The first Montessori school was opened in Rome in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori. For more than 110 years, Montessori education has provided its signature child-led education based on her philosophy. The different types of activities that the children participate in are called “work.”
At the core of Montessori’s philosophy is that children begin exploring the world around them using their five senses at birth. Sensorial work teaches children to organize their environment, classify objects, develop logical thinking, and learn perspective, discrimination, and order. This work refines a child’s senses and develops motor skills and coordination.
Sensorial work is incorporated into all of the areas of study found in the Montessori curriculum. It is a key component of the “whole-child” approach that makes Montessori schools stand out against traditional education programs for children birth to 6 years of age and older.
What is Sensorial Work?
The child himself leads the Montessori Method of education. The classrooms of Montessori are open concept and consist of five primary areas for learning. These areas all work together to teach both life skills and academic concepts. While sensorial work is considered one of the five Montessori areas of study, it is a critical component featured throughout each area.
The five learning areas in a Montessori classroom are:
- Practical Life
At the very core of Maria Montessori’s method is how the five senses critically impact a child’s independence, intelligence, concentration, order, and coordination.
“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)
While the sensorial area exists on its own, you will find plenty of sensory materials in each of the other areas in the room. This work is vital to a child understanding how he relates to his environment and figuring out how to engage and interact with it appropriately.
In the Montessori method, sensorial work has been meticulously designed to introduce and develop everything that can be perceived using the five senses. This sensorial development prepares the mind for mathematical thinking and encourages early language skills.
Each of the five senses is engaged in its own way to create an experience that the child can translate to their real-world surroundings. Sometimes, the senses are used in coordination with each other, further enhancing the child’s awareness and relationship with their environment.
Sensorial work is done in a controlled environment with controlled levels of error, so a child may safely explore and learn specific comparisons and similarities about his environment through his senses.
The area of sensorial work is so thorough, Dr. Montessori divided it into eight categories or “exercises” within the scope of this area.
- Visual work- The purpose of visual work is for children to be able to categorize and notice the differences and similarities between objects that they see.
- Tactile work- Using the sense of touch, these exercises are focused intently on a child’s fingertips, mainly on the right hand. Focusing on using this sense with such a small part of the body, the feel of an object is enhanced.
- Baric work- Pressure and weight are explored in this category of sensorial work, giving a child critical ways of thinking about and understanding objects around them.
- Thermic work- Within thermic exercises, children are taught to distinguish temperature and develop their sense of temperature.
- Auditory work- The sense of hearing is exercised in this category, helping children differentiate between different sounds and heightening their ability to notice variations in sound.
- Olfactory work- Focusing on a child’s sense of smell, this work helps with a child’s ability to differentiate between different scents.
- Gustatory work- Children explore their sense of taste in these exercises and learn the differences in how things taste.
- Stereognostic work- Sometimes referred to as the sixth sense, or muscle memory, this work develops a child’s ability to recognize or characterize an object without sight, taste, smell, or sound.
Sensorial work plays a vital role in the development of the whole child and how they perceive, interact with, and experience the world around them, setting them up for success in further education, life, and well-being.
Sensorial Activities Contribute To Child Development
Sensory learning and sensory play are critical to a child’s development. Not only have studies shown that sensory exploration builds vital nerve connections in the brain, but it also “supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving skills, and social interaction.” Source: educationalplaycare.com
The refinement of a child’s senses increases their capacity to be adaptable to their surroundings. They are, in fact, engaged in the scientific method. Experiencing a sense, developing a hypothesis, drawing conclusions, and taking action.
An example of how sensory play and education are beneficial to the overall development of a child is something that is learned in auditory exercises. When a child can learn how to identify, categorize, and filter sounds, they are then able to be less distracted by them.
Meaning, that if a child has trouble paying attention or playing with another child due to noises in the classroom, or other sounds around him, auditory sensory work can help train his ears and his brain to “block out” irrelevant sounds and focus on the task at hand.
Texture issues are one of the leading causes of picky eating in children. Sensory exploration as play and learning exposes children to temperature, weight, texture, and more. The more exposure and comfortability a child has with different textures, and the more they can describe them and trust them, the less likely they are to reject foods that have a texture that is foreign to them,
According to Good Start Learning, sensory activities for children:
- build nerve connections in the brain
- encourage the development of motor skills
- supports language development
- encourages ‘scientific thinking’ and problem solving
- involve mindful activities which are beneficial for all children
“Our work is not to teach, but to help the absorbent mind in its work of development. How marvelous it would be if by our help, if by an intelligent treatment of the child, if by understanding the needs of his physical life and by feeding his intellect, we could prolong the period of functioning of the absorbent mind!”
― Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
The extensive sensory experience that is provided in Montessori promotes invaluable growth and development for children. From creating connections in the brain to increasing memory and cognitive ability, healthy child development depends on the sensory experiences of the child himself.
What Sensorial Materials Should Be Used?
