Young children like to explore experiment, tinker and try new things. They like to touch and feel and manipulate objects. They feed their minds through activities. They learn through their senses to satisfy their insatiable appetite for things to do. The first of the child’s organs to begin functioning are his senses.
Dr. Maria Montessori based her method of teaching young children considering the fact that a child between two to six years passes through the ‘sensitive period for the refinement of senses’ and they can be helped in the development of the senses while they are in this formative period. In order to serve this purpose Dr. Maria Montessori introduced a subject called ‘Sensorial’ where the materials are specially designed to enable the children to use their senses to explore different attributes of the world.
“it is necessary to begin the education of senses in the formative period, if we wish to perfect these sense development with the education which is to follow” (Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, page 221)
Montessori classrooms provide a prepared environment where children are free to respond to their natural tendency to work. The prepared environment offers the essential elements for optimal development. The key components comprise the children, teacher and physical surroundings including the specifically designed Montessori educational material. All of the materials in the Montessori classroom have been specifically designed to attract the interest of the student, while at the same time teaching an important concept. The purpose of each material is to isolate a certain concept the child is bound to discover. Montessori believed that “what the hand does, the mind remembers”.
The materials are simple, direct and are easy to understand. Children use these materials in spontaneous exercises. The sensorial materials are concrete bits of information which can be organized into meaningful patterns. The didactic nature of the material gives the children hands on experience with all concepts, taught. Human senses can perceive nine qualities in an object: Shape, Colour, Texture, Sound, Smell, Taste, Temperature, Weight and Size. Montessori materials are made to isolate each of these qualities in order to individually perfect the senses that identify them. Hence, a child who is subjected to these materials are refining, exercising and sensitizing all five basic senses; visual sense, tactile sense, auditory sense, gustatory sense, olfactory sense and also the additional senses; baric sense (sense of weight), thermic sense (sense of temperature) and stereo gnostic sense (sense of shape and size of an object by feeling it with hands).
For example: a child using his tactile and visual sense explores different dimensions of an object i.e. height, diameter etc. in the presentations like Knobbed cylinders, Pink tower, Brown stairs and so on. He explores different intensities of colours using his visual sense in Colour boxes. His auditory sense is enhanced while exploring different intensities of sound; loud and soft in Sound boxer while he can differentiate between tow textures; rough and smooth using his tactile sense in Touch boards. In Baric tablets, he gets a clearer perception of weight – light or heavy using his baric sense and so on.
“A tower of blocks will present to the child only a variation of size from block to block- not a variation in size, colour, design and noises…”(P.P. Liliard, Montessori A modern Approach, Page 62)
Though the idea of didactic materials is taken from Seguin, Dr. Montessori modified them based on her observations of the children. By Didactic materials we mean the materials which are self-corrective and by the process of trial and error a child can achieve the end result without much assistance from the. This is basically known as ‘Auto Education’. For example, when working with the sound cylinders, the child can check the bottom of the cylinders to see if the dots/numbers match. If they do, she knows she has matched them correctly.
In the Montessori classroom the materials represent abstract ideas. The use of concrete materials to learn abstract concepts and operations is essential to the development of the child’s mind. The materials can be felt and manipulated so that the hand is always involved in the learning process. Later, as they master the concrete they begin to move to the abstract, where the child begins to solve problems with paper and pencil while still working with the materials. “..The lessons are designed to enable the child to sort out and digest the large numbers of impressions he possesses, to assimilate additional ones through experience, and to stimulate and refine the child’s power of observation preliminary to acquiring judgment and understanding”( E.G. Hainstock, The Essential Montessori, page 92) The sensorial activities provide self-confidence, independence, concentration and memory which leads to more abstract learning. Since, the sensorial training introduces a child to work with all other Montessori materials, the sensorial materials become an important part of the prepared environment.
For example, the touch boards provides the initial sensitivity to rough surfaces required for sand paper letters and the red rods provides the basis for number rods. In a Montessori classroom, The first thing which is given to a child is usually is the knobbed cylinders. This piece of material is entirely self-corrective, and needs no supervision. When it becomes easy for a child quickly to get all the cylinders into the right holes, he goes on to other exercises, One of the exercises which it is usual to offer him next is the construction of the Pink tower. Pacing the biggest at the bottom, the next biggest on that, and so on to the apex made by the smallest one- basically teaches the difference between big and small. The difference between long and short is taught by means of ten squared Red rods of equal thickness, but varying length, the shortest one being just one-tenth as long as the longest.
