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Sensorial Games and Variations: Keep it Fresh!

"What we call education of the senses is in reality an aid to the construction of intelligence."
—Maria Montessori, Creative Development in the Child, Vol. 1

Color Mixing ActivityA five-year-old boy had been working with the Geometric Solids in my classroom. On the weekend, his family took a drive out to the countryside. His mother reported that her son, seeing a grain silo for the first time, pointed to it with great excitement and said, "Look, Mom. There's a cylinder with a cone on top!"

Why is the Sensorial curriculum so important in the primary classroom? Maria Montessori emphasized that there is a sensitive period for children, ages three to six, "when there is a natural inclination to perfect one's senses and movements." (Discovery of the Child) Understanding that young children learn by moving and exploring through their senses, Montessori developed the elegant Sensorial apparatus, which introduces abstract concepts (for example, long, broad, tall) with concrete objects.

Isolating One Quality

The Sensorial materials help children explore and refine the five classic senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, as well as the complex senses of thermic (temperature), baric (weight), and stereognostic (identifying objects by size and shape, based on touch alone). Each material isolates one quality, such as color, shape, roughness, or length, and then varies just that one quality. This isolation of what's different in just one aspect allows children to perceive the "Piagetian cognitive skills such as one-to-one correspondence, classification and seriation." (Chattin-McNichols, The Montessori Controversy)

Sensorial Games and Variations

We can challenge a child who has mastered the basic presentations of the Sensorial apparatus by showing games such as matching from memory, grading from memory, and then adding complexity by grading from any point in the series. For example, place the Red Rods on one rug and then carry a medium length Red Rod to a second rug on the other side of the classroom. Ask the child to fetch the Red Rod that is "the next longer than this one." Vary this activity by asking for the rod that is the next shorter. These same games can be played with many of the Sensorial materials such as the Bells, Pink Tower, Brown Stair, and Sound Boxes.

The more complex exercises and variations are intended to spark interest in the child to continue to work with and explore the materials. Montessori stressed that children will spontaneously experiment with and create many combinations and patterns with the Sensorial materials. Rather than demonstrating these combinations, allow children to discover them!

We can ask open-ended questions to encourage children to use the Sensorial materials in a different, creative way: "Are there any other objects in the room that look like the sphere?" In this way children might discover that the globe is a sphere and the light cover on the ceiling is a sphere. Children may discover on their own the relationships and similarities between the Pink Tower and the Brown Stair, or between the Knobbed and Knobless Cylinders.

Sensitize the Fingertips

Many teachers don't show children how to sensitize their fingertips, which is an activity that will optimize experiences with the tactile materials (the Rough and Smooth Boards, the Sandpaper Letters). Show children how to soak their fingertips in warm water and then gently stimulate the fingertips while drying them with a towel. Not only does it prepare children's fingertips to be more sensitive, it also teaches respect for the materials and helps to keep them beautiful and clean.

Keep It Fresh: Sensorial Extensions

  • Read the book The Listening Walk and then take the children on a listening walk. How many different sounds can they hear and identify?
  • How about a smelling walk? Especially when flowers are in bloom, after a rainfall, or when the grass has been freshly mown.
  • Cooking with children is a marvelous time to appreciate smells: vanilla, cinnamon, apples, lemons, the smell of yeast when making bread. Touch can be refined by noticing the feel of flour, the textures of fruits and vegetables.
  • Use fresh herbs from the garden to put seasonal scents in the Smelling Bottles.
  • The Progressive Exercise: Use corks, buttons, shells, or beads of increasing size. Children grade items progressively from largest to smallest.
  • As an extension of the Tasting Bottles, show older children a diagram of the tongue highlighting which area is most sensitive to which taste (bitter, sweet, sour, salty). Children can place the same taste on different parts of their tongue to see if they notice the sensitivity.

Blindfolds Increase the Challenge!

Montessori noted that the eye can interfere with what the hand knows. Using a blindfold with the following exercises will isolate the tactile sense.
  • The Mystery Bag: Name each item as you place it in a mystery bag. The more surprising and varied the better! For example: a key, marble, pinecone, walnut, peach pit, candle, thimble, ball of wool, stone. When blindfolded, the child feels each item and identifies it before removing it from the bag.
  • Place rough and smooth rocks or shells in a mystery bag for the children to sort into the two categories of rough and smooth. Then grade them: "Can you find one that is smoother?"
  • Sorting Grains: Place a small amount of two different grains, beans, or seeds into one bowl. Invite the child to sort the grains from the mixture. Later add another grain, varying the combinations using wheat, rice, barley, lentils, peas, beans, mustard seeds, coffee beans. Using a blindfold helps the child concentrate on what he's feeling.

Have fun being creative as you set up new Sensorial exercises in your classroom. Be sure to isolate one attribute at a time and to make the activity aesthetically beautiful. Give the initial lesson with a minimum of words, keeping the focus on the material rather than on you. Then stand back and observe without interrupting the child. Give yourself the gift of watching children as they use their senses to explore and discover.

"When he discovers with so much emotion that the sky is blue, that his hand is smooth, that the window is rectangular, he does not in reality discover the sky, the hand or the window, but he discovers their position in the order of his mind by arrangement of his ideas."
—Maria Montessori, Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. 1

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2014

L902 The Geometric Solids Book Set
Y24 Mystery Bag
Y353 This Listening Walk
Y70 Tasting Bottles & Tray
SM01 Sensitizing the Fingertips
Y320 Blindfold Assortment
SM03 Sorting & Grading Corks Activity
Y201 Smelling Bottles & Trays
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