Sensorial Curriculum in a Montessori Classroom: A Closer Look
You might already know, but maybe you don’t. There are five curricular areas in the Montessori classroom - Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math, and Cultural. Today, let’s explore the Sensorial area. What is it? Why is it? And more!
You might be able to guess from the name Sensorial what sorts of activities would be included in this area. Something that is sensorial is activating the senses. So activities in this curricular area are lessons that focus on a student’s sensory understanding of the world around them. Montessori based much of her Primary level curriculum on her observation that:
The senses, being explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge. Our apparatus for educating the senses offers the child a key to guide his explorations of the world, they cast a light upon it which makes visible to him more things in greater detail than he could see in the dark, or uneducated state.”
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
The 8 Sensory Categories
So then, in the Sensorial area of a Montessori classroom, a student will find materials that engage his senses and help him to form a more complete understanding of things that he sees, touches, hears, smells, tastes, compares by weight and temperature, and experiences while blindfolded. By dividing the concrete materials into eight categories, Montessori set about to cover every quality that can be perceived by the senses such as size, shape, aroma, flavor, composition, texture, loudness or softness, matching, weight, temperature, etc.
Let’s take a more detailed look at the 8 categories below:
Visual Materials: help a student visually discriminate between similar and dissimilar objects. In these lessons, particular language is used to help build vocabulary for describing what the senses are understanding. Ex. Larger, Smaller, Brighter, Lighter
Tactile Materials: call attention to the sensations that the student feels primarily with his hands which will be used for grasping a pencil for handwriting. In these lessons, particular language is used to help build vocabulary for describing what the senses are understanding. Ex. Rough, Smooth, Soft, Cold
Baric Materials: build the student’s ability to discern different weights of similar objects. In these lessons, particular language is used to help build vocabulary for describing what the senses are understanding. Ex. Heavier, Lighter
Thermic Materials: develop the student’s sense of temperature of different materials. In these lessons, particular language is used to help build vocabulary for describing what the senses are understanding. Ex. Glass, Wool, Wood, Metal, Cold(er), Warm(er)
Auditory Materials: allow the student to refine his perception of sounds, using musical instruments. However, the process of “tuning one’s ear” at a young age also prepares the learner for sound and speech acquisition.
Olfactory Materials: focus on the student’s sense of smell and offer opportunities to learn where certain smells come from. In these lessons, particular language is used to help build vocabulary for describing what the senses are understanding. Ex. Sweet, strong, citrus, woodsy, etc.
Gustatory Materials: always a favorite, these materials present tasting comparisons that highlight our mouths’ ability to discern salty, sweet, sour and bitter tastes. In these lessons, particular language is used to help build vocabulary for describing what the senses are understanding. Ex. Spicy, sweet, tart, etc.
Stereognostic Materials: refers to the isolation of one of the senses in performing a task by eliminating the sense of sight with a blindfold. In the process, the student must rely on touch to assemble a visual task or their sense of smell is heightened by blocking their vision of the plant/item they are smelling. In these lessons, particular language is used to help build vocabulary for describing what the senses are understanding. Ex. Up, over, down, on, as well as, vocabulary present in the other categories.
If you were to take a look around the Sensorial area of a Montessori classroom, it would be apparent that there is only one material for each lesson; that lessons focus on one sense category as listed above; and that each material has a way for the student to auto-correct (control of error) so that no outside person needs to step in to correct and possibly discourage the learner.
Additionally the materials are spaced well on low shelves to enable students to access them and retrieve them independently.
A set of brown rectangular prisms and pink cubes are arranged from largest to smallest, left to right; boxes of different color tiles offer color matching and color grading experiences; smelling canisters; bells; geometric shapes sets and inset frames all have a special place among other sensorial materials.
Oftentimes, students will gravitate toward these sensory-engaging lessons when they feel mentally tired with Math or Language. And with the younger members in the Montessori classroom, I would direct them to these materials often because the materials help give a concrete understanding of the environment, give time to order and organize and in turn, bring calm to floundering students.
Even older students can be brought back to materials they mastered early on with the challenge of the blindfold or with an abstract variation of the concrete materials.
One of the most enjoyed Sensorial materials I witnessed (especially toward the end of an academic year when students were ready for summer) was the Brown Rectangular Prisms - lovingly called the "Brown Stairs." These ten “stairs” once assembled from largest to smallest become a sounding board as the student allows a glass marble to roll from the largest, thickest stair to the smallest and thinnest. The sound of the marble changes as it drops onto the differently sized stairs, creating a musical experience for the student to enjoy. Introducing differently sized marbles also changes the experience.
Such simple materials really that offer the student sensory learning and enjoyment!
And through repetitive work with the Sensorial materials, each student is building their ability to classify, organize and understand the relationships and world around them.