Sunday, September 7, 2014
Introduction to the Activities with the Sensorial Materials
As in the area of Practical Life, the child entering the Casa absorbs all the activities around her, 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; in other words, it is time for the refinement of the senses. With education as help to life, the Montessori Method provides an answer for what the child has already achieved, what the child needs, and the best possible way to offer that help to the child.
Man the Knower vs. Man the Worker
Each of the senses 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, humans typically only use the senses in a basic, vegetative way to generate survival. Yet, the same senses also help the child to live in a more abstract plane. Maria Montessori described the scientific human, homo sapiens, as “man the knower”, but Maria Montessori described an alternate species name: homo laborans, “man the worker”. As the worker, the child is actively engaged in classifying and correlating 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, as well as the orientation toward the environment.
Aspects of Various Senses
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—as a note, there is also newly categorized savory flavor, umami. The tactile sense is not centrally located like others; it informs the child about texture and temperature.
Beyond the senses typically discussed in elementary school, Montessorians regard the baric, thermic, and stereognostic senses. The baric sense of weight is not included in the tactile sense-- it is a part of the muscular response to pressure, which is 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.
A Basis for Abstraction
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.
Sensorial Materials as Materialized Abstractions
In the Sensorial Materials, the child isolates the sense being engaged. Before adding language, by naming the experience, the child must explore it without language. Using real objects for showing colors can be a distraction, since the child will then want to discuss the items. However, in making objects identical in all respects except one, the child can to differentiate that particular sense. The specifically designed materials have no other use in the environment; they are materialized abstractions, making concrete an abstraction.
Our work is to make these abstract qualities concrete, to touch and feel them, knowing that none of these qualities exist in isolation. We need to be able to isolate each quality. We do this using materials which have no other associations for the child, so that she can focus on the quality. When we say they are materialized abstractions, every Sensorial Material isolates a property, a sense, and they are created for interactive work. The technique that Dr. Montessori used to create these materialized abstractions was a series of materials that were identical in all respects except for the quality for focus.
Sensorial Materials as Keys to the World
The Sensorial Materials do not offer new experiences, since they have been experiencing these sensory elements from birth, and the world has an infinite range of each of these. However, the Sensorial Materials offer key experiences in limited qualities, enough to open the door to the classification of those experiences. They offer a limited number in quantity and the number of stimuli. There are many activities for the same activity, but there is one set of Sound Boxes, for example, and one set of Bells for pitch. It will be all that is necessary for exploration.
Sensorial Materials as Isolating a Quality
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; however, the practice is also in the specific materials) Each of these materials isolates a quality, isolates a sense, and makes possible the interactive and manipulative work of the child.
Sensorial Materials as Limited
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, a 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. For instance, there is a scientific basis of the concept of the meter and cubic centimeter embedded into the Sensorial Materials.
Mechanical Control of Error
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. The lessons must be oriented toward the way the child learns.
The Sensorial Activities have origins in the work of Dr. Montessori, Itard, and Seguin in their work with children with cognitive disabilities. These materials were originally designed to teach cognitively disabled children; however, in the Casa, it is focused on the development of the whole child. Some of these materials have older origins in the laboratories of early experimental psychologists, who used them to test for various factors, but they are not used that was in the Casa. Some of them were designed by Maria Montessori and her son Mario, but they were designed in response to the needs of the children, observed in the Casa. Many of the materials have been modified, added to, and eliminated from, as she experimented with what worked best in the classroom, from 1907 to 1929. What we see today is the outcome of experiments of response that children made to those materials all over the world, now almost 120 years later. Some ask why the materials have not been updated, over time. These materials are based on the foundational way that humans function. In Practical Life, new tools arise, and Language continues to evolve, but the Sensorial tools are based on innate human function. The concept remains the same.
Montessori’s Selection of the Appropriate Sensorial Activities
The first feature of appropriate Sensorial Activities was the element of spontaneous choice. The children selected them, and the children chose to use them purposefully, in alignment with the purpose for which they were designed. There was also spontaneous repetition, leading to a state of concentration, even in the very young child. Only then could she be sure that these materials served the development of the whole child. They continued to change, through her observation of the children. The binomial and trinomial cubes have entered the primary classroom because of the observations of the appropriateness for this age group. The land and water forms have moved from age ten to age six.
The Use of the Materials
It is a critical feature of our practice that these are not teaching materials. They must not ever be used as teaching materials. They are tools for develop the whole person. We are not teaching them the skills of colors or counting, but rather, they are for the development of the entire child. These materials are not something we can make. There is no adaptation to local conditions, no proportionality to the child. They materialize physical properties and give the child the keys to these. We do not embellish them, as we do the materials of practical life, with paint and art. If we find they are not maintained properly, it will be because the materials were introduced too soon.
