The main purpose of the Sensorial Area is to develop the capacity to be active-minded, to sustain concentration over long periods of time, and to exercise sharp powers of observation. The Sensorial activities provide a cognitive foundation in becoming a careful observer and an independent, conceptual thinker.
Just like in Practical Life, we introduce children to the Sensorial Activities with one-on-one or small group demonstrations. Once they have been shown the correct use, they are free to work with the materials as often and as long as they desire.
The children are able to teach themselves to observe, to problem solve, and to form abstract concepts, because the materials are deliberately designed with isolation of stimulus and self correcting properties.
Isolation of Stimulus.
Each of the materials is designed to help the child’s mind focus on some particular quality, such as length, colour, texture or pitch. For example, the red rods are all of the same colour, the same breadth and width, made of the same wood, and vary only in length. The activity the child performs with each of the materials, furthermore, can only be done with reference to that quality: the rods are ordered by their length, the sound cylinders paired by the sound they make when shaken, and the colour tablets are grouped and arranged by their colours and each colour's specific shades.
The Sensorial materials are designed such that the control of error lies in the material itself, and not in the teacher. Thus, as the child inserts the knobbed cylinders into their holes, he himself can see when he mismatched a cylinder and it is his own intelligence and observation which leads him to correct himself.
The aim of the exercises is not to teach the child how to place the cylinders, for example, but rather, to encourage him to observe carefully, and to apply his mind to solving problems. In Dr. Montessori’s words: “The aim is an inner one, namely, that the child train himself to observe; that he be led to make comparisons between objects, to form judgements, to reason and to decide and it is in the indefinite repetition of this exercise of attention that a real development ensues.”
The Three Period Lesson.
Throughout the Montessori classroom, our teachers play an important role in helping our students to put into words the knowledge they derive from their work with the materials. The teacher observes her students working with a material, and, in the words of Dr. Montessori, “when the child has recognised the differences between the qualities of the objects, the teacher fixes the idea of this quality with a word.” She does so in a systematic process called the Three Period Lesson. First, she names an object or attribute ”This is long. This is short.” Second, she asks the child to hand her the corresponding object, and thus verifies whether he has understood the concept, “Give me the long rod. Give me the short rod.” Finally, she asks the student to pronounce the word, by holding up the object and asking him “What is this?” Thus, children learn to use language precisely. They understand, implicitly, that concepts are not rough approximations but precise identifications of specific things or qualities in reality.
Enable concentration & avoid interference.
The child’s work is real work and they will lose all interest if an adult interrupts at the wrong time.
In Dr. Montessori's words: “The interest of the child is not the mere task, but conquering that difficulty. If the teacher is going to conquer it instead, well let her, my interest is done. … The great principle which leads to the success of the teacher is this: as soon as concentration appears, pay no attention, as if the child did not exist.”
In a well-run, authentic Montessori classrooms such as ours, you will often observe the children working independently, busily, quietly with the Directress observing carefully, but acting only when she is actually needed. This is also why we structure our day around extended, 3 hour work periods to ensure the child has time to settle in, to concentrate, without the fear of being interrupted at any given moment and forced into some group activity.
Differentiating dimensions and ordering by size.
This group of exercises includes the materials known as the Pink Tower, Brown Stair, Red Rods, and the Knobbed and Knobless Cylinders.
The knobbed cylinders, one of the first exercises introduced to children is a set of four oblong blocks of natural coloured wood. Each block contains ten cylinder-shaped insets (with knobs on top) that can be removed and reinserted by the child. The cylinders vary in height and width. In one block, only the width changes, in another, the height,in the third, both increase together, and in the forth, the height decreases as the width increases. A child works with these materials by removing the cylinders, mixing them up, and replacing them in the proper holes. If he makes a mistake, for example, by placing a thinner cylinder in a hole that is too big for it, he will discover his error on his own. In the words of Dr. Montessori: “In the end, there will be a cylinder left over that cannot be fitted into the still empty hole. His attention is brought sharply to bear upon an obvious problem. He must take out all the wrongly place cylinders and put each of them back into its proper place.”
Training all senses to discriminate fine differences.
These materials include the Smelling Jars, the Baric Tablets, the Musical Bells, the Sound Boxes, the Object Bag, the Swatches and the Color Tablets.
The Color Tablets, for example, are a set of small wooden rectangles covered in different shades of colors, contained in two boxes each containing sixty four colors, that is, eight different tints, each of which has eight shades graded from lightest to darkest. Initially, the teacher offers a few bright shades for the child to pair. Next, the child progresses to pairing a dozen shades, then to sorting all sixty-four in neatly arranged rows of gradation and later, to picking out one particular shade and finding something in his environment that corresponds exactly to it. As their skill in identifying and grouping colours improves, so does their attentiveness to the environment, and the joy they receive from the exercise multiplies. Dr. Montessori observes: “The children are very fond of this exercise in colour memory, it makes a lively digression for them, as they run with the image of a colour in their minds and look for its corresponding reality in their surroundings. It is a real triumph for them to identify the idea with the corresponding reality and to hold in their hands the proof of the mental power they have acquired.”
Understanding basic geometrical shapes and solids.
The geometry materials in our classrooms include a set of wooden geometric solids (such as spheres, cylinders and prisms), the geometric cabinet (which includes flat wooden insets representing different types and sizes of geometric shapes, such as triangles, rectangles and circles), and constructive triangles (flat triangles of different sizes with which the child can construct all manner of straight-lined geometrical shapes.) Our students handle these shapes, learn their names (such as “rectangular prism”) as part of their vocabulary work, and thus build a concrete foundation for the later study of geometry. It is much easier for a child to understand what a prism is when they can hold it in their hand.
Concentration and focus
The ability to actively work with a material for 30, 45, 60 minutes or even longer, without needing adult supervision or help.
Finely-tuned powers of observation
The ability to differentiate slight gradations of size, colour, sound, musical pitch, smell, weight, texture, and a habituated awareness of the external world.
A growth mindset
The confidence in her own ability to solving problems, by exerting effort and staying with a challenge until she masters it; and the pleasure of repeatedly experiencing a challenging problem solved by her own efforts.
A conceptual approach to the world
The ability to form abstractions, such as the concept of length, or circle, or musical pitch, and the mental habit of filing knowledge in their mind in useful, accessible categories.
Reality focused, independent thinking
The predisposition to look to the world, not to people, for answers. Understanding that a problem does have a solution, that it can be solved, and the answers are waiting to be discovered, there is no need to wait on people.