Beginner's Guide to Montessori Sensorial Activities

Guide to Montessori sensorial activities via MontessoriMethods.com

Why it's best to save the sensorial materials like the pink tower until your child is at least 3 years old.

The pink tower, brown stair, red rods, cylinder blocks, colour tablets, rough and smooth boards, smelling and tasting bottles, binomial cube, sound boxes, and constructive triangles are some of the Montessori sensorial materials that develop and refine your child's senses.

Qualities such as "pink", "sour", "heavy", "rough", "cold", "narrow", and "loud" are abstract ideas. These qualities don't actually exist (you cannot hold "pink" in your hand), but rather they are agreements among people in our culture about abstract ideas. Your child was not born with this knowledge so part of the process of adaptation involves figuring out these agreements. 

Toddlers don't yet have the capacity to think about abstract ideas.

During the first six years, children have an absorbent mind. They absorb impressions of the world around them through their senses. Every sensory experience leaves an imprint on the brain and the most used neural connections become strengthened. Neuroscience tells us that this is how the brain develops itself. The child does not choose what to absorb and there is no filtering. The child absorbs knowledge without any conscious effort.

We cannot create observers by saying ‘observe’, but by giving them the power and the means for this observation and these means are procured through education of the senses.
— Dr. Maria Montessori

Dr. Maria Montessori created the sensorial materials to educate the senses. They help the brain organize and categorize all of the impressions that were unconsciously absorbed during the first three years in order to facilitate abstract thinking.

Around 3 1/2 years old, your child is developmentally ready to figure out the agreements people have made about abstract ideas.

Through work with the sensorial materials, children physically connect with an abstract idea using the most relevant sense. Your child cannot learn what "sweet" is by looking at a picture of a cake in a book. He or she must taste sweet first, and then hear the language to name it.

For example, the tasting bottles activity asks your child to taste a sample (one of the four basic tastes we have agreed exist in the world: sweet, sour, bitter, salty), and then find its match. All of the 8 bottles are exactly the same (shape, colour, size, weight, smell, texture, temperature) except for the taste. After your child has matched all the bottles and has checked her work to see if she is happy with it, then each taste is sampled again and the name is given one at a time. The impressions absorbed by your child's brain will, with repetition, become perceptions, which he will use to create his own ideas about what it means to taste something "sweet".

The sensorial materials ask children to make a lot of decisions. They compare and contrast and make judgements.

This is why it's important to wait until your child is capable of thinking about thinking before presenting the sensorial materials. 

It is only sometime after turning three years old that children start to be able to act intentionally and there is evidence of more thought and choice about what they do. 

If you present the sensorial materials to your child before he's developmentally ready, he won't be interested or, if he does show some interest, then he won't really get it because he's not yet able to think in an abstract way. And, there's a risk that the sensorial activities will not be enticing when your child is developmentally ready because they will be so familiar.

If you're starting Montessori at home with your toddler, here are 3 things you can do to provide a sensorially rich environment while you wait for your child to be developmentally ready for the sensorial materials.  

1. Get outside and explore nature. Allow your toddler the freedom to follow inner urges (guided by sensitive periods) to explore the world using all senses and all forms of movement. Imagine how the eye develops depth perception in a much more refined way in a child who watches a squirrel move in real life at the park compared with only seeing it on video.

2. Listen to pop, rock, classical, electronic dance, country, r&b and more with your toddler. Imagine how the auditory sense is much more refined in a child who is exposed to a wide variety of music rather than just children's songs.

3. Offer your toddler a wide variety of food with different tastes, textures and aromas. Imagine how the senses are more refined in a child who tries all different kinds of food rather than just what's offered on a typical children's menu.

Practical life activities around the home will prepare your child for working with the sensorial materials.

The sensorial materials will require your child to do a lot of thinking in order to figure out what to do next, for example, while building the pink tower or the red rods or the binomial cube.

Your child needs to be able to follow a logical sequence and also needs to have developed enough concentration and persistence to be able to solve the challenges of the sensorial materials. 

The practical life activities help your child develop concentration because the natural consequences of losing focus during an activity are obvious and concrete. For example, water spills or a glass breaks. When working with the sensorial materials, the material itself doesn't call out for urgent action if, for example, the red rods are not in order from shortest to longest. The sensorial materials are designed so that your child begins to notice that something doesn't look right or feel right or sound right. 

If you think your child is developmentally ready for working with the sensorial materials at home, here are 4 things to keep in mind.

1. The sensorial materials are designed so that your child can refine the senses and learn the agreements we share about qualities through a direct sensorial experience.

The qualities that are isolated using the sensorial materials exist everywhere in the world because they come from nature. Everybody sees colour, shape, and size. Everybody feels texture and temperature. Everybody tastes sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Everybody hears pitch and volume. 

The sensorial materials always start with the fundamental basic order and then refine that order progressively. All textures in the world are a variation of "rough" and "smooth". The whole of geometry is represented by the equilateral triangle, circle, and square. The whole of colour is represented by the primary colours (red, blue, yellow). 

2. When your child is working with sensorial materials, the process of thinking and developing concentration is what's important, not getting the right answer.

The sensorial materials are designed so that your child will come to an understanding of the correct order and can notice and correct any mistakes independently. This builds self-confidence because your child has to think for himself and make his own judgements instead of relying on someone else to tell him if he is right or wrong. Perception is individual and the ideas your child creates will be based on his or her own journey of discovery. 

3. If you are making some of the sensorial materials, be sure the bottles or tablets are all exactly the same (except for the quality that is isolated) so that your child needs to use the most relevant sense to match the sets.

Your child may want to wear a blindfold to block visual cues to do some of activities such as matching sets of fabric of varying textures, or comparing "light" and "heavy" wood tablets. 

4. After your child has had a sensorial experience with a quality, then language is introduced via a three period lesson.

Language is the word associated with a quality and is yet another level of abstraction. Awareness of the quality comes first, then the name for it is learned. 

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Lisa. I'm an AMI-trained Montessori teacher. I help parents of toddlers and preschoolers get started with Montessori at home. Get my latest articles via the blog RSS feed. Connect with me on Pinterest and Instagram