There are no multiple sets in the classroom. Even if there are 35 or 40 children in one room, there are a range of activities that they can participate in. They will develop a strong enough will to wait their turn. Because the materials are presented individually, the work is also completed independently. This act is the teacher preserving the child's own time to complete that developmental activity. Any child may observe, but they will not join the other child in their work.
Once these materials are in perfect form, it must be displayed with care, the reach of the child's eyes and hands, so that it may call to the children. Every material has its own place on the shelf and must be found in that place. If a material is in a box, open the box, so that what is inside may call to the child. Rest the lid underneath the box. Make it a habit, each morning, of opening all the boxes; at the end of the day, complete the task of closing all the lids once they have been presented.
The Sensorial materials are not left out until they are presented appropriately. These materials are easily misused and abused, since they can be mistaken for building blocks. They must be maintained in a pristine way and handled with extreme care. If the materials are not being used purposefully, that means they are being introduced too soon. But, once these materials are introduced, they are not rotated or moved and will be a permanent feature out in the room.
The materials are sorted by order of presentation and by sense. For example, the tactile materials are ordered together. Within each material, the order has to be maintained. As a rule, the materials are displayed in the form of the activity completed correctly. As far as possible, we follow this rule, because the Absorbent Mind is completing an unconscious memory of how things should look when they are completed correctly. If there is a chip, they must be removed and returned. If the piece is missing, they cannot be displayed at all. If something is being taken away out of the set, the material must not be left out. It must be addressed as a whole class community.
Use in the Home
As much as it would be nice to think of bringing these materials into the regular home setting, it is not good for the child to have a personal set at home. It takes the material out of the developmental context of the Casa to take the materials home. It spoils it when they have too early or too much of an exposure to the materials at home, not something special for the Casa. It is not appropriate, likewise, to instruct with the moveable alphabet at home.
General Techniques for Presenting Sensorial Activities
Without exception, these are always individual presentations-- unlike in the areas of Practical Life. Every child will have a need for this at a different time, depending on their development. Individual needs will not coincide perfectly, and all three year olds will not have the same lessons at the same time. The movements are minute and refined. Another reason why they are individual presentations-- in presenting these materials, we do not just analyze the movements. We also analyze the thinking through exaggerating the thought processes to directly communicate when the child is right next to us. The guide animates being puzzled, uncertain, amazed, and satisfied. We have the possibility, in individual presentation, to fine-tune each lesson to be clear to each person.
Presentation will follow individual invitation. When inviting, the mentions the name of the material to be used. Come, let us work with shapes? I will show you the geometry cabinet. Likewise, Let me show you how to carry the pink tower. Decide in advance if the lesson will be presented on a table, low table, or a mat, so that all of these will be in place before we show the material to the child, to show them how to carry the materials to the place of presentation. Only what I need should be there. The guide puts the lid under the box and sits to the right of the child, so that they can see all of the movements.
All of the Sensorial Activities are individual presentations. These things set a basis for other children to have enough choice before the guide begins giving Sensorial Activities. Beginning with Practical Life orients the child for purposeful activity, before launching into the Sensorial Activities. The get in the habit of looking for the purposeful end of their work, but the results are not as concrete in Sensorial Activities. There is nothing concrete to show that the child has done it, so it requires a higher level of development.
Then, the guide shows the child how to prepare the materials for the activity. We will show the child how to produce the stimulus, how to handle it to get that impression. Presentation will show the child what to do, the purpose to be achieved, and how to achieve that purpose. And, before the presentation is complete, the guide demonstrates the control of error for how this activity looks when it is completed as it should be completed. Only then can the child work with these materials.
In doing the presentations, we have to analyze not only the physical movements, as with the Exercises of Practical life, but we also analyze the mental movements. We break each of the steps into small movements, pausing after each mental step. Gestures and the face must be animated and expressive. The mouth is not speaking unless absolutely necessary.
The presentation is as brief as possible. The learning does not happen during the presentation. Learning occurs when the child is on their own with the materials, completing their own task and exploration. The guide must out of the child's way.
The child will participate in the presentation as much as they can. Invite the child to carry the box or remove those tablets from the box. Then, allow them to take over parts of that activity. The guide can say things like, Oh, that goes there, when they are taking it out for the presentation.
Blindfolds aid in occluding the visual sense, so that the child can explore components such as temperature and texture without the dominant sense taking over.
