Montessorians catch a lot of flack for our insistence on offering children experiences with real things, on the avoidance of fantasy characters or animated distractions especially in early childhood. If a child has to choose between playing with action figures or touching wooden panels stripped with sandpaper, won’t they always choose the toy?
No. Not always.
In fact, we observe in Montessori classrooms children routinely choosing lessons that seem, well, pretty boring to an outside observer. Pouring water from one pitcher to another, stroking pieces of cloth, building the same tower over and over.
Young children are drawn to the experiences that help them best understand the world, first in concrete ways that engage their bodies and then in the more abstract ones that fall more exclusively in their minds. They are called to these lessons, to the ones that allow them to notice seemingly imperceptible distinctions in sounds or the gentlest changes in hue. And while other settings might expect children to be loud and careless, tearing through environments with little awareness of the chaos they leave behind them, we know that, given the right environment, children not only can be mindful. They want to be.
This is the seventh sense that the Montessori classroom supports: the five we talk about all the time, the sixth sense developed through stereognostic activities and the seventh sense: the aesthetic sense, the ability to discern beauty, to seek balance and harmony in perspective. It is the quietest and loftiest of the senses, the one through which children perceive and experience wonder, the one in which their spirits are most engaged.
And it depends on the development of these other senses, as though the child is drawn to the refinement of the first six senses because their spirits are calling them to the seventh. The children won’t repeat the exercises of the sensorial materials because they’re required to. Indeed, these are the kinds of lessons that if we, as adults, were required to do them, we might try to avoid the requirement. They’re simple. They’re focused. There are few steps. There is only an ever increasing awareness of precision, and ever refining ability to discern. It is only through endless repetition with these lessons that the child’s motivations are satisfied.
The same way that an artist who is learning a new technique will not be satisfied with their first effort, the child is drawn to practice these lessons again and again, noticing the visual balance of the tiniest cube centered on top of the tower, internalizing the way each knob feels in their fingers so that they can complete the cylinder blocks quickly and almost entirely by touch. They are building their artistry, their ability to discern beauty, their precision, their wonder.
The demonstration of so many times exploring the same seemingly simple activities is easy to undervalue. The experienced child who rapidly finishes returning the cylinders to all four blocks, or the pair of children who playfully challenge each other to games with the mystery bag: it’s easy to presume they are passing time and avoiding harder work. But these joyful expressions are not lazy distractions from real work. They are the celebrations of mastery, gleefully offered by children who know how far they’ve come, even if they aren’t saying that out loud to their teachers.
The sensorial materials are the path through which children master their environments, building the physical ability to coordinate their bodies and the mindful ability to discern nuanced differences, developing increasingly precise control of the concrete materials of the classroom as their abstract understanding of beauty is established. They look like materials of the body: the visual, tactile, auditory, gustatory, and olfactory senses. They are materials of the spirit: precision, mindfulness and aesthetic awareness. The child’s wonderment for beauty, harmony, art and nature are no less important than their ability to read. Give them patience and space for the wonder that develops. Wonder is more satisfying to the spirit and more inspiring to the child than any fantastic character might be. It's quite a beautiful thing.
* A response to Chapter 9, Generalizations on the Training of the Senses. The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori