Archive for June, 2010

Introduction to the Sensorial Area

June 16, 2010

So, my sensorial file is handed in – whew.  Here is my introduction to Sensorial.   I have added in a section I wrote on the modern terms for senses and how this relates to what I’m learning in my Montessori course.  I’m finding the lack of a glossary of terms to relate Montessori philosophy to current child-development or literacy or other child-related sciences frustrating.


The child is introduced to the Sensorial area of the Montessori classroom after he has worked in practical life, become familiar with classroom rules and correct handling of materials, and is used to the idea of a full cycle of activity. While the sensorial exercises no longer involve familiar objects, they are working with skills the child uses every day- his senses.

The child’s senses are his link with the world around him and his only means of exploring his environment. The formative years, from birth to six, are a time of great sensory exploration for the child. Since birth, the child has been absorbing impressions from his senses. Now, through the Sensorial materials, the child is given the tools needed to sharpen and refine his senses, as well as to understand, order, name and classify the various sensations he receives. The child passes through a sensitive period for the refinement of the senses between the ages of 2 ½ and 6 years old. The Sensorial area assists the child to educate his senses. While much of this type of education occurs naturally in the child’s life, the didactic materials in the Sensorial area help to isolate and further refine specific sensory impressions in an ordered and methodical way

The Five Basic Senses

The senses that are educated through the Montessori sensorial education are shown in the table below, broken down into their different areas, along with the examples of corresponding exercises and materials.

Sense Quality of the sense being educated Example of material or exercise
Visual Sense Visual perception of dimension (size) Knobbed cylinders varying in either one or two dimensions, pink tower consisting of cubes from 1cm3 to 10 cm3 and more.
Chromatic Perception (colour) Colour boxes, starting with only 3 primary colours, and progressing to grading colours by shade.
Form perception Geometric cabinet, consisting of precise 2-dimensional geometric shapes grouped into families.
Auditory Sense Volume perception Sound cylinders that make sounds of various volume due to the different media inside them. Children must match and grade the sounds.
Pitch perception Bells – an introduction to pitch and music.
Tactile Sense Surface touch, texture perception Touch tablets showing gradations in rough and smooth, and a Fabric box to give experience in more varied textures.
Stereognostic perception Stereognostic bag, containing matching objects that the child must identify or match through manipulation alone, without visual cues.
Thermic (temperature) perception Thermic tablets or bottles that allow the child to experience different temperatures.
Baric (weight and pressure) perception Baric tablets, wooden tablets of varying weight that allow the child practise in matching and grading different weights.
Gustatory Sense (taste) Taste bottles containing different tastes for matching and grading
Olfactory Sense (smell) Scent bottles containing different scents for matching and grading.

(There are some nice pictures and summaries of the equipment here. Just select the sensorial tab.)

Modern Definition of the Senses and Correspondence to Montessori Sensorial Education

The five basic external senses are sight (the visual sense), hearing (auditory sense), touch (tactile sense), smell (olfactory sense) and taste (gustatory sense). The classification of these external senses is ancient, and has been attributed to Aristotle. Modern neuroscience generally also identifies a number of internal senses, those of pain (nociception), balance and orientation (equilibrioception or vestibular sense), temperature (thermoception), joint position, motion and acceleration (proprioceptive and kinaesthetic sense) and our sense of time. (Thank-you wikipedia 🙂 )

Although the terminology is different, Maria Montessori did not neglect the development of these hidden senses (except of course, pain!). The proprioceptive sense and thermic senses are included in her definition of the tactile sense, including not only surface touch, but also the awareness of form through proprioceptive muscular and visual feedback (the stereognostic sense), as well as the baric sense which educates the perception of weight and pressure through refining our proprioceptive impressions of how hard our muscles must work when lifting or applying force.

The education of the vestibular sense takes place indirectly, through the large amounts of movement intrinsic to the Montessori environment and learning experience. Children educate this sense when they learn good balance and co-ordination, for example, in the “walking the line” activity of Practical Life, carrying equipment to and from tables and mats, as well as by the movement experiences they are able to have in their outdoor prepared environment. The child’s sense of time is indirectly developed through the order of the day, the consistency of the environment and the awareness of nature and natural rhythms, and explicitly nurtured through the Montessori History presentations and other classroom activities and discussions e.g. birthday ring.

Education of the senses in the Montessori environment generally proceeds in the same order:
First, the child must recognise identities by matching something with it’s corresponding pair (through visual, tactile, smell, weight etc). Next, the child progresses to a recognition of contrasts. These are presented as the differences between two extremes e.g. rough, smooth, dark / pale, heavy / light. Finally, the child is ready to perceive, recognise and discriminate between fine differences, and they practise this by grading the various materials. The sensory stimulus that is being presented is, as far as possible, presented in isolation so as to better fix the child’s attention on that particular impression. This helps to order the senses in the child’s mind.

Qualities of the Sensorial Materials

Like all Montessori equipment, sensorial materials are aesthetically pleasing. They are attractive and engaging. The child wants to look at, feel, smell, manipulate and work with them. Materials are concrete, graded from simple to complex and sequenced. This helps to develop and refine each individual sense fully. Most sensorial materials have a built-in control of error, allowing the child to work on his own, and to notice and correct his own mistakes. This promotes independence and helps to develop concentration and sharpen perception. The materials are designed for mathematical precision and are based on ten (e.g. ten broad stairs, ten red rods). This provides the child with indirect preparation for understanding the decimal system. Solid geometric shapes and the geometric cabinet, containing an array of precisely graded flat shapes, give the child the experience of form and shape essential for later learning of geometry. In general, the sensorial area provides an essential intellectual preparation for the learning and understanding of Mathematics, and thus the child is always exposed to this area before moving on to the other, more traditional “school” areas of learning like Mathematics, Language and Cultural subjects.

Sensorial Education as an aid to the Child’s Development

All materials and exercises require manual handling and movement. The activities in the sensorial area promote both gross motor and fine motor skills and coordination. The child is actively involved in exploring the materials. By observing, comparing, judging and categorising the concrete materials, the child refines and heightens his senses. By using his senses in many various ways he also broadens his range of sensorial impressions. He is able to order and name the impressions he is receiving and this is the basis for his understanding of himself and the world around him. The concrete exercises and experiences lead the child into the formation of abstract concepts. Concepts and shapes in the sensorial area are presented by the directress using the correct and precise language e.g. a narrow prism, an isosceles triangle. This enriches the child’s language development, and is an aid to precise, ordered and detailed thought.

The sensory input a child receives is vital to his intellectual and mental development. The impressions and experiences that the child is exposed to in his environment help to form and develop his mental abilities. As his mental abilities increase, the child uses these same sensory impressions and experiences to build up his mental representations of the world around him and to develop concepts. A limited sensory environment has a negative impact on the child’s ability to develop fully. Through the sensorial area, the child is methodically exposed to the variety of stimuli needed to fully develop his senses. Sensorial education enables the child to make sense of what he is experiencing, not only in the classroom, but in his wider world. Sensorial education in the Montessori classroom occurs as part of a total activity which involves both intelligence and movement.

Maria Montessori said, “The senses are the keys to the doors of knowledge” (The Absorbent Mind)

Both neurological and physical development rely on the ability to learn in an orderly manner, as well as the balanced education and use of all the child’s available senses. The prepared environment for sensorial education includes love, security and consistency. The orderly arrangement and careful design of the materials, the precision and consistency of the directress’ actions, and her deep love and concern for the child provides the ideal environment for the refinement and education of the senses. The child feels secure and can work at their own pace, finding the right level of challenge in the graded activities available. Every child is unique, with a unique way of perceiving and understanding the world. The Montessori sensorial equipment and area, through the methodical and thorough approach to sensory education, allows the child to fulfil his individual sensory needs, and to develop a solid sensory foundation and framework for life.