The Sensorial Experience in the Montessori Classroom

Some of the most wonderful and unique Montessori materials can be found in the Sensorial area.

Tower of Cubes with the Broad Stair
(also known as Pink Tower and Brown Stair)

“The senses, being explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge….the number of different objects in the world is infinite, while the qualities they possess are limited. These qualities are therefore like the letters of the alphabet which can make up an indefinite number of words. If we present the children with objects exhibiting each of these qualities separately, this is like giving them an alphabet for their explorations, a key to the doors of knowledge….This ‘alphabet’ of the outer world has an incalculable value…..Everything depends on being able to see and on taking an interest. ”

– Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind (183-184)

The Sensorial area of the classroom contains materials that are specifically designed to support the development of the child’s brain through sensory exploration.  Sensorial materials support not only the development of the visual sense, but also auditory, tactile, taste, smell, stereognostic (determining form by feel), temperature, chromic (visual discrimination of color), kinesthetic (movement), and baric (weight)! Did you know there were so many?

Sensorial materials are also designed to allow for exploration and experimentation on the part of the child.  These Sensorial materials are beautiful and exact, and because they are easily explored, they encourage children to spend great amounts of time in this exploration. 

This sustained exploration is an essential foundation for building toward four core Montessori goals: the development of concentration, coordination, a sense of order, and independence.  Dr. Montessori said that, “the education of the senses has, as its aim, the refinement of the differential perception of stimuli by means of repeated exercises”, and certainly the materials she designed support this aim. (The Montessori Method)

Advanced exercise combining all knobbed and knobless cylinders.

The following are examples of materials in the Sensorial area that aid the child in developing each of their senses:

The visual sense is developed through the exploration of a multitude of materials such as the geometric cabinet, the pink tower, brown stair, constructive triangles, the color tablets, and many more.

Constructive triangles.

The auditory sense is developed using the sound cylinders and Montessori bells.  The tactile sense is developed with the use of the fabric swatches, touch tablets, and touch boards.

Montessori Bells

The olfactory sense is developed through use of the smelling jars, and the gustatory sense is developed using the tasting bottles.

The stereognostic sense is developed through the use of mystery bags, the stereognostic bags, and blindfold work with the visual materials. 

Using the Geometric cabinet stereognostically

The baric sense is developed through use of the baric tablets and pressure cylinders.  The thermic sense through exploring the thermic bottles and tablets.  The chromic sense is developed through the exploration of the color tablets and their extensions.

Extension of Color Box 3

The stereognostic sense is developed through the use of mystery bags, the stereognostic bags, and blindfold work with the visual materials.  The baric sense is developed through use of the baric tablets and pressure cylinders.  The thermic sense through exploring the thermic bottles and tablets.  The chromic sense is developed through the exploration of the color tablets and their extensions.

“The training and sharpening of the senses has the obvious advantage of enlarging the field of perception and of offering an ever more solid foundation for intellectual growth. The intellect builds up its store of practical ideas through contact with and exploration of the environment….” The Discovery of the Child

When the Montessori guide gives an initial lesson in the Sensorial or Practical Life area, he or she uses almost no language, and any language that is used is separated from the movement that is used to demonstrate the material.  This is done to allow the child to focus their attention on the critical features of the material, and observe as comparisons are made. 

Much in this same way, the Sensorial materials themselves are designed to focus on exercising only one of the child’s senses at a time, and focused on one aspect of the physical world.  This allows the child to focus, only on the key relationships.  For example, the pink tower, brown stair, and red rods are all materials that are explored and graded visually, however the pink tower explores changes in volume in three dimensions, with a change of one cubic centimeter per cube, and children grade from largest to smallest. 

Over time, the child working with these Sensorial materials develops what Dr. Montessori called a system of materialized abstraction, which just means they have built a clear concept in their minds of the materials and their relationships, based on repeatedly working with them.

Geometric Solids

These Sensorial materials are designed to help develop the mathematical mind through this process of materialized abstraction. The exactness of relationships between the materials makes for the development of a concrete understanding of gradation and order.  Also, the exploration with the geometric solids support the underlying concepts for geometric understanding. 

In addition to the exactness of the materials, each of the materials has a built-in control of error that aids in this independent experimentation by giving the child sensory feedback. For example, the knobbed cylinders have a perfect control of error because each cylinder can only fit into one opening, and if the child makes a mistake and puts a too-small cylinder into an opening they will soon discover that they have one cylinder that will not fit anywhere. Other materials, such as the sound cylinders, work similarly because if they are not matched correctly, the child will be left at the end with a pair that do not match.  Some classrooms choose to include an additional control of error by marking the bottoms of the grading or matching materials so that the child can check their work when they have completed the exercise.

      The Sensorial materials appeal to children specifically because of the developmental periods, or sensitive periods, that the child is within during the time of their exploration of Sensorial materials.  For example, one of the observations of sensitive periods that Dr. Montessori made was that children from 3-6 have a strong desire for order within their environment.  Since so many of these materials have as the primary objective the goals of matching or grading according to a specific characteristic of the material, in other words making order.  As examples, the pink tower and cylinders are primarily an exercise in grading, whereas Color boxes one and two are primarily matching activities.  

Knobbed Cylinders help develop pincer grasp.

The knobbed cylinders and geometric cabinet shapes in particular are helpful in developing hand strength and pincer grip in the preparation for writing. Several of the other materials also support writing either by developing the pincer grip, or through reinforcing a top to bottom, left to right movement we use in writing and reading. The geometric cabinet demonstration tray, brown stair, and color boxes one and two are examples of Sensorial materials that reinforce that top to bottom, left to right order children will later need for writing and reading.

The Sensorial materials also support motor development in the child. So much of the way that the Sensorial materials are designed to be explored by children involves movement, both gross and fine motor movement.  Many of the materials (such as the brown stair and red rods) are large, and are designed to be carried across the room in games such as, “Far, Far Away” that build the child’s core strength and balance.  Many of the materials involve a great deal of fine motor hand coordination, like the manipulating the knobbed cylinders or the act of aligning the cubes on the pink tower. 

Sensorial materials help children develop descriptive and relational language, like same/different, larger/smaller,thick/thin, long/short, edge, vertices, loud/soft, sour/bitter/sweet, dark/light etc. Children also learn names for both two-and three-dimensional shapes shapes such as circle, rhombus, elipsoid, and cube. Children explore these objects with their senses before learning their names and descriptive words.

Exploring the
Knobless Cylinders

Montessori guides spend a lot of time observing children working with sensorial materials because this exploration tells the guide a lot about what the child understands in terms of relationships. This observation also shows us that children are more than capable of learning simply from exploring an enriched learning environment.

“From the child itself he will learn how to perfect himself as an educator.” 

– Dr. Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method