Family undoubtedly is the main factor in the growth and development of the child. However, next to the family, the classroom is one of the most important places in the world of a child. The Montessori classroom not only determines the present state of the child but also his future wellbeing. A child in his formative years, which are between 2 ½ to 6, is like a receiver, he is open to all kind of transmitters. In “The Absorbent Mind”, Dr Maria Montessori wrote: “There are many who believe that the most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement is being formed” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1995, p. 22).
At no other age has the child greater need of well-informed help and assistance, additionally any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance of achieving his goal. In order to help children connect with their environment and be able to contribute to their self-confidence, Maria Montessori developed a system which is based on creating a natural environment for the child idea. In Montessori way of education, the classroom is called the Prepared Environment. The classrooms are carefully prepared environments, housing an array of carefully designed materials suited to the child’s needs. The first task of a Montessori teacher is to setup her classroom, to create a prepared environment for the child.
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 assisted 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. The sensorial area is designed to expand the range and depth of sense perceptions by the child.
“When we speak of development and growth, we mean an exteriorly discernible fact. But the inner mechanism of growth has only recently been explored, and it is still imperfectly understood” (Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, 1972, p: 37). Movement and senses are hardly given any importance in the education system, as the school is more concerned about the intellect. This view overlooks the close connection between the mind and the senses which works together in the development of the child. Senses are one of the most important parts of the normal development of child and hence should be given due importance in the education of children. This essay will illustrate the importance of senses in the development of children, specifically how to initiate a child into exercises with sensorial materials and how to help children to discover, learn and replenish with these sensorial materials.
Senses and Sensorial Materials
We use sensorial materials to stimulate our senses; so what are senses? In the most basic definition senses are our receptors, they help us obtain information from the outside world, they are our means through which we gather knowledge from the environment; we can even say that senses are the windows to intelligence through our senses. Senses become increasingly important for the child’s development and it is senses that kick start the working of the intellect. According to Dr. Maria Montessori, senses are organs designed for the apprehension of images from the external world necessary for intelligence, as the hand is the organ used to gain knowledge of the material things necessary for the body. The child reaches to sensorial perception by paying attention, this attention further leads to observation. When the child’s attention is already attracted and his senses are ready to perceive, sensorial materials have the utmost impact and influence on the child. The child would acquire the knowledge through his own senses and he can work independently anytime he wants and as quite a number of the sensorial materials have a built-in control of error, he would learn about his own mistakes, becoming unafraid of making them.
For instance, presentations using the Red Rods, the Pink Tower, and the Broad Stairs will immediately show an imperfection or a mistake made. Even the matching exercises like The Colour Box or Mystery Bag will reveal the error to the child. Maria Montessori, describes control of error as “any kind of indicator which tells us whether we are going toward our goal, or away from it” (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1995, p.248). The child will notice the error with his own senses again, using his sense of sight. Hence during the process of both working with the materials and seeing the mistakes the child will be on his own although he will be assisted by a teacher. This system makes it possible for the children to abstract the concept made concrete in each piece of material, to name it and face their own errors at the end. Whereas developing and refining the five senses is one of the essential points of using the sensorial materials we cannot disregard the other aspects that a child benefits from these materials. Especially in the course of the child’s neurological, physiological and psychological development, sensorial materials aid the child and the teacher to be able to observe the facts about development.
We can surely link the activities with the sensorial materials to daily life practise. Some of the activities would help us to recognize defects. For example, a child with auditory problems would have a hard time while practising the Sound Boxes or when we create a maze using the Red Rods, the child may not be able to walk on the line and this would also alert us about the problem. Fixating on something or the child’s lack of sensitive period interest can also be easily spotted during the prepared environment activities. Using the materials does help the child socially as well. Children learn values such as respect, cooperation, taking turns, and peaceful conflict resolution in the prepared environment. The materials are limited in quantity, so in order to be able to work with them, each child needs to wait for their turn. This type of knowledge gained is remarkably important and easily applicable to daily life outside the classroom.
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 point out a certain concept the child will definitely explore one day in his natural environment. Discovery in this prepared environment will be done by the child himself by using his senses and this will lead the child gaining his self-identity and security within the learning environment. The sensorial materials are concrete bits of information which can be organized into meaningful patterns. The didactic nature of the material will enable the child to get the grasp of the feelings and senses he already had in his own environment but couldn’t name. By using the sensorial materials the child would be better prepared for the community environment as he would perceive the things with a greater awareness after experiencing it in his prepared environment, the classroom. The world outside the classroom will substantiate his knowledge which is already attained. Maria Montessori believed “what the hand does, the mind remembers”.