Types of Activities
What kind of activities are possible to stimulate the child's sensorial development? Many of the activities have an aspect of pairing-- identical, complimentary, or partial. When a child rests a cylinder in a socket, isolates a tablet and find another that is the same, or matches an inset with the card that has the same shape on it, it establishes that the child has isolated this aspect of similarity. This is the child already forming the concept of the square, or red, and as soon as the language term arises for it, the name will be attached to a previously established concept. The name supports the concept. After the child can complete the activity, then we offer the precise vocabulary.
Purposes of Pairing
Within pairing, comparing consists of presenting objects which manifest a particular quality in duplicates, and the differences stand out. It also makes possible the intelligent activity of creating the pairs, in regards to abstract qualities. The purpose of all pairing activities is to become conscious of physical properties independently of the matter that holds that quality. The nature of the activity is to establish identities among differences. In having these materials in duplicate, putting the two blues or triangles together, it tells the observer that the child has noticed that the two objects are identical in this quality. It relates that there is a level of consciousness with regard to that quality that she is able to see and perceive. In having these materials in duplicate, putting the two blues or triangles together, it tells the observer that the child has noticed that the two objects are identical in this quality. It relates that there is a level of consciousness with regard to that quality that she is able to see and perceive.
Purposes of Grading
Another activity is discerning the differences in the grades of a certain quality, refining the senses along the same concept-- like blue. There is a great degree of refinement required before the child can move from pairing to grading. There will also be a comparison of louder and softer activities. This is another key to the senses that the guide relates to the child. Pairing is simpler than grading, but we introduce sensorial concepts through the pairing activities, because this is the simplest of those two. The guide seems to say, This is red, but red exists in so many variations. Once the child can grade in order from dark to light, at that point the guide can provide language to describe each of those hues. The language will be light blue, lighter blue, and lightest blue. Later, this will have implications on their writing, as they express the refinement of their senses in their writing. The purpose is to become conscious that each of these properties exists in a number of degrees of intensity. The nature of the activity is arranging the objects in series, according to the maximum similarity.
Students may also sort materials by their quality. The children may wear a blindfold and sort a stack of identically sized and shaped pieces of wood by their weight. They will use their baric sense to appraise the qualities of the objects. After they have mastered these, then comes language to discuss these items.
When the child comes to the Casa at age three, they have an immediate need for the Exercises of Practical Life. Now, they are ready to explore their senses on a higher level. The child can receive lessons in the Sensorial Activities at the same time as the Exercises of Practical Life. Which part of their developmental tasks they need will depend on the child. Although she needs to complete these Sensorial Activities early, guides do not present these activities early. First, they must have perfected Practical Life activities for some time, because Sensorial Activities require more orientation and control of movement. Unlike the Sensorial Activities, they will be previously familiar with the Exercises of Practical Life, which give a sense of orientation and a trust in the adult.
We know that all the Sensorial Activities are individual presentations. They are often not ready for individual presentations in the Sensorial Materials. But Practical Life can be presented in small groups, freeing the guide up for more individual exercises. This gives the child more understanding of the work cycle, of observing steps and an outcome. Another way that Practical Life activities help is the concrete end; they are achieving a taste for intelligent and purposeful activities that they can assess as complete, so that they are comfortable telling themselves they are done in Sensorial Materials
The Older Child
If a child enters the Casa older, like at the age of 4 or 5, we can begin their first lesson with a specific challenge or purpose, such as pouring all the drinks at mealtime without spilling any. Setting the foundation with the Practical Life activities, even with a tweak such as this, gets the child in the habit of the work cycle in choosing a work, setting it up, completing it, and cleaning up. The Exercises of Practical Life have strengthened the will of the child, as well as the control of movement, and orientation to the environment and the people in it, which are prerequisites of Sensorial Activities. If the Sensorial Activities are to give keys to the environment, the Practical Life activities give an orientation toward the environment to begin with. It may only be a few weeks delay from entering the Casa that the child will be ready for the Sensorial Activities.
Signs of Readiness
When the child is ready, the guide will observe coordination of movement and a refinement in the hand, a level of concentration and focus, and an ability to complete a work cycle. The child will be able to follow logical sequence. At this point, the guide will be aware that the child is ready for Sensorial Activities. A child who is still exploring the coordination of movement can only receive that development through Practical Life. However, the child should be done with pairing and into sorting by age 4 1/2, when the child has reached the sensitive period for the refinement of sensory perception.
The Role of Each Sence
Examining the senses and the role that they play in our lives, the senses are as follows:
The receptors are located in the eye. Through the eye, we perceive color, shape, and dimension.
The receptors are located in the ears. We perceive pitch, volume, and timbre (its originating materials).
