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 temperature.

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.

The stereognostic sense regards perceiving the three-dimensional forms of things. It is an aspect of muscular perception for size and shape, distributed throughout the muscular system.

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 environment.

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.

Although the 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 activities.

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. 

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