This information is taken from the Discovery of the Child, especially p.136 -138
The Sensorial materials help the child to focus one or more sense on a particular property of matter through a purposeful activity. To help the child sensorially discriminate between the materials they are made in a precise scientific manner. To be able to abstract both a prepared child and materials with these characteristics are needed.
General features of the design and related activity are;
1 Isolation of a single property through a single sense
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The term abstraction refers to an idea, here the property (e.g. temperature) and it’s ‘essential qualities’ (e.g. hot, body temperature, cold) separate from the ‘non-essential’ properties and qualities. The ‘materialised abstractions’ have one property isolated from the others which in the real world jostle for attention so that one particular sense is stimulated for a classification activity. As ‘abstractions’ they have no distracting associations with other things she knows, as she becomes adept at classifying these materials she spontaneously makes connections with ‘real world’ objects and then begins to review previously unconsciously stored information. She relates to these new experiences through the ‘new eyes’ she has acquired with her work here and is able to store her impressions in an orderly way with finer precision than before.
Each material compromises a set of similar items which explore the same property by giving various increments in the degree of ‘essential qualities’ which they exhibit. The variety between the set of materials ( in the example above the differences in temperature) provide a stimulus to action, inviting her intelligence to make judgements, comparing the increments. The increments are such a source of fascination because the materials are made i such a way that the other properties of the object fade into the background, because of their consistency. The difference between the ‘essential qualities’ sparks the child’s interest and later comes the point of interest to return to and repeat the activity and the means by which she controls her error.
2 Purposeful activities using movement and sensorial exploration
The urge to move, make choices and to make use of that which is necessary for development defines the Absorbent Mind. While using the Sensorial Activities the child is in the Sensitise Period for the Co-ordination of Movement which propels her towards activity, in fact her attention and concentration cannot be held without it. Therefore all materials are designed to make activity available; holding them, being introduced to their ‘essential property’, through the presentation and the freedom to repeat it, the exercises and variations she employs and the games. She pairs, grades and sorts the materials. Cultural materials also have a sensorial and movable aspect, which will later direct the mind of the second plane.
3 Control of Error / Criteria for Perfection
The mind must make an active effort to digest new material and achieve the construction demanded during the first plane, in order that the child reaches her potential for development. The child has an innate desire to make a maximum effort, to auto-educate herself, to do this she needs the freedom to use a ‘Prepared Environment’ which motivates her conscious learning, driving her to repeat in order to meet her learning goals independently. Unhindered she works with the Sensorial Materials and receives feedback from the materials directly or from her perception of the order of the materials.
The intelligent use of the materials poses problems which require judgements and discriminations, both of which are developing skills. By making ‘mistakes’ she sees the material ‘jar’ and the error is highlighted, presenting the child with a newly focused challenge which deepens her interest and calls her to repeat. Doing so she gains understanding, clarity of judgement and sensorial refinement. The child seeks perfection while accepting that ‘mistakes’ are necessary, without the experience of shame or ‘overwhelm’. This resilience in the face of obstacles is a vital part of character development, for becoming an independent, adapted person, able to judge her errors, manage her reactions to them, to motivate herself. Doing this strengthens her will and tendency to work. It is NOT the solution that is important by the process of reasoning and rethinking. Hearing her mistakes from a teacher may or may not help her understanding f the puzzle but it will not help her to internalise the intrinsic process of becoming a problem solver.
The child has absorbed vast, unbroken experiences, she does not require stimulation but the ability to order that which has been chaotically stored.The presentation of sufficient stimuli, (neither too much or too little) enables her to organise the clutter in her mind. Sensorial Materials, “Set up conditions of clarity in his exploring mind and furnish him with a guide in his exploring operations” (Discovery of the Child, p.158). The Exercises of Practical Life established order and control in her movement and personality, now the exact, precise and limited materials of the Sensorial Activities provide the intelligence with an opportunity to perceives with a new level of clarity and intelligence, urging her to complete self initiated work to explore further.
Order is the foundation of the Montessori Environment, everything in it is ‘minimal’, limited, devoid of excess, which is the basis for disorder and chaos. Dr Montessori removed those materials and gradations which did not call the child because they were unnecessary to her development so there is a limited amount of gradations in each set and only one set of material for each sense, providing exact guides.
Through their beauty the objects have a voice which calls to the child to use them, to learn from them, to treat then carefully, holding them as shown to find their essential quality kinaesthetically and to ensure they are unharmed. As the child is an auto-educator, left free to move and choose she will select that material in the environment which has the most to offer her, that material will call the loudest. If the objects are left in disarray the child on seeing them wants them to b ordered and will spontaneously arrange them. The child’s mind grows calm and orderly in this environment and her appreciation for the cosmos blossoms.
It is the child’s love of perfection, her effective use of objects, her tendency to work, respond to the materials, judge her efforts and correct her error which develops a strong character and creative development.