The receptors are located in the tongue. We perceive sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (savory).
The receptors are located in the nose. We perceive thousands of smells with no categories.
The receptors are located all over the skin. We perceive rough and smooth, as well as temperature. The receptors are located all over the skin.
The Baric Sense.
The receptors are located in muscles. It perceives weight.
The Stereognostic Sense
The receptors are located in the muscles. We perceive three dimensional forms.
Each one of these has its own sensorial memory in the brain. Humans take in all of these senses from the environment. It is what it puts our minds in contact with the environment. The senses are capable of receiving these items on their own, to communicate directly to the brain. Guided by the intelligence, they collect information to classify and categorize, to direct action. The senses are the gateway to the intelligence of the mind. Each of these concrete sensorial experiences are the basis for abstraction. On the basis of these sensorial experiences, we build our ability to imagine on the abstract plane. In these early years of life, the intellect is very much dependent on the senses to gain these experiences. In the first year, the senses are critical to guiding our actions and supporting the work of the intelligence.
Sensory Achievements before Entering the Casa
From birth, the child has been absorbing and taking in everything in the environment around her. The young baby, within just a few months of birth, can distinguish family from non-family, in a rudimentary sense. There is so much information that the child has taken in; through this development, even the organs themselves have become more refined through the process of interaction with the world. The more perfect they are, the more information she gets. As the child becomes more and more independent, she gets more and more information through her senses, these first few years. She has these sense organs that are more and more refined, and in response, she refines and consolidates all the work of the first few years.
In terms of the work of the senses, the child will consolidate all of this information by classifying and categorizing around her more and more precisely, so that all the information about the senses will be useful to her. So, we want to give her the tools for this categorization and classification, because then, these tools can become a way for her to explore the environment on a deeper level, with a new level of consciousness and awareness. Being conscious of each of those elements is a key to exploring any of the items around her. If we can aid her in this task of development, she could do it with greater ease and more perfectly. The help to life is giving her the specific tools to do the work that she needs to do at this point in her development. Then, the role of the guide is to prepare the environment and the proper tools for this work, in that environment. We have to present the proper use of those tools and then ensure that he has the freedom to use those tools and freedom to choose those activities, so that she can work at her development.
The Process of Developing Abstraction
These materials help the child form the abstract keys to classify impressions, in this sequence:
1. The introduction to the materialized abstractions, establishing consciousness.
2. We offer the greatest contrasts, such as the three basic figures or primary colors, because through these extremes, we awaken the perception of that quality, and the child learns to handle the material. This is the refinement.
3. A pairing activity where the child through manipulating the material can see that the qualities are the same. When that concept has been formed, we give language, and we play memory games to strengthen this perception, going parallel. This is where the child discusses random recognition of the quality.
4. Grading. Here, the child explores each of these qualities in gradation, as the child is increasing in the refinement of the perceptions. Then, there is more language and the memory exercises, such as finding red in the class. This is conscious exploration.
5. Specific application in her own work or in the application, when the child is creating a work or art, embellishing, or creating a map when the child has to show their refined sensory perception, as the child gains more abstract expression. We create more opportunities for self-expression.
Through these exercises, we see a consciousness of a stimulus and property. Then, the child is aware that these properties exist in different intensities. At the third level, the child sees the qualities randomly in the environment. That random recognition comes as a tool to deliberately re-explore the environment through the memory exercises. Finally, the child is able to use these concepts as necessary, applying it different places with mixed impressions and more opportunities to use art, in different contexts, as an application.
The Sensorial Activities assist in the development of accurate and discriminating recall of perceptions. Dr. Montessori writes about the child who knows immediately that the sheet of glass will not fit the window, or of the child who hears a pitch one time and recalls it exactly. These impressions are the touchstones which stay with the child, reference points to measure other things. This serves the lifelong tendency toward order and precision. What helps us make the finer and finer discrimination of sounds in language? Children have that precision of observation, the accurate discriminating record from their senses that the adult does not have. This habit allows them to see and discriminate, up to the task of reading. It leads to a lifelong tendency of order, discrimination of detail, and precision.
The activities for Sensorial Materials support the children's sensitive periods for sense refinement and the development of sensory perception, for order, language, and movement. It is the human tendency for exactness and precision, for perfection. These elements of imagination and abstractions are the foundation for all other human capacities. It supports the development of further intellectual exploration. Such an exploration is critical in the child's development of empathy, in discovering how the other person feels right now. There are many indirect outcomes of this work. It prepares the child for working on more and more abstract levels, supporting the child's reasoning and abstraction, all qualities of the Second Plane child. Yet, all of these foundations are laid in this Plane through these activities.