The Montessori Mystery Bag


Stereognostic Sense

The perception of the form of an object by means of touch with no visual information. Dr. Montessori makes a fine distinction in describing the stereognostic sense. She tells us that this sense does not consist only of the sense of touch, because only surface qualities are perceptible to touch: rough, smooth, warm, cold. She says the perception of form comes from combined tactile and muscular sensations, muscular sensations being sensations of movement. The first plane child (0–6 years) is endowed with a special muscular sensitivity, which he enhances and refines by spontaneous touching and handling. The young child perfects his sense perceptions through his own efforts.

Dr. Montessori’s work with the intellectually impaired led her to conclude that among the various forms of sense memory, muscular memory is the earliest in appearance. Children who could not recognize a figure by looking at it could recognize it by touching it. Combing the muscular–tactile sense with vision “aids in the most remarkable way the perception of forms and fixes them in memory.” Take, for instance, the sandpaper letters. The form is taken in both visually and muscularly.

It is important to isolate the sense that we wish to refine. Thus, in all sensorial exercises involving form, we can isolate the muscular–tactile sense by removing visual information, by using a blindfold or closing one’s eyes. For an added challenge, the child can insert the cylinders or build the pink tower blindfolded. Such exercises develop an acute stereognostic sense.

One of the earliest exercises designed to develop the stereognostic sense is the Mystery bag

You might have heard of or seen Stereognostic Bags. The Mystery bag helps the child refine his or her stereognostic sense or ones  ability to identify objects based on touch alone (without seeing them).

When the activity is presented to the child all the materials are taken out of the bag and examined. Then all the shapes are placed back in the bag. One shape is pulled out and then you have to find the matching pair just by touch.

You can create this simple activity at your home. All you need is a small bag with an opening wide enough to just allow your child to probe within with his or her hands without being able to see them. Please take necessary precautions to ensure that the objects are not small  enough for the child to ingest.  The mystery bag can be used to develop  language, or be used as a sensorial tool to develop the child’s stereognostic (three dimensional) senses, and to reinforce object permanence.

At first, place only a few familiar objects into the bag, such as a large rock, a piece of bark, and a leaf or fresh picked flower. Though related, the objects are different in size, texture, etc. Please note you are not limited to pick objects that are related.

Here is an idea on how you can work with your toddler using the Mystery bag:

Sit down with your child. “This is the mystery bag.”

Open the bag a remove one object at a time, name it and set it down forming a vertical line.

“Let’s put them back now, would you give me the ….?” Or “Which object is smooth?”

Continue until all items have been replaced again

Close the bag slightly, insert your hand and visibly ponder about the identity of the object you grasp.

Try to give your child an idea of guessing. “I think maybe I have a ….” Or “This object is rough.”

Remove your hand from the bag with object in it. Hold the object up for the child to see first and let your child verify your guess.

Then agree with with your child.

“Now would you like a turn to guess? What are you going to take out of the mystery bag?

There are many different variations to this work. This is one of the great things about Montessori — the children get to practice the same skill over and over, but in a variety of interesting ways. An older child, who is more advanced, could try, exploring the bag blind folded, record what is found on lined paper, or draw word cards from the bag, then match the card to the object.Once you begin to explore the Mystery Bag, you will find infinite possibilities for ways to use it in your home!

Montessori Sensorial Materials – An Introduction

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.