The Sensorial area is where you’ll find many puzzles, blocks and other familiar materials found at typical preschools. Sensorial in Montessori, however, is more than just fun activities: it’s where children refine their powers of observation, acquire a rich vocabulary to describe the world around them, and learn to problem solve.
How does this happen?
In Montessori, instruction is always individualized. A teacher observes a child, and then offers an individualized demonstration of a new material. She shows him how to take the material from the shelf, place it in a work area – a small table or a rug on the floor. She then demonstrates the proper use, for example, taking the cylinders out of the cylinder blocks, mixing them up, and fitting them back into their proper spots, sorted by size and proceeding from left to right (indirect preparation for reading.)
Once the child has been shown an activity, he’s free to use it whenever he’s interested.
Now the magic happens: each material is carefully designed so that the child learns many important concepts and skills from working with it.
Take the knobbed cylinders, a very simple material that 3-year-old children love. Here’s the many different things this one material teaches the child:
- Gross motor skills. These blocks are HEAVY! When a 3-year-old picks one up and walks with it across the classroom, he has to work hard to maintain balance, to not run into other students or furniture, and to hold it level, lest the cylinders fall out. All this provides a great outlet for a young child’s physical energy – and helps him coordinate his bodily movements.
- Fine motor skills. Notice that the blocks have small knobs at the top. The teacher shows the child how to grip the knobs with his three writing fingers. As the child removes and replaces these cylinders over and over again, he strengthens the fingers he will later need for writing.
- Problem solving. Like many materials, the cylinder blocks have a built-in control of error. They only fit one specific way! A child who places a cylinder in a hole that is too big for it will be left with another cylinder that doesn’t fit anywhere. He naturally retraces his steps, finds his mistake and corrects it. He’s problem solving – and discovering that mistakes are really learning opportunities!
- Left-to-right progression. The teacher shows the child to always proceed from left-to-right as he places the cylinders. Applied to many activities (everything in Montessori goes from left to right, it seems), this automates the left-right movement necessary for reading.
- Differentiation of size. The cylinders vary in size – in one block, just in width, in another, in height, and in yet another, in both dimensions together. While children initially complete the exercise eyes-open, with trial-and-error, they soon are able to look at a cylinder, and place it in its proper spot. In fact, 5-year-olds are often able to put all four blocks together, and complete this exercise blind-folded, with amazing speed and accuracy!
- Vocabulary related to size. Children learn words best when they are tied to things that hold their interest. Can you imagine how much easier it is to teach concepts like small-large, and narrow-wide when a child is engaged in this activity? And in our immersion environment, they’ll learn these words in Japanese/Chinese in the morning, and then in English in the afternoon!
The knobbed cylinders are just one of dozens of Sensorial Exercises! The sound cylinders teach children to differentiate loudness. The baric tablets have them pay attention to the weight of materials, and learn to judge it by holding same-looking but different in weight tablets. The pink tower teaches about volume. The touch boards teach him concepts of roughness and smoothness. With the smelling jars he learns to name and differentiate different smells. And so on it goes!
Montessori children learn to observe carefully, and to name what they perceive. They become in tune with all their senses, and relish using their newfound powers in the real world. Writes Dr. Montessori about the color tablets, a material that teaches children to name a wide range of colors:
The children are very fond of this exercise in ‘color memory’; it makes a lively digression for them, as they run with the image of a color in their mind 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.”