From birth to the age of six there is rapid growth and development of the senses that directs the child towards his environment. It is because of this that Maria Montessori believed that the training of the senses should be held in high regard. For it is through the refinement of the senses that the child builds a concrete foundation for his intellectual mind. Maria Montessori agreed with Aristotle’s philosophy that there was nothing in the intellect that had not already existed in the senses. The sensorial material provides a guide for the child to absorb his surroundings because it classifies the images for the senses through isolating the stimulus which grabs the child’s attention and enables them to concentrate on a particular quality of that material.
The role of the directress in the environment would be to assist in the development of the senses by recognizing sensitive periods and possible defects in his development that may have other wise gone unnoticed. The sensorial materials prepare the child for life by providing a broad foundation in their mind where impressions become distinct from one another – an orderly mind where ideas and images are not confused. The aim of the sensorial material is to adapt the child to his environment. In order to survive every creature must adapt to his environment. Man was born with instincts just like all other animals but also with the power to reason.
“Our surroundings provide us with an inexhaustible source of aesthetic pleasure, but men can still move about in the world as if they had no senses or were like brute beasts looking for pleasure in strong and sharp sensations since these are the only ones accessible to them” -Montessori
Man has eight senses according to the Montessori Method. These eight senses are the visual sense which is the ability to discriminate size, shape and color; the tactile sense, the ability to feel the texture, temperature and pressure of objects with the pads of the hands and fingers; the auditory sense which involves listening through the for pitch and intensities of sounds; the olfactory sense is the ability to smell. This sense is intertwined with the ability to taste, which is the gustatory sense. The last three senses are the least obvious of the senses that the average person may be accustomed to. These three are the thermic sense – the ability to judge temperature; baric- the ability to judge weight; and lastly the stereognostic sense which is the ability to discriminate objects through muscle memory i.e. not seeing them directly, but knowing what they are by feeling them.
Three to six year olds have a natural inclination to perfect their senses and movements. They are preparing the person to be. Through repetition, they refine their abilities to make acute observations. Each sensorial material is designed to help the child’s mind focus on some particular quality. Maria Montessori was able to assist the child in doing this by what she called the “isolation of stimulus”. The qualities of the materials are brought more clearly into light through the activity of putting them in order which can only be done by referring to their quality – red rods, length; pink tower, size; bells, musical pitch. The teacher does not hover over explaining these things to the child - less said the better. The materials are designed to cause the child to exercise the senses and have a built in mechanism which allows the child to self-correct if and when they notice something is amiss. In a sense the child educates himself, and when the control of error is yielded to the didactic material there remains for the teacher nothing but to watch the child and see how they self-correct. There is a general order in every part of a Montessori classroom and it manifests itself on different intellectual levels. One might say the prepared environment has a control of error in that it is neat and activities are placed purposely on the shelves from a concrete level of difficulty to the abstract. The environment is attractive to the child because everything is easily accessible. Children crave this order and work towards preserving it. By encouraging their mastery of the material through repetition the children push themselves to unlock doors that open the universe. For it is through free will to repeat of the movements that mental development occurs, because the children find new ways to manipulate the materials and by doing so discover new details and new particulars.
“When I have just been introduced to a person and I find him interesting and attractive, that is not the moment when I turn my back on him and go away!! Rather it is just then that I have the wish to stay in his company and enjoy it” -Montessori
This “spontaneous ascent” is the main goal in the sensorial area. The “inner illuminations” that Montessorians sometimes refer to as an “explosions” are when the mind has been stimulated in such a way that habits are developed that stay with the child for the rest of their life. And since each material in the sensorial area has a hook, they become “old friends” that they are familiar with when they move onto math and advanced geometry.