From the vantage point of a doctoral student in education leadership and policy, as well as a teacher at a public Montessori, I'm learning and sharing as I go. This is my space to explore the child's interior life, our discoveries as educators, and work of learning together.
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
Introduction to Montessori Sensorial Materials
How can we help the
three year old that is coming into our classes? As in the area of Practical
Life, the child absorbed all the activities around him, to support functional
independence. She has created the foundations of connections in the brain, the
sense organs. Now is time for the refinement and consolidation of those
connections. With education as help to life, we have to answer what the child
has already achieved, what the child needs, and the best possible way to offer
that help to the child.
Regarding the visual
sense, the child is observing color shape, and dimension. In the auditory
sense, the child perceives pitch, volume, and timbre (the quality of the
sound). The olfactory sense gives the
child information about smells as a complex chemical sense, but an adult can
distinguish over ten thousand smells. The gustatory sense of taste can be
perceived in broad categories of flavor. There is a newly categorized savory
flavor of umami. The tactile sense is
not centrally located like others; it informs the child about texture and
Note that the baric
sense of weight is not included in the tactile sense-- it is a part of the
muscular response to pressure, not on the skin, but deeper.
sense regards perceiving the three-dimensional forms of things. It is an aspect
of muscular perception for size and shape, distributed throughout the muscular
Each of these places
has its own area of the brain and its own sensorial memory. However, in the
course of life and the role that senses play in life, we typically only use the
senses in a basic, vegetative way to generate survival. Yet, they also help the
child to live in a more abstract plane. The scientific man, homo sapiens, is man the knower, but Maria
Montessori described a better species name in homo
laborans, man the worker. The child then classifies and correlates all
the information gathered by the senses to construct the intellect. Even the
most abstract experiences are grounded in the sensorial experiences. All
aspects of the senses take in information to construct The Absorbent Mind.
Classifications of one color or another lead to the sensorial impressions which
will be the foundation of the intellect and the orientation toward the
Now, at the age of 2
1/2 or 3, this is the time that the child will make the transition to refine
her senses, to receive more and more details from the world around her.
Exploring consciously, deliberately, and intelligently requires an ability to
classify the sense impressions. Without exploring the physical world, we cannot
create the abstraction. Sensorial exploration, then, is the basis for
abstraction. Providing specific materials for isolating each individual aspect
of sensorial development. So, the materials that the guide provides for this
purpose are called the Sensorial Materials.
materials feature a specific sense, they engage the whole child, which means
that this is a developmental activity. It may appear to be only a sensorial
activity, but it develops the whole child.
The Characteristics of Sensorial Materials
In the Sensorial
Materials, we need to isolate the sense being engaged. Before adding language,
by naming the experience, we have to explore it without language. Using real
objects for showing colors can be a distraction, since they will then want to
discuss the items-- but making objects
identical in all respects except one can help the child to differentiate
that particular sense. The specifically designed materials have no other use in
the environment; they are materialized
abstractions, making concrete an abstraction. Day to day materials do
not serve this purpose, because they do not isolate the quality; other features
will distract the child. (As an aside, there is the misconception that
Montessori is a philosophy and not a specifically designed practice of precise
materials.) Each of these materials isolates a
quality, isolates a sense, and makes possible the interactive and
manipulative work of the child.
The principle in all
of the Montessori Materials in the classroom is that they embody an abstraction
in a very particular way. The Sensorial Activities are keys to the world, in a limited way. It is just enough to open the door
to exploration. They are limited not just in the number of stimuli available in
each sense, but they are limited in the quantity
of the materials available in the room. One piece of material provides many
In each of the
materials, there has been great thought gone into the question of the intensity
of the stimulus. They are mathematically precise.
If there are a series of objects, that number is a mathematically significant
number. Furthermore, within these materials are buries some element of human
scientific culture, so that while interacting with the materials, the child is
being intellectually prepared for some future work.
Embedded in each of
the materials is the child's control of error, so that a child working with it
gets feedback from the material and is not dependent on an adult saying,
"You got it!" This way, the material itself can guide the child to
the exact classification. This control of error can be a mechanical control of error, meaning that the
spaces such as the triangle only fit into the triangle frame. The other control
of error is perceptual, being connected with the child's developing sense of
discrimination, the mechanical dishamony. This
is a developing sense of perception, inbuilt into the design of the materials.
It depends on the emerging sense of clarity in the child's mind regarding what
looks right to the child.
The material control
of error leads the child to apply her reasoning power to distinguish small
differences. This leads the child to discern error when the materials do not
convey this message. She will begin to correct herself without the teacher
telling her to do so. It becomes an intrinsic sense of self-correction. It is
tempting to convey these lessons with photos or language, but that is the adult
way. Orient these lessons toward the way the child learns.