What is the Purpose of the Montessori Sensorial Materials?
Dr. Maria Montessori perceived interaction with the Sensorial materials as a crucial component of the child’s “education of the senses.” The methodical nature of her approach is reflected in the materials’ focus on a single quality and its corresponding sense: visual discrimination for the Pink Tower, hue and chromatic vision for the Color Boxes, touch and the tactile sense for the Rough and Smooth Boards, etc. The role of these materials is to draw attention to the single variable quality that they possess—the “exception” within an otherwise uniform series of gradations.
The Montessori Sensorial exercises are all about the child’s critical work of augmenting sensory perception and discrimination.
Why is Sensory Work Important for the Young Child?
Before a child can master name recognition of objects, he or she must construct a mental link between sensory impressions and labels. Movement—direct, physical manipulation—is a critical component of this process. The Montessori Schools’ curriculum employs the Sensorial materials in our classrooms, therefore, facilitating this very specific interaction between children and their surroundings.
Children work with series of objects that each focus on a specific quality: sight, touch, sound, smell, taste, temperature, weight, muscle memory, and color perception.
How is the Montessori Method Different?
Almost all early childhood programs have “matching” activities, but Montessori’s special contribution to child development is engaging the child on many sensory levels in a manner analogous to the experimental sciences. The child refines skills, moving from simple to complex, with the ultimate objective of expanding his or her perceptions of the world.
The Montessori Sensorial materials support the child in becoming a careful, attentive observer of the world.
The Montessori Schools curriculum moves far beyond “matching” to encompass concepts of classification and working in series. To quote Dr. Montessori, the goal is to support the child’s development of a “solid foundation for intellectual growth.” The Sensorial materials play an important part in this process by training the senses to distinguish between essential and accidental information through a process of exploration.
For example, the Geometric Solids help children to understand three-dimensional shapes by making concepts—such as prism, cube, cone, sphere, cylinder, pyramid, ellipsoid, ovoid—into tangible objects. The solid wooden forms can be held and, therefore, understood as shapes forming the basis for everyday objects found in the child’s environment.
When working with the Geometric Solids, your child is learning how shapes form the basis for everyday objects.
The process of experimentation continues with continued interaction with the Solids over time. A child feels the rounded form of the sphere hidden beneath a cloth while saying the name of the Solid. Later, our teachers introduce cards with the corresponding two-dimensional geometric figures as line drawings. Ultimately, he or she gains a basic understanding of geometry to support future academics.
Sensorial Materials as Indirect Preparation for Advanced Work
Just about every activity in a Montessori classroom has two purposes: one direct and the other indirect. While the direct goal aims at providing the child with a skill he or she can use in the present, the indirect goal focuses on abilities that will be put to good use later in life.
Your child’s current interests in the classroom will help develop future abilities in a way that respects his or her psychological needs and physiological abilities.
The Knobbed Cylinders help develop discrimination of dimensions.
For example, the Sensorial materials indirectly prepare a child for writing through coordination of the fingers. Focusing on fine motor skills directly relates to hand and eye coordination. Knobs on the Cylinders and on the Geometric Insets support the child in refining skills for gripping and delicately maneuvering a pencil.
Similarly, the Rough and Smooth Boards help the child to refine a sense of touch, partially in preparation for use of the Sandpaper Letters, a key material in the Language area of the classroom. Tracing forms in the Geometric Cabinet is also a form of training for both the eyes (exactness of shape) and for the hands (muscular development). All of this work is necessary preparation for eventually forming letters.
Future work in math and geometry are typical aims of the indirect preparation of working with the Sensorial materials.
Stacking the cubes of the Pink Tower requires visual discrimination and precision.
When children engage with seriation materials, such as the Pink Tower, Broad Stair, and Long Red Rods, they are being prepared for understanding the base number of 10 in the decimal system. In addition, older children will likely base their understanding of volume on early interactions with these materials, including (as with the Pink Tower) cube roots.
Having a concrete understanding of a formula or concept, prior to conceiving of the abstraction, will be very helpful in completing a whole understanding later.
Children in a Montessori classroom work on refining their auditory sense.
The Montessori Bells presentation consists of sound matching and placing sounds in a prescribed order, or “scale”—a necessary foundation for a musical education. Although associating notes with written music can eventually lead to playing music and creating compositions, the primary aim is to refine auditory discrimination. The child is “prepared” for appreciating and listening to music.
Your Child’s Experience of the Sensorial Materials
The Montessori Schools’ teachers receive rigorous training (minimum 2 years) as part of the certification process, which includes a teaching apprenticeship, extensive child observation, and coursework encompassing principles of child development, Montessori philosophy, and Montessori materials. A key aspect of this training is recognizing developmental milestones involving sensitive periods in your child’s life when his or her interests are focused on mastering a particular skillset or knowledge area.
Our teachers are experts in recognizing critical points in a young child’s inner development; teaching strategies directly relate to a child’s experience with classroom materials.
As educators, we want to be acutely aware of each child’s stage of development as it relates to the timing of these special, yet transitory, periods of sensibility, which represent unique opportunities for growth. The Sensorial area of the classroom can play a key role. In special, highly effective ways, these materials focus the child’s attention on developing the ability to perceive the world in a multitude of colors, textures, and dimensions.