In almost every Montessori classroom you visit, from toddler through elementary, you'll notice a set of drawers, constructed of simple, light colored wood, and containing six levels of geometric inset puzzles. As adults, these are seemingly simple puzzles to complete: place similar shapes in order of their size. For the young child, however, exploring the geometric cabinet develops the skills of visual and tactile discrimination, contributes to spatial sense and reasoning, and supports the later understanding of the complex relationships of Geometry.
"All in a series of simple drawers?" you ask. Yes! From the initial introduction, when the teacher demonstrates how to remove, carry and replace the drawers, to advanced explorations comparing the contents of four or five drawers at a time, children build their competence in discerning small differences in scale and ratio and come to understanding the relationships between the geometric shapes. As researcher Juanita Copley notes, " As children count the sides of two-dimensional shapes or the faces of a cube, they learn about number relationships. Patterns, functions, and even rudiments of algebra may be noted when children identify patterns in space or when they see the relationships between the number of faces, edges, and vertices of three-dimensional figures. When children compare shapes, directions, and positions in space, they develop concepts and acquire vocabulary that they also put to use in measurement. Grouping items, sometimes by shape or another geometric feature, is a skill also fundamental to data collection, and children may record and report shapes in an activity or in the environment." Spatial sense and reasoning support learning in the arts, in social studies, math and language.
This material, which is seen in even the earliest pictures of Montessori's original classrooms, is over a hundred years old, but the underlying development it reflects is only recently documented in early childhood research. Although Montessori advocated for children's exploration with the concepts of geometry early in her career, these ideas were largely lost in early childhood classrooms for most of the twentieth century. It was only after a 1996 study listed US students as falling behind in their understanding of geometry that mainstream educators revisited tools that allow children to manipulate geometric shapes early in their education. Meanwhile, in Montessori classrooms, we never gave it up!
Never underestimate the complex thinking that may be happening in seemingly simple tasks. By allowing children the time to explore these concepts at length, we are helping to build the cognitive structures on which they'll rely throughout their lives as learners.