The sensorial area is the heart of the classroom environment. We use our senses to gain knowledge in the world. As young children, the majority of our experiences happen at home and in the classroom. Maria Montessori observed this importance, and created beautiful materials to meet the needs for developing the senses. All the materials in this area involve the use of the senses, the hand, and the mind. Sensory motor activities supply the mind with information, furthering a child’s intellectual development. As they absorb this sensory information, they begin to discriminate and create an internal order. Maria Montessori said, “This internal order lays the foundation for spontaneous association of ideas, for reasoning processes based on positive knowledge and for mental stability.” She believed children who absorbed information using their senses during this sensitive period, between the ages of 2.9 and 6, would later on, use this information for higher intellectual faculties, which she called, the mathematical mind.
The refinement of the senses is achieved through the use of materials that focus on visual discrimination, the auditory sense, the tactile sense, stereognostic sense, baric sense, thermic sense, olfactory sense and gustatory sense. All the materials are designed specifically to isolate single perceptual qualities.
All the exercises in the sensorial area are designed to refine the child’s ability to observe, compare, discriminate, reason, decide, solve problems and appreciate the world. It is the teacher’s role to present the material in a way to allow for this refinement. This is achieved using the three period lesson. At first, the lesson is demonstrated silently. The movements of the teacher are slow and exact. There is no use of language at this time. This allows the child to focus on the motions needed and senses used to successfully complete the lesson. If a teacher talks during this first lesson, the attention of the child is now split between the teacher’s words and actions. This decreases the effectiveness of lessons.
Once the child has mastered the first lesson, by successfully completing the exercise independently, the teacher gives the second lesson. During the second lesson, the child uses language that defines, describes and compares the materials. In the third lesson, the child is asked to name the materials themselves. The three period lesson is unique in sensorial because language is introduced to help differentiate objects, using comparatives and superlatives. This is especially important because children between the ages 2.9 – 6 are in their sensitive period for language. In other words, they will acquire more language at this time, than any other period in their development.
Also unique to the sensorial area in a Montessori classroom are the materials. They are precisely made and are both aesthetically pleasing and scientifically designed. Dr. Montessori was first introduced to the materials in their primitive stages by the works of Edward Sequin, a French teacher and physician who worked with learning disabled children. Dr. Montessori found these materials to be so effective with these children, that she implemented them into her own Montessori classrooms. It is believed that her education in engineering and medicine helped her perfect these materials, making them so precise and effective. The precision of the materials enable the child to work independently and successfully because they are both self correcting and sequential. In the case of the knobbed cylinders, the child uses the sense of visualization to discriminate the correct hole for each knobbed cylinder to fit in. All knobbed cylinders have a distinctive size quality that differentiates them from the other knobs. The knobs are either different in their height, width, length, or a combination. The child must visually determine which cylinder fits in which hole. If the child chooses the wrong hole, it will either not fit correctly, or another cylinder will be left with out a hole at the end. The child then has to figure out which cylinder is in the wrong spot and can self correct the order without any help from the teacher.
Working with these materials establishes memory paths in the brain. This indirectly prepares children for work in other curriculum areas in the classroom, both present and future. The analysis of sound, auditory discrimination, is intimately connected with the learning of the alphabet and differentiating between the letter sounds. Visual discrimination helps a child to distinguish between the different letter formations. Working with the touch tablets, using tactile sense, prepares the child for work with the sandpaper letters. This further develops motor memory by touching something concrete and using this memory for abstract thinking required later. The left to right, top to bottom order of most presentations prepares the child for directionality in reading and writing. Even griping the knobbed cylinders with the pincer grip prepares the child for gripping a pencil.
Many of the sensorial materials contain ten pieces which prepares children for the decimal system. Other math concepts explored are quantity, categorizing, classifying, one to one ratio, and pre-geometry skills. As one can see, sensorial refinement in connected with all curriculum areas and cannot be separated.
The teacher in the sensorial area, as in all areas in a Montessori classroom, “…is the connecting link between the material, that is, the objects, and the child.” (Maria Montessori)
The teacher is responsible for creating an aesthetically pleasing environment. This environment calls to the child who, during this sensitive period, craves order… This order allows the child to feel safe and secure, allowing development to happen naturally. The teacher must allow the child space and give him time to explore the environment. This requires trust and respect in the child. When a teacher can trust the child, they are able to follow the child’s needs.
The value of the sensorial curriculum is clear in relation to its connections to other curriculum areas and future learning. I would be amiss in excluding how much sensorial refinement helps us to enjoy and appreciate things outside the classroom. Without this refinement, we might pass through a garden and miss the beautiful arrangement of colors. The light aromas emitting from the flower and earth may go undetected. The different textures of the plants would not be appreciated for their individual qualities, each contrasting with the other. The beauty of the animals that inhabit the garden, a butterfly or bumblebee, would go undiscovered to the untrained eye. In my opinion, these are gifts that cannot be given to someone; they must be discovered by one. Sensorial refinement allows us these simple pleasures in life.