One of the foundations of Dr. Montessori’s method was the belief that early childhood education would be most helpful if it followed the natural developmental patterns of the child. Such development can be observed from birth, wherein the newborn is quite suddenly plunged into a world of sensation. Over the following months and years, the child unconsciously absorbs sensorial impressions from the environment and integrates them into his developing personality. Montessori’s educational materials are based on this natural order of growth and are designed to provide a stimulating, enriching environment to meet the child’s changing needs. In this way, Montessori materials are not merely educational materials; they are developmental materials. The sensorial concepts and materials in the Primary Montessori classroom play a crucial role in the child’s experience within the classroom and beyond.
At birth, the typical infant has all the equipment he will ever need for receiving, recording, and associating sensory impressions. All of these marvelous instruments are present in the infant so that he can gain crucial sensory information about his world. Impressions are taken in unconsciously at first, received and stored until the conscious mind emerges. It is then that the child begins to discriminate, classify, order, and organize the information received by all his senses. In doing so, he develops his intelligence and adapts to his environment.
It is through the senses of touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound that the child studies the environment and makes sense of the qualities and place of the things within it. Only by screening, evaluating, and eventually sorting our impressions can we move about in the environment with safety, confidence, and assurance. This crucial ability to group diverse impressions is called conceptualization.
At around age 2 – 2 1/2 years, nature gives the child two important sensitivities: the sensitivity for order and the sensitivity for refinement of the senses. Montessori recognized these sensitivities and designed or borrowed materials for the sensorial area. Thus, the materials in the prepared environment help the child to classify and clarify the many sensory impressions he has received and stored over the first years of life.
The Montessori sensorial materials aid in the construction of the child’s developing mind by appealing to the child’s natural tendency to experience her environment through her senses and movement. With the materials, Montessori sought to provide the child with “a materialized abstraction,” or mathematics. Each material clearly and concretely demonstrates abstract mathematical concepts, such as diameter, height, width, length, area, and volume.
Montessori was particular about the design of the sensorial materials. If the gradation is measured, the observation becomes methodical and scientific. There is a mathematical component in the sensorial materials that can be seen through these measurable differences; the dimension materials (cylinder blocks, pink tower, brown stairs, and red rods) are all designed with precise mathematical measures that encourage a child to notice linear relationships, square relationships, and abstract ideas.
What’s fascinating about this is that Guides do not explain these things to the child, but the experience is there and it leaves its indelible impression. As a child perfects his abilities, the order and structure of the material is internalized and becomes a part of the child’s growing mathematical mind.
Montessori put an idea of something into a material by isolating a quality (for example, largeness, smallness, roughness, smoothness, redness, blueness, shortness, smoothness). There is only one quality in a material, and each piece of scientifically and mathematically designed material allows the child to discover for herself the abstract concept the material is designed to convey. For example, the red rods are the same in every way except in length. This results in the child focusing her mind on that quality alone.
Once a child has made the abstraction, the Guide gives the child the language to attach to the experience; the child now has the understanding of the sensations and the words to name them. Instead of teaching these concepts, we are organizing thoughts surrounding them so that the child can communicate ideas. It is at this point that the child can apply the knowledge to the outside world and use it beyond the prepared environment.