The Long Stair is constructed by the child with these. Thickness and thinness are studied with the Broad stairs; ten solids, wooden bricks, all of the same length, but of varying thickness, the thinnest one being one-tenth as thick as the thickest. With these the child constructs the Broad Stairs. After the construction of the Long Stair and the Broad Stair, begins the training of the eye to discriminate between minute differences in shades, is carried on steadily in a series of exercises. After this, the child is usually ready for the exercises with different fabrics to develop his sense of touch, and for the first beginning of the exercises leading to language; especially the strips of sandpaper pasted upon smooth wood used to teach the difference between rough and smooth.
At the same time with these exercises, begin the first ones with color which consist of matching spools of identical color, two by two. When these exercises of the tactile sense have been mastered, the child is allowed to attempt the more difficult undertaking of recognizing all the minute gradations between smooth and rough. After such initial exercises children move to more abstract exercises like geometric insets, where children are taught to trace along the geometric shape and inset before fitting it in; thus imprinting the muscular habit of tracing the shapes later used to introduce letters & numbers.
“Dr. Montessori set out to produce abstract ideas in a concrete form. She took each main abstract idea necessary for the understanding of the curriculum and made a piece of sensorial material to help children understand” (Course manual 105, The five senses, page 3) The objective of Montessori is to develop the concept first. Montessori students use concrete hands-on learning materials that make abstract concepts more clear. Lessons and activities are introduced simply and concretely in the early years and are reintroduced several times during the following years at increasing degrees of abstraction and complexity. Concrete materials make concepts real, and thus easily internalized. Therefore, sensorial materials not only provide the refinement of sense but it actually prepares the child for many other subjects which the child encounters afterwards. By using concrete materials during the early, sensitive years, the Montessori child can learn the basic concepts of mathematics and language.
Maria Montessori believed that all humans are born with a “mathematical mind”. From the beginning, the students are introduced to mathematical concepts in concrete form. This approach to math is logical, clear and extremely effective. It allows the students to internalize math skills by using concrete materials and progressing at their own pace toward abstract concepts; to help students understand and develop a solid foundation in mathematics. As most mathematical topics, Geometry too, relies on the concreteness of the materials. Traditionally, geometry is taught as an abstract series of rules, theorems, and propositions meant to be memorized by the student. Maria Montessori saw geometry as firmly rooted in reality. Her geometry curriculum uses concrete, sensorial experimentation that lead students to concepts through concrete research.
The focus of the geometry work is not as dependent on the result as it is but the work the student has done to achieve the result. Hence, the sensorial materials offer an excellent way of introducing Geometry to a child at a very tender age by the presentations of Geometry Cabinet, Geometry Solids etc. in every presentation a child thinks logically or compares the materials with other to achieve the final goal. This actually sharpens the comparative study skills and logical thinking of a child. Additionally, almost all materials indirectly prepares a child for decimal system because most of the materials are ten in number.
Sensorial materials also prepares a child for languages starting from introduction of letters to other aspects of language like adjectives, opposites, comparatives, superlatives and also new words by the three period name lesson given on each material. The presentation of drawing insets prepares a child to write while the knobs present in the materials being the thickness of a writing pencil prepares the hand for holding it. As all Montessori materials, sensorial materials continue to reflects the basic concepts of left to right & top to bottom, imprinting pattern in the child’s mind, for future reading and writing. The student works abstractly (paper and pencil) when he or she has internalized the pattern and no longer needs the Montessori material.
Therefore to initiate a child into world of spontaneous education using his senses and his natural propensities sensorial materials provide a vital basis
As montessorians, we need to understand how children move towards understanding concepts and how different ways of using the materials match children evolving conceptual development. Montessori designed her sensorial curriculum area considering these facts. The child who has worked with the sensorial materials has not only acquired a greater skill in the use of senses but also guides his exploration of the outside world. Since, “The education of senses makes men observers.” (Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, page 228)