While we may not immediately think of it, a child's tactile discernment is essential to how that child understands and experiences the world. The sense of touch allows children to appreciate the qualities of different objects, from their shape to the materials from which they're made, their texture, their temperature, their weight. And unlike visual or auditory discrimination, tactile discrimination has to happen up close. Children must touch and move and act upon objects to be able to develop their ability to classify by touch.
While children absorb significant information through their sense of touch, we sometimes overlook it as an area for specific intervention. The Montessori Sensorial materials, however, include multiple opportunities for children to experience tactile stimuli. And because this is a sense that develops more acutely with practice, the hands-on nature of Montessori manipulatives means that, even when children are focusing on other concepts, they are nonetheless refining their tactile skills. Children develop, in order, the motor skills to be able to move their hands and fingers, the cognitive ability to understand what they are experiencing through their hands, and the sensory skills to understand subtle differences in stimulation.
In addition to all the lessons that allow children to build their motor skills, including the expansive opportunities for practice in Practical Life, the Sensorial area includes lessons explicitly focused on tactile discrimination. The Touch Tablets allow children to compare, contrast and grade small distinctions in increasingly rough surfaces. The Fabric Squares allow children to compare the hands of different fabrics. The Geometric Solids and Geometric Cabinet allow children to expand their progress through what development specialists call "The Hierarchy of Tactile Skills." This sequence proceeds from real objects to photo representations of those objects, to graphic representations of those objects, to two dimensional drawings, thick lined drawings, and finally to thin lined drawings . Work with the Mystery Bag expands this practice.
Children are enchanted by the fascinating changes they can discern in the tips of their fingers. These are materials often offered with a quiet sense of wonder and, while you may not find the difference between corduroy and silk to be that big a deal, children in early childhood are often delighted by these lessons. The Montessori classroom gives them ample opportunity to practice and uninterrupted time to explore as they develop their sense of touch and refine this critical tool for discovering and mastering their environment.