabinet on one rug before bringing his tray to a separate rug across the room to match the shapes. The Montessori curriculum, lessons, and teachers honor each child’s development and need for movement in order to learn and focus.


Most Montessori schools look a little different than traditional preschool environments. You may see children sitting in a circle for a classroom meeting, but you will also see several children quietly continuing to work at other tables if they have other work they are attending to. When I teach a lesson, if a child is fidgeting, or laying down instead of sitting, I evaluate whether this is interfering with their participation in the work, and if not, I allow it. This is not because I’m extremely laid back or don’t believe in enforcing rules, rather, it’s clear from observing that some children focus better when they are engaging their body. Rather than distracting them, movement can promote better comprehension. Instead of insisting on sitting “criss-cross applesauce” and asking a three year old body buzzing with energy to be completely still, let there be wiggles.