Your infant, newly proficient at crawling across the floor and seemingly intent on breaking speed records for infant scooting, stops in her tracks, fascinated by a speck of lint on the carpet that you can barely see. She stares intently at it, wiggles her tiny fingers in an effort to pinch it and, after great effort, picks it up and puts it in her mouth. It’s the beginning of the sensitive period to small objects.
The sensitive period to small objects can be one of the most confounding for adults. Why is my toddler obsessed with tiny things? Why does she have to pick up everything she can hold in her hand? How can one spot on my tie be so interesting that she’s more engaged in talking about it than in giving me a hug at the end of the day? For late infants and toddlers, the sensitive period to small objects is a wondrous time. While the objects that capture children’s attention may seem perfectly mundane to adults, children in this sensitive period are attentive to their unique elements, the smallest ridge on the back of a model elephant, the perfect corners on a tiny cube. Children in this sensitive period, surrounded by a world that is far greater and more vibrant and more complex than any one of our ability to take in, turn their attention instead to the details.
Remember: each of the sensitive periods allow the child to learn more about the world around her in a focused and manageable way. In the first three years, as the child is confronted with so many new stimuli, the sensitive periods are a way of classifying her attention. The sensitive period to small objects reflects the child’s developmental focus on the things immediate to her. What can I touch? What can I carry? What can I look at closely? How do these things respond? How do they taste? From the pebbles that your child squats to observe on your daily walk to your toddler’s ability to tell the difference between your house key and your office key, the sensitive period to small objects provides sharp details in what might otherwise be an overwhelming world.
For parents of toddlers in this sensitive period, the world can feel like one enormous choking hazard! Children want to explore their world with all their senses, and the ability to taste objects is one more way to explore. While younger children may need you to remove small objects from their mouths, older toddlers can be prompted to take them out on their own. A simple gesture and a reminder to “keep it in your hand,” is often enough (with a patient understanding that the drive to taste objects is a powerful one to redirect.) Maintaining your own calm when your child mouths small objects helps to remind her that she should explore her world and that she can do so safely with some simple limits.
Most of all, remember that the sensitive period to small objects is as essential to your child’s learning as the sensitive periods to movement or order or language. Your child stopping to attend to a new weed in the crack in a sidewalk may seem like a distraction to your walk to the park, but the child in a sensitive period to small objects needs to stop and check on that weed. She needs to take the time to notice how it’s just a little bigger than it was yesterday, just a little greener. Notice those changes with her. Allow the time for her to be fascinated by these tiny details. In the end, it will help her to understand the big things more clearly, and in the meantime, you’ll have been able to see the world, in its tiniest fascinations, through your child’s eyes.