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"The senses, being explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge."
—M. Shannon Helfrich Montessori Learning in the 21st Century

Wooden Triangle StackerIn amazement we watch as the newborn responds to the world. We notice how infants startle at loud sounds, cry when hungry or wet, listen to mother's soothing voice, and follow movements with their eyes. From infancy until about age three, the child is unconsciously absorbing the world through his or her senses. This is the beginning of intelligence.

The more we know about how children learn, the easier it will be for us to provide them with the opportunities they need in order to succeed in this complicated world. Remembering that the senses provide the very first learning experiences will help us create the best environments for our children.

The Sensitive Period from Birth to Six

Montessori observed that at certain ages children are receptive to learning in specific ways. Until age six, children learn best by moving and exploring through their senses. Much of this unconscious education happens even before the child has language.

We adults use thinking and reasoning to make sense of the world. But for the young child, concrete experiences impact the intellect. The world is shaping the child's mind through his senses. Consider, for example, the young child who touches the hot oven door for the first time. No matter how many times he or she has been told not to touch because it is hot, the child has no concept of what "hot" is. That comes much later, after many experiences with other things defined as hot, such as water or food.

The Mind Begins to Understand

Notice how an infant puts so many things in her mouth, and also responds to sounds, temperatures, or sights. The young child loves to touch everything, rubbing the soft fur of a stuffed animal or even the little satin label on it. Later, as the grasp is developed, more exploration and experimentation ensues. Things are shaken, tasted, squeezed, thrown, and the child sees the result. As the process becomes conscious, the child notices the differences and begins to categorize.

As a child learns and explores through his senses, understanding and conceptualization begin to occur. Generalizations are beginning to be made. A teddy bear does not roll like a ball, nor does it taste like milk! As names are introduced for objects, a cow may be called a dog if a child is familiar with the four-legged dog before seeing a cow. Children may discover that the furry mitten is 'soft' just like the stuffed animal.

Developing Your Child's Senses at Home

Everyday living conditions provide sufficient opportunities for a newborn to begin absorbing the world. Less is usually more. Sensory overload is part and parcel of our world today. It will take an extra effort to provide an environment with few distractions so the senses can activate the brain appropriately.

It's natural to speak to a baby with soothing sounds and cuddle her with soft fabrics and warmth. Perhaps it's not as natural to allow time for the infant to just observe and listen and feel without your interference. As you watch, you can almost see your child begin to distinguish what is happening and where. The youngest are naturally attracted to light, colors, sounds, and movements. They are always exploring with their senses; touching, tasting, looking, and then repeating the exploration.

At a young age, children might learn from us or the television how to count to 20, or recite the alphabet. This rote learning without a concrete point of reference in real life is not conceptualized by the child. Young children do not learn adequately from our verbal explanations or from videos alone. Concrete, direct experience is needed. For example, there is no way to explain the difference between bitter and sweet to someone who has not previously identified those tastes on his own tongue.

The Sensorial Materials

Maria Montessori, after closely observing infants and young children, designed materials to help children develop their senses. Around age three, this learning becomes more conscious than unconscious. Montessori's Sensorial materials for the primary classroom (ages 3-6) are not only very elegant and appealing to children, but they are concrete objects to be manipulated and explored.

Classroom exercises refine the senses of smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound, as well as spatial, thermic, and size discriminations, with each material isolating the sense being developed. For example, the Color Tablets, each with a single color, can be named, matched, or graded. The Color Tablets are neutral objects which differ in color only. They provide no other attributes which might be confusing or distracting, such as an apple which happens to be red or a toy car which is blue.

Montessori used the term the absorbent mind to describe a young child's ability to learn through the senses in a very concrete fashion. The senses trigger the mind to begin responding. We as parents can't make it happen, but we can help it happen. Then we can observe with awe as our children absorb the amazing world around them.

"The development of the senses indeed precedes that of superior intellectual activity..."
—Maria Montessori The Montessori Method

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

—Originally Published 2014