Sensorial Montessori Activities
With these activities, we try to refine and contribute to the development of the child’s five senses. Everything we learn has to reach our brain through—at least—one of our five senses. Therefore, our senses can be considered the gateway to intelligence and learning: that’s why it is important to use them as much as possible.
We can start with these activities when the child is around 18 – 24 months, and continue with them all the time that the child wants.
Sensory trays or bins are very easy to prepare and toddlers truly love them. We just need a deep tray or plastic bin, which we will then fill with variety of materials of different textures in order to stimulate the child’s senses.
We usually use a base material (which can be sand, dirt, macaroni, pebbles, rice…), and then add a few interesting objects and playing tools such as spoons, shovels or a small bucket.
You can prepare themed sensory boxes, for example:
- The seasons of the year: find items related to a certain season: for example, you can mix dry soil, dry leaves, chestnuts and small apples to make an autumn box.
- The farm: fill a container with straw, dry rice or wheat and plastic animals.
- The vegetable garden: in a container full of dirt place carrots, turnips, onions, radishes…
- The beach: fill a box with sand, shells, plastic fish, seahorses or starfish… if you don’t mind a bit of a mess add a bowl with water, a shovel and a bucket. You can ask the children to help you clean up afterwards.
Sorting by color
The desire to sort objects is innate in children. Many children just start sorting things on their own, without being asked to. It’s their way of creating order from chaos, their way to help themselves understand our complex world.
There are many variations of this activity, which can be created with all kinds of objects as long as they have the same shape and size. The only difference between the items should be their colour. We always try to isolate a quality when creating a Montessori material: in this case, colours. This minimizes the potential for confusion.
How to do it:
- If working with younger children, start by sorting two or a maximum of three colours.
- Use a three-part lesson to teach the names of the colours, if they don’t know them yet: “This is red. What colour is this? Show me the red block.”
- Put all the items (mixed) in a big basket and start sorting them until you finish. Then put everything back.
- If the child wants to, let him try on his own. Otherwise just remind him where he will be able to find the material if he wants to use it at a later time.
Sorting by size
Size sorting activities help to comprehend the dimensional relationships between objects. Some of the best known sensory Montessori materials are great tools to approach size sorting, such as:
- The brown stair
- The pink tower
- The red rods
- The knobbed and knobless cylinders
To work with these materials, begin by asking the child to point at the largest and the smaller piece, since they are the easiest to recognize.
For home use I would recommend you choose just one or two of these materials, as they have a fairly high price tag, and try to make or substitute the others with similar—but less pricey—materials.
My favourite from this list is the knobbed cylinders, which are sold in four sets (but there is no need to buy all four of them). Each of the four knobbed cylinders sets presents a varying characteristic which is used to sort them: the variation can be only an increase in diameter, an increase in diameter and height, an increase in diameter combined with decreasing height, etc. The cylinders must be picked up between the thumb and index fingers, which helps to develop the muscles of the hand at the same time. That’s why, if I could only have one sensorial material, I would choose the knobbed ones versus the knobless version.
If your child is very young, just remove all the cylinders from their holes, one by one, and put them in a row in front of you, without mixing them. Then put them back in place. Once the child has mastered this activity you can take out the cylinders and put them in a random order, so that the child has to find out on his own which is the right hole for each cylinder.
You can repeat this process in a similar way when working with the pink tower, the red rods, etc.
The pink tower is made out of ten pink cardboard cubes of decreasing size.
Try to work on size sorting using homemade materials or objects that you find around the house: maybe you have some boxes which fit inside each other, stackable plastic cups, wooden blocks or cylinders, building blocks, etc.
A nice and budget friendly toy are the typical Russian dolls (Matryoshka dolls), which fit inside each other. If you don’t classify them correctly, there will be one left in the end, so this activity offers a good control of error too.
You can also print homemade size-sorting cards by printing the same image in different sizes. Then ask your child to make a row, from the smallest to the biggest picture. As this is an abstract exercise (it uses pictures instead of real objects) it’s better to do it once the child has had enough experiences with physical materials.
Sewing and threading
Threading bead sets can be easily found in most toy shops. You can also make your own with a few wooden beads and a shoelace.
You can create your own threading board by punching a few holes in a piece of cardboard.
Threading boards can be easily made by punching a few holes in a thick piece of cardboard and “sewing” them with a piece of string or a shoelace. There are also many variations of threading toys for sale, like the one in the picture (this one is shaped like a boot).
Such activities favour concentration and fine motor skills, and teach children to work with both hands at the same time.
The stereognostic sense is the ability to recognize objects using only our tactile abilities. This activity helps develop the sense of touch, by distinguishing shapes, textures, softness, etc. just with our hands (excluding the sense of sight). It also helps to broaden the child’s vocabulary as he names the objects he finds in the bag.
How to prepare a mystery bag:
First, you will need a small pouch or fabric bag. Ideally, get one which can be closed with a string. If you don't have anything like that, it is quite simple to sew one at home. Or simply use a pillowcase with a side zipper closure.
Put five or six small objects inside your mystery bag. Don’t let your child see them: his job will be guessing what is inside the bag. Some examples of objects that we can use:
- A toothbrush,
- A spoon,
- A tennis ball,
- A pine cone,
- A leaf,
- A tangerine,
- A cotton ball,
- A pencil,
- Toy animals.
Then show the child how this activity works: put your hand inside the bag and close your eyes. Start feeling inside the bag and pick an object, then try to guess what it is. You can say: “I think this is… a coin”. Then take it out and check if your guess was right. Finally, offer the bag to the child and ask him if he wants to have a go.
Soft and hard, smooth and rough
This activity helps children learn the difference between soft and hard. Prepare a simple material with the following supplies:
- A tray,
A basket full of different objects, which can be easily described as soft or hard, such as:
- Soft objects: a pin cushion, a small stuffed animal, a woollen sock, a sponge,
- Hard objects: a key, a spoon, a small shot glass, a building block.
- Two containers for sorting: one for hard and one for soft objects.
56: Sorting hard and soft objects.
You can repeat the same activity with smooth and rough objects:
- Smooth: silk scarf, glazed ceramic object…
- Rough: sandpaper, a piece of sackcloth…
Sense of smell
To create this material, you will need:
- Small opaque glass bottles. They all must look the same. I use small bottles with droppers, like the ones which are generally used for essential oils
- Otherwise, you can use glass jars if you previously paint them black so that their contents can’t be seen from the outside.
- This activity will also work if you use pieces of fabric impregnated with different essential oils.
How to do this activity:
Get an even number of bottles and make pairs. Fill them with water and a couple of drops of a certain essential oil, so that there are always two filled with the same fragance. For example:
- 2 lavender scented bottles,
- 2 rosemary scented bottles,
- 2 tea tree scented bottles…
The child will have to smell each bottle and try to make pairs, matching together those which smell the same.
The control of error is found under the bottles. Just draw different symbols or put matching stickers on each pair.
If you don’t have any essential oils at home you can still do this activity with items from your garden and your kitchen, such as:
- Crushed garlic,
- Rose petals,
- Jasmin flowers,
- Lemon zest,
- Ground pepper,
- Grated apples…
Sense of taste
Just like we worked with the sense of smell in the former activity, we can prepare a very similar learning material to sort different tasting foods.
Get eight opaque glass bottles, if possible the ones with a dropper cap. Just like before, make a few pairs with different tastes (use only edible substances):
- Sweet (sugar water),
- Salty (salt water),
- Bitter (water in which you have boiled artichokes; water with a few drops of bitter lemon soda –like Schweppes),
- Sour (lemon juice, water with a few drops of vinegar).
You can make several sweet-tasting pairs, such as sugar water and apple juice (prepare two of each).
Explain to the child how to put one drop of liquid on a spoon and try it with the tip of his tongue in order to decide which bottles match.
Discuss together which flavours are sweet, salty, bitter, etc., and which similar tasting foods he can remember.
Open and close
Opening and closing containers
Find a few different lidded containers and put them all in a basket. Take them out one by one and show the child how you open them. Then close them again and put them back, one at a time. Finally, ask him to try on his own.
You can use metallic tins, glass jars, cardboard boxes, etc.
Latches boards can be bought but they are not hard to make either, especially if you already have some old locks at home. They are very entertaining for children and teach them how to open and close different types of closures they will encounter daily.
In order to make one, you will need a wooden board on which you will then glue or screw some varied locks, latches and door bolts (see sketch above these lines).
Types of hand grasp and transfers with sponges, tweezers and pipettes
Transfers are ideal