Sensory play is a big deal in the educational arena. If you are on Pinterest, you will constantly see new Pins featuring themed sensory bins or new recipes for goopy substances for your child to experiment and play with. I do love sensory bins, at home we have a rice table, a bin of cloud sand, and Kinetic Sand, also known as the coolest sand ever. My stepdaughter can’t walk past the Kinetic Sand without scooping it up into a ball, then letting it ooze and melt over her hand. Obviously, sensory materials meet a need in all of us, and can be highly addicting, the question is, how can they fit into a Montessori classroom.
The Montessori Sensorial curriculum allows the child to explore and categorize their world based on their senses. Lessons are presented using specific materials, each which focuses on one particular dimension. So this is not a new concept to the Montessori classroom, actually it is the foundation and the basis of the pedagogy, and it extends beyond the Sensorial area of the class, it is part of all the curriculum areas.
In the past, I have had rice tables in my classroom, but in recent years, I am focusing on the traditional materials and creating lessons that offer children new and different sensory experiences, but at the core are still meaningful Montessori works.
Why do I want the materials to be purposeful and productive? Dr. Montessori believed that materials in the classroom should have a reason, that children took the work more seriously when there was a true purpose behind it – even though we are not product driven and we know that the process is the important aspect of the work. I think it is easier for the child to become absorbed in their work when they know that it is a “real” work. I often find that the materials that I know are more on the “busy work” side of the spectrum, are the ones that are abused.
We know the value of sensory experiences, so how can these be incorporated into the classroom, and the home, in a meaningful way? What lessons and materials can I add to my classroom that build on the traditional Sensorial materials and encourage curiosity, and what traditional lesson are already in place in the classroom? These activities should call to the child and allow them the opportunity to explore their world. The work should be structured so that there is a framework and meaning behind the lesson, but also designed to allow the child the to engage in the sensorial elements of the work such as exploring the bubbles and the water while they are scrubbing the table.
Smelling, mixing, kneading, and sometimes a little tasting. This is truly my favorite way to include sensory work in the Montessori class. We always emphasize the smell of the yeast once it is in the water, and the kneading, both which are prime sensory experiences. The bread recipe we use is rather forgiving, the child can pound and fold the dough for an hour if that’s what they need. They can pull, squeeze, and smoosh as they work, feeling the dough as it goes through their fingers.
flour scooping – an impressive dry transfer work
We put this work together when we reintroduced bread making after the winter break. Now, the work isn’t suppose to involve flour going everywhere, but when your 3, that’s exactly what happens, and it’s great. The child scoops the flour from the storage container, levels it with the back of the knife, and then pours it into the mixing bowl. Once all the flour has been transferred, the child uses the canning funnel to return the flour to the storage container. Next, they use the tabletop dustpan to sweep up any wayward flour. Almost every child plunges their hands into the full bowl of flour, exploring the feel of a bowl full of flour – while making a small flour dust cloud.
Basins of water, what could be better? The children in our class wash snack dishes, paint cups, and food prep work throughout the morning. Sometime children just wash miscellaneous practical life materials. We try to direct children to the basins of water for washing, but sometimes we know a child just wants to feel the warm water running over their hands and they use the sink. I always try to direct a restless or frustrated child toward washing or scrubbing work, the water seems to instantly calm and center them.
object scrubbing and table scrubbing
Again, water, soap, and a scrub brush – sensory experience paradise. We have scrubbed pumpkins, rocks, shells, and anything that looked a little dirty. Again, feeling the water, seeing and smelling the soap and the bubbles, feeling the bubbles on their skin, Montessori scrubbing is a sensory experience. The other class at our school is preparing to scrub potatoes and carrots (not with soap!) to make into a vegetable soup, you can really scrub anything at anytime!
various clays and play dough
We rotate the clay that is on our art shelf, and the tools that we have with the clay. We use plasticine, homemade playdough, commercial Play-doh (because really, who can reproduce that smell and texture). Rolling pins, extruders, cookie cutters, and knives are just some of the tools we add to our tray. We like to vary the clay so that they build up sensory memories – oh this blue playdough isn’t like the green one we had last month.
We use both a mortar and pestle and this spice grinder from Montessori Services (which isn’t perfect, it has a tendency to open-up if the child turns the handle the wrong way). Sensory education isn’t just about feeling new textures and sensations, it should truly be a holistic approach and that is evident in traditional Montessori Sensorial materials, sound cylinders, tasting bottles, smelling bottles.
This traditional Montessori material is a perfect material to use in sensory education. We try to rotate the materials in our bag so that it stays interesting, we also have a set of bags so that children can work together. Dr. Montessori referred to the Mystery Bag as a tool for developing the stereognostic sense – or the ability to see with your hands. We have many ways of using the mystery bags. Most lessons I do start by removing and name all the objects with the child, as I am writing this I am wondering if that is really necessary for every lesson, in some of these lessons it doesn’t really matter that it’s a pencil, just that it is long, thin, and pointy on one end – I think I will reevaluate my position on this.
Here are some of the lessons we do with the individual mystery bag:
– After the objects are named, return them to the bag and ask the child to find a specific object. Remove that object from the bag and repeat until all objects are removed.
– After all the objects are named, have the child grab a hold of any object in the bag. Before they remove the object, see if they can guess what the object is by feeling it with their hand. Remove object and repeat for all remaining objects.
– Have child grab a hold of any object and describe it – cold, metal, hard, soft, big, little, etc. Remove object and repeat for remaining objects. Object naming not necessary.
– Ask child to find a soft object, remove from bag and repeat using other describing words for remaining objects. Naming not necessary.
sensory work in the class and at home
This is by no means an all encompassing list of ways to incorporate sensory materials into your classroom. While this post focuses on works in the classroom, these lessons can easily be adapted to home – weekly bread baking, a scrubbing work that is always available, and easy access to clays and playdoughs. What I think is important is that we as parents and teachers are aware of this area of education, and that we provide children with ways of experiencing their world sensorially that are connected to actual processes and products, not just isolated in a bin.
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