The Sensorial Materials: Auditory and Tactile Discrimination
Materials across the Montessori classroom work together to respond to children's development from multiple angles. Some share similar direct objectives. Some support the same facets of development through indirect objectives. The materials for auditory discrimination in the Sensorial area work together to refine the child's ability to perceive differences in sound, so that that perception can be used in other areas to learn language, music and other stimuli.
Auditory development, like visual development includes multiple qualities. Listeners need to distinguish the auditory figure ground (the sounds you want to hear distinctly even when you're in an otherwise noisy environment) and to develop auditory closure (the ability to finish sounds when you've only heard part of a word.) They need to be able to determine the direction from which sounds are coming (auditory spatial awareness) and to split words into smaller parts like syllables (auditory analysis) and put them back together again (auditory synthesis.) And they need to be able to remember all these complicated stimuli and sequences (auditory memory.)
But each of these skills requires discriminating between individual sounds, the focus of most of the Sensorial materials for the sense of hearing. You'll find specific materials to support children's developing auditory discrimination, like the Sound Cylinders and the Montessori Bells. The Sound Cylinders allow children to compare and match noises. Early lessons may be matching just two or three pairs of distinct sounds, each made by a pair of wooden cylinders designed to fit easily in the child's palm. One pair may be filled with soft sand. Another may be filled with heavy beans. Each pair makes a different noise when handled, allowing the child to experience isolated sounds to match. Later lessons may include all six pairs, or challenge the child to organize the cylinders from quietest to loudest. The Sound Cylinders develop a discernment of similar noises, while the Montessori Bells develop the discernment of musical tones. The Bells are comprised of 26 individual bells, each on its own platform and each visually identical to each other but tuned to one of 13 different tones in the chromatic scale. Early lessons include matching a small number of bells by their tone. Later lessons include understanding the relationship of tones across a scale, transposing music, playing music, controlling volume, and composing individual melodies.
You'll also notice, though, the subtle ways in which the child's sense of hearing is supported in the Sensorial materials. Children may be challenged to build the Pink Tower without making a sound, or to replace the cylinders in the Knobbed blocks silently. They may have lessons that explore matching sounds from around the classroom or to practice managing the volume of their own voices. The Silence Game, a classroom favorite, explores how silence can spread, as children notice the absence of sound. These lessons help children to develop nuanced discernment of auditory stimuli, a skill they'll need across their lives but which is of particular importance in the language-rich window of early childhood. Supporting the ability to discern, process and create a rich diversity of sounds allows children to understand and to be understood, to read, to explore music, to sing, to notice subtleties in nature, and more. And while many of these lessons are focused on the youngest learners, you'll see children returning again and again to the simple wonder of the sound lessons.
Tactile Discrimination: 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.