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Sensory play in the Montessori classroom and beyond

“The child needs to classify and absorb the exterior world by means of his senses” Maria Montessori The senses are an important part of the Montessori approach. According to Maria Montessori, a child before the age of 6 forms impressions of the world around him/her through the senses. When a child comes into contact with real things in nature, in the classroom and at home, he/she forms a vast amount of knowledge. For example, when a child sees, smells and touches a rose, he/she doesn’t need to see all the flowers in the world for his brain to make connections and identify a tulip as a flower. Further to this, Montessori believed that instruction is a living thing. It doesn’t live in books and illustrations alone but instead learned through the senses. There is no image or description in a book to replace the sight, sounds and smell of real trees and the life around them. There is no book to describe to children what they can experience through their senses by taking a walk by the beach or the park. Through the senses a child is learning, exploring and starting to understand the environment. The Montessori approach deems the outdoor environment as an integral part of education. Sometimes no toys or games are needed, but the freedom the children have to run outside, play in the dirt, feel the grass and sand between their toes. The children can gain a lot by walking barefoot and being able to feel the different textures of the earth. The moist soil certainly feels different from dry soil. Walking on stones feels different than walking on grass. Imagine the endless discussions you can have with children about what they see, feel, smell and hear. The sensory experiences are an important gateway to language development and speech. So as Maria Montessori said, “Let us take the child out to show him real things instead of making objects which represent ideas.”

Involving children in gardening is another great sensory experience for them. They can feel the water and soil, explore colours and shapes around them with their eyes, listen to the sounds of wind and birds and smell the

scents of plants, flowers and even the soil itself.

Montessori activities engage a child’s sensory awareness, movements, attention and concentration. There are all kinds of sensory activities you can do with your child. You can work together in the kitchen as you prepare meals or bake, as well as clean and do laundry.

Cooking and baking are wonderful activities for young children because they do not only promote independence but also involve all the senses. Scooping, measuring, mixing, kneading the dough, are all

activities involving the senses. Let’s not forget smelling and tasting freshly baked bread or a meal they helped prepare. Activities of everyday living, which can be found on our classroom shelves but can easily be done at home as well, also involve the senses. Pouring water, whisking to make bubbles or transferring beans between bowls all involve different senses, from tactile to sight and hearing. Water, soap, beans and pasta are a few of the natural items on the shelves in the Montessori classroom that promote sensory exploration. The abundance of materials in the Montessori classroom, not only in the Sensorial area but also all over the classroom and the outdoor environment, promote sensory exploration which may awaken a particular interest in children to learn more. Montessori observed that children learn best when they first have a concrete experience, in the form of a three-dimensional object. This is important for children to form abstract thought. The children are involved in the classroom and are invited to choose materials and explore with their own hands. The materials are seen, felt and are also named. The materials aid in the sensory exploration, which develops the child’s abstract thought. For example, before a child can understand colours, he/she needs to experience them, by matching and sorting among other things.

A colour sorting activity is attractive and interesting to a child. The aim of the activity is isolated by having identical items in all ways but one, in this instance colour (buttons, pompoms etc).

Mixing paint colours to achieve a different colour or grading colours from darkest to lightest, or lightest to darkest, are both hands-on activities that develop the child’s sense of sight and visual discrimination.

The tactile sense is also important in the Montessori classroom. It helps the child in exploring the concrete before moving to the abstract. Before a child can understand the concept of roundness for example and is able to see a circle in his/her mind, he/she first needs to feel a ball, touch it, play with it as well as come into contact with other round objects such as an orange. The stereognostic and tactile sense uses touch to imprint the shape or texture in the child’s mind and helps the child make associations between names and objects. These activities include but are not limited to activities involving recognising and matching objects by feel, weight and temperature. Activities in the Sensorial area not only develop the child’s senses but also the vocabulary as we name the items and how they feel (soft, hard, rough), sound (loud, quiet), look (bright, colourful, dark), taste (sour, sweet) and smell (fresh, nice).

The sensorial materials in the classrooms are nothing but extraordinarily designed to work with all the senses of the child, isolating one of the senses each time. The pink tower, the brown stair, the cylinder blocks, the sound boxes and the list go on, all aid in helping the child explore and sort many different impressions received through the senses. They allow the child to explore these various dimensions, develop discrimination and further refine the senses.

I will leave you with the following quotation by Maria Montessori:

“The mind of the little child is certainly not blank when he begins the education of the senses, but his concepts are all confused. He begins to distinguish various traits in objects already known. He distinguishes quantity from quality and separates form from colour. He distinguishes dimensions in objects that are long or short, thick or thin, large or small. He separates colours into groups and calls them by name. He notices the varying intensities of colours, calling the two extremes light and dark. Finally, he distinguishes tastes from smells… succeeds though the education of his senses is ordering his mental images… This sense of order that has been acquired early is of utmost importance in later life.”

Maria Mathapoulou works with our littluns in Little Gems’ Larnaca setting. Her classroom offers a free-flow environment where the children freely move, play and explore both indoors and outdoors throughout their day. Several sensorial activities are available to the children in both environments for them to gain new impressions and to make sense of impressions received. Please do not hesitate contacting Little Gems Montessori should you want to learn more about Sensorial Education, or perhaps contact us for a visit:


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