Maria Montessori wrote “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first period from birth to age six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed. But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers.” This belief is being reaffirmed today as we can see by the current push for early childhood education. Why is early childhood education so important? One big reason is that it is at this time in a child’s life that they are developing and learning is accomplished easily. What is learned at this stage will carry though their lifetime.
The first six years of a child’s life is referred to as the “Absorbent Mind” in Montessori terms. At this time, learning is effortless for the child. For the first three years of this stage a child is like a huge receiver, absorbing like a sponge all information without discrimination. Pathways in the brain are being formed and strengthened by repeated activity. The more pathways a child develops the stronger their brain. During the second three years, learning happens from intentional interaction with the environment. The first six years can be further broken down into what Montessori called the planes of development. These planes are periods of time where a child is particularly sensitive to specific stimuli. Children are driven to repeat activities that fulfill the needs of each plane. Sensorial materials help fulfill the need to develop sensory perception, language acquisition, coordination of movement and order.
For many adults the sensorial materials appear to be merely toys with no academic value. In actuality these materials are training the brain for academic learning. It is here that a child learns to create order from all the stimulus with which they are constantly bombarded. Vital academic skills such as comparison, grading and association with the environment are developed with these materials. The materials are basic, without wild prints and colors. Eliminating extraneous distractions helps the child to focus on developing one sense at a time. This is known as the isolation of difficulty, a concept that is repeated throughout the materials in a Montessori classroom.
A child’s brain is not yet ready to receive lots of verbal directions – they need to see to learn. Very few words are needed for presentations of sensorial materials. Visual discrimination is what most children start with in the sensorial area. Here they learn about dimension with the pink tower, broad stair, knobbed and knobbless cylinders, and the red rods. We have the color tablets to learn about the variations of color. The constructive triangles, binomial/trinomial/power of two cubes, geometry cabinet and geometric solids are for learning about shape.
Auditory discrimination is vital for concentration. How can we expect a child to sit down and concentrate on work for any length of time if they cannot tune out the sounds around them? Working with the sound cylinders, bells, instruments, and music in general help to develop hearing and the ability to choose what is being listened to. Children’s skin is super sensitive which makes tactile development easier at this time. Feeling differences in surface is worked on with the rough & smooth boards as well as the fabric squares. Thermic tablets and bottles train for temperature differences, and baric tablets work on differences in weight. To complete the total picture are smelling and tasting activities. Tactile development is so important that a good Montessori environment will have as few plastic objects as possible. Plastic gives misinformation about temperature, volume and weight. Furthermore, plastic tends to encourage rough handling of all objects as they do not break as easily. Dropping a plastic bowl of water means cleaning up the water spill and putting the bowl back on the shelf. Dropping a glass bowl means cleaning up both water and glass, with the work being retired until the bowl can be replaced.
The sensorial materials are not just for developing the senses. The sensorial activities are the first step for work in the math, language and cultural areas. At some point, a child will realize that the red rods in the sensorial area are just like the numerical rods, the first work in the math area. Math work begins with direct matching of the red rods and the numerical rods. The rough and smooth boards are beginning practice for the sandpaper numerals where a child familiarizes themselves with the shape of numbers. Because of the ability to visually discriminate, a child can see the difference between a unit bead, ten bar, hundred square and thousand cube as well as being able to feel the difference in weight. Language is worked on with sensorial materials as well. Colors are learned as well as shape names. Descriptive language such as “big” and “small”, “thick” and “thin” is concretely defined with knobless cylinders. When ready, a child learns superlatives such as “thick, thicker, thickest”. Working with the rough and smooth boards also prepares the child for working with the sand paper letters, as well as the land and water globe.
As the children mature, their interactions with the materials becomes more sophisticated. It is not unusual to see the oldest children still using the pink tower and brown stairs. Their creations can be truly astounding as they learn new ways to manipulate the blocks. The sensorial materials promote active learning: they need to be carried, touched and manipulated. A child can become oblivious to the rest of the room as they create a beautiful pattern with the color tablets thus training their bodies and minds for the calm needed for academic work later on. The sensorial materials provide an elegant way to prepare the child’s body and mind to transition from concrete learning to the abstract.