“Because she did experiment and observe the children, her materials were not limited to those that would be the best from an association’s viewpoint. In particular, the Sensorial curriculum, as it exists in Montessori classrooms today, seem tailor-made to allow the child to experiment with Piagetian cognitive skills, especially one-to-one correspondence, classification, and seriation.”
-John McChattin-Nichols, author of The Montessori Controversy
Maria Montessori also developed an area of curriculum called “sensorial” for the Montessori classroom. In 1967, Montessori said she drew upon her psychological testing and objects as well as materials “…earlier designed in her [own] experimental work.” She also used material by Itard and Sequin, as they attempted to “…educate retarded and mentally deficient children.” The sensorial materials were developed to help children in the process of creating and organizing their intelligence. As the child becomes more adept at using his senses, he begins to enjoy his world more and, as a natural result, engages in even more exploration and development. Today this area can easily be the most costly to furnish, but one can find many vendors offering the manipulative materials in different quality and price.
Montessori categorized Sensorial exercises into eight different groups: visual, tactile, baric, thermic, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and sterognostic. Visual exercises help develop the child’s ability to visually discern differences between similar objects, while tactile exercises teach through the sense of touch. Montessori recommended that “the Exercises given to the children are limited to the tips of the fingers, and particularly, to those of the right hand.” If the child is only experiencing the tactile sensation through one small part of his body, he can better focus on what he is feeling. In baric exercises, the child learns about pressure and weight, while in thermic exercises he works to refine his understanding of temperature. Auditory exercises aid the child in discerning between different sounds, while olfactory and gustatory exercises help the child distinguish smells and tastes. Finally, in stereognostic the child learns to recognize objects through feel; in discussing this category, Montessori explained: “When the hand and arm are moved about an object, an impression of movement is added to that touch. Such an impression is attributed to a special, sixth sense, which is called a muscular sense, and which permits many impressions to be stored in a “muscular memory,” which recalls movements that have been made.”
Why do we have the sensorial area in the Montessori classroom? Each lesson in the sensorial area is designed to emphasize one quality, but in different degrees that are perceptually observable; the quality being focused on is found in the world and may include size, shape, or color. Unlike the zippers and bows used in practical life exercises, the materials used here are not those encountered in everyday life. Furthermore, it is very important that this quality remain in isolation! Montessori said, “The function of the sensorial materials is not to present the child with new impressions…but to bring order and system into the myriad impressions he has already received and is still receiving. ”Sensorial materials offer self-correction so that the child can focus on this one isolation of difficulty. (That is, the mistake made is easily identifiable and the child will see it and correct it himself, rather than turning to the teacher.)
As a result of self-correction, the child gains auto-education from the lessons given. In order for the child to gain an orderly mind and prepare himself or herself for intellectual growth, there are not duplicates of these materials in the classroom. This would only bring chaos to the mind of the child. The sensorial materials help the child to distinguish, to categorize, and to relate new information to what he already knows; they are not meant to introduce new, potentially confusing information to the child.
Children in the age three to six classroom arrive with many “sensitive periods” for the sensorial area, meaning that in a certain phase of development they are particularly drawn toward and receptive to certain forms of learning. Maria Montessori said, “A child must experience stimulation or grow up forever lacking the adult skills and intellectual concepts that he missed at the stage when they can be readily learned!” First is the sensitive period for order. Here, the child finds a sense of order in the materials and obtains a joy for learning while his environment is orderly. Second is the sensitive period for the refinement of the senses. Here, Montessori said, “The education of the senses has, as its aim, the refinement of the differential perception of stimuli by means of repeated exercises.” Language is the third period because the sensorial area offers a rich “formation of language” while introducing vocabulary to describe things in categorical ways. These three sensitive periods attract the child (naturally by the beautiful materials) by laying down a foundation of traditional academic work.
Let’s explore a few examples, starting with a sensorial musical lesson meant to isolate sound. The materials for such an exercise are the Montessori bells, which were designed to specifically train the ear to perceive differences among musical sounds by matching and ordering. The bells represent the whole tones and semi-tones of one octave. The child matches the bells that produce the same sound, and eventually he learns how to arrange the bells in gradation followed by playing the musical scale.
Providing age-appropriate activities within the musical environment will allow children to develop their skills and reach their inherent musical potential. In the Montessori three to six classroom, singing and singing games are a very important part of the music curriculum, because they allow children to develop their inner musical ear. The voice is a child’s natural instrument and one that every person possesses. As children participate in singing games they are allowed to experience and absorb simple melodies through movement. These singing games can help shy children to participate and sing along when the emphasis is on movement instead of just singing in a large group. Singing also helps children develop their abilities to feel steady beat, chant rhymes, and to differentiate between musical comparatives such as loud to soft, fast to slow, and high to low.
Bringing in music early is also important for the development of Language, which is discussed more under “Music” on my AHM website. According to Frank Leto, professional musician, Montessori three to six teacher, songwriter, and an Early Childhood and Elementary school music educator, music is a language. Children learn to speak their native language instinctively. As children have daily contact and interaction with their parents, family, and friends, they learn how to speak their language as a way of life. The language of music can be passed on to children in the same manner as their native language!
But let’s return to sensorial materials and consider a more tangible object called the “pink tower.” The pink tower is a collection of ten blocks, all varying in volume, and is designed to provide a child with the understanding of “big” and “small.” As he stacks the cubes, he should begin to grasp the concept of size. Furthermore, the child has a visual control of error—because of how the blocks are designed, he can easily see if they are not stacked correctly. Other materials with similar goals include the broad stair (designed to teach concepts of “thick” and “thin”) and the red rods (“short” and “long”).
Montessori developed these and other sensorial materials based on scientific concepts, bringing order and understanding into the mind of a child. As the child gains order, concentration, coordination, and independence he will experience greater self-esteem and become more confident in his explorations.