By using concrete materials during the early, sensitive years, kids taught in a Montessori environment will internalize the basic concepts more easily. Young children like to explore, experiment 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. Age between 3 to 6 years the child is being introduced to the world. So Dr. Maria Montessori believes strongly in providing an environment rich in all areas of learning so that the child can choose, from his own perception, what he is ready to learn. “As we know, the period of life extending between the years of three and six is marked by rapid physical growth and the development of psychic faculties.
During these years a child develops his senses, and his attention is therefore directed towards his environment. He is attracted more by stimuli then reason. During this period, he should therefore be exposed to stimuli that will develop his senses rationally” (Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, 1972, p: 144). Thus while creating the classroom environment there are points to be considered. Key principles of the prepared environment are beauty, order, accessibility, and choice, freedom, mixed age range, movement, and control of error, materials and the role of the teacher. Developmentally suitable materials will stimulate the child’s inner desire to learn and explore and will help him to be an independent individual.
How to Initiate a Child into the Exercises with Sensorial Materials
The materials are simple, direct and are easy to understand. Children use these materials in spontaneous exercises, so simplicity is really essential. A child would not dare to try a material over and over again if it is too complicated and it gives him the feeling of failure each time he works with it. Another possible result would be the usage of the material not for its purpose. Having known that all the sensorial materials have a purpose and they are designed to fulfil a need, the teacher would like the materials to serve its purpose and help the child with his development and refining of his senses Beauty or brightness of the materials will definitely be the main attraction for the child. Harmony of form and the brightness will not only attract the child but also will help him to get an aesthetic enjoyment. Some kids might enjoy the symmetry and the uniformity of colours, shapes, textures and patterns, it may indicate an ordered way of thinking and there are those kids who prefer mixing and matching shapes, colours and textures. As a matter of fact anything initiated and set up by the child grants creative thinking and results in an inventive final product. Materials being in order will provide a basis for structured learning and that is needed for the neurological and physiological development of the child.
Considering nature itself has an order and a routine, the child can comprehend the order in his own nature using the sensorial materials of which each material is a stimulus for a different sense. Through the materials being in order the child would have a key to the nature of the things happening in his world. David Gettman (1987), pointed out the significance of the order in the prepared environment: ”If order in daily experience is constant, this allows the child to build an understanding of life on the patterns perceived. External order will facilitate the child’s development of an internal sense of order” (David Gettman, Basic Montessori Learning Activities for Under-Fives, 1987, p.8). Accessibility provides the child the possibility of repetition in order to gain control and become really familiar with his environment. Each material would demand an activity from the child hence the child’s being experienced and familiar with the materials would help him to identify the sense he is supposed to learn via using the material. During the material use and classroom activity with the materials, concentration is crucial. One of the main pedagogical purposes of using the materials is fostering thinking and concentration.
Repetition and concentration will enable the child to refine his senses. It is the teacher’s role to lure the child for observation, once observation is gained it is further transformed into concentration; a child can reach to concentration only when there is no distraction. When there is no distraction a child can concentrate and with his love for repetition he refines the activity. Having mentioned the role of the teacher to lure the child, the importance of communication skills cannot be skipped. The effectiveness of the activity and the child’s desire to take part in the activity might be determined by the communication between him and the educator. Using right words is as essential as capturing the child at the right time for encouraging him to use the sensorial materials. A child with physical or psychological needs will not be easily initiated to practise sensorial activities, one who needs to use the toilet or hungry cannot concentrate on anything else than his biological needs. A sleepy or somewhat sad child would also be difficult to persuade.
At this point we see the importance of observation. In a prepared environment, on account of independency being praised, the teacher must always be alert and observe the children. Should the child play with the sensorial materials or pay attention to them, it would be the best time to approach and initiate a sensorial activity. In the prepared environment children are free to choose their own work within natural limits, these limits are usually age related. The material that the child is supposed to use must definitely be age appropriate. Brightness and colours may attract the child nevertheless if the materials are not suitable for the target age, frustration and discouragement might come as a possible result. A child who fails or has difficulty with the activity might be disheartened. More than that, every age group has activities with different targets and purposes, instead of going parallel with the child’s natural growth and needs, pushing his limits is not a goal for Montessori education. Children are let to discover, explore and learn in harmony with their nature.
As can be seen from the above points and discussion it is clear that the sensorial materials are essential parts of prepared environment in Montessori Method. While using the sensorial materials the child is left in freedom to develop by the innate powers that guide him although he gets the necessary help and supervision without being interfered. A carefully prepared environment is created with the suitable sensorial materials for the child to develop according to his age and stage of development. Sensorial Materials allow individual work and repetition, and allows sensorial impressions to be presented in a standardized and orderly manner and initiating the exercises with sensorial materials leads furnishing the child with indispensable and valuable skills.
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