Just as important as the work itself, the materials used in Montessori for sensorial work are designed and planned with optimal learning and experience in mind.
Maria Montessori studied children her whole career and worked closely with other doctors to perfect and design the materials that are still used and are still effective to this day.
The materials used to refine and strengthen a child’s senses are ones that a child has never seen before, intentionally. Unlike in the personal care area of learning, the goal of sensory work is to create new experiences for a child so that they can relate their knowledge to the world around them as a whole.
Children begin by learning sameness and differences between objects and then move on to quantifying these objects, giving way to the necessary language used to describe them as well.
There is an emphasis on real-world and natural materials in Montessori work. This is intentional and is due to Montessori’s belief in connecting children to their reality.
She believed that “to stimulate children’s imagination, give them real objects and a real understanding of the world. While it is natural for children to be drawn to fantasy, it is the knowledge from the real world that can enrich their ability to imagine and create.” Source: springstonekids.com
The sensorial objects used in Montessori are designed for the child’s learning and success and follow some fundamental guidelines.
- Each material is solely focused on a singular sense or quality.
- All materials feature a controlled error, which means that any obstacle or problem can be easily solved by the child himself without adult intervention.
- Sensory materials must be visually stimulating and pleasing to look at. This ensures a child’s natural curiosity and engagement with the material.
- Each set of materials must be complete. There are to be no missing parts so that the child can finish a task and will not be interrupted in their learning.
- Sensorial materials are limited in two ways. First, there is to be only one set in each classroom, which promotes patience, social cues, and turn-taking. Second, not every quality is featured in a material. This gives the child the necessary experience and information while fostering curiosity and interest in learning more on their own.
- Sensory materials are meant to be “materialized abstractions.” Their purpose is to introduce abstract concepts to children in concrete ways.
Sensorial materials are used throughout sensory play and learning, and some have become widely recognized to be signature Montessori materials.
Montessori Sensorial Activities
The activities in Montessori sensorial work are all designed around signature Montessori materials and philosophies. These activities and materials are designed to teach and expose children to the eight different categories of this work.
These activities and materials fall into each of the eight exercises defined by Montessori for sensorial work.
Visual Sense Activities (Sight)
Visual sense activities are designed to help a child categorize and differentiate between objects they see. These activities help children make classifications, distinctions, and decisions about things based on size, color, depth, shape, height, width, and more. Most objects work within a set of 10 objects, further expanding a child’s ability to develop mathematical thinking.
There are many popular visual sense activities in Montessori, as this sense is one that can help us perceive the most information regarding our environment. You will notice that the materials have carefully selected colors and focus, all designed to refine a single sense at a time while teaching large and sometimes abstract concepts.
Tactile Sense Activities (Touch)
Developing the sense of touch and understanding the physical world around them is a significant factor in healthy childhood development. These activities are designed to help a child explore the world through feeling, mainly with the fingertips of their hands.
Baric Sense Activities (Weight)
The most used sensorial activity to teach baric sense to children in Montessori is with Baric Tablets. These wooden tablets are in three sets of six. Each set is to be made of different wood, a different color, and a different weight.
Children are encouraged to arrange these tablets from lightest to heaviest while noticing that while the tablets may look similar, they may feel or weigh different amounts.
Introducing the concepts of heavy and light tangibly allows children to physically experience and learn weight as it applies to objects in their surroundings.
Auditory Sense Activities (Sound)
By using sound boxes and bells, these Montessori sensory activities engage with and explore a child’s sense of sound.
Sound boxes are designed to help children discern sound based on loudness. Closed wooden cylinders are used to create different sounds when shaken. Like-cylinders are color-coded to assist the child in organizing and categorizing the sounds from loudest to softest.
While the sound boxes create distinction in the loudness of a sound, Montessori bell exercises teach children to recognize the tonal and pitch differences between a similar sound.
Bells can be used for sound matching as well as ascending and descending sounds in terms of high and low.
Olfactory and Gustatory Activities (Smell and Taste)
Our senses of taste and smell very often work together within the body. However, a key feature in Montessori sensorial work is to isolate and enhance the exploration of a child’s senses.
Stereognostic Sense Activities (Tactile Gnosis/ The “Sixth” Sense”)
The intense development of the tactile sense or the sense of touch within the Montessori method of teaching is impressive.
So much so, that in this particular category, the focus is on a child using only their sense of touch to identify, classify, and make sense of an object. This work speaks to an intuitive use of your sense of touch and builds confidence, intelligence, and independence.
Children practice identifying characteristics of objects and objects themselves without the use of sight, sound, smell, or taste.
The sensorial work developed and perfected by Maria Montessori is designed to develop healthy, happy children into confident, independent adults. Sensorial work allows children to build critical skills and practical relationships with the world around them.
By introducing complex and abstract ideas to young children in tangible and experiential ways, sensorial work creates the foundation for all further academic pursuits. Providing sensory education is the greatest gift anyone could bestow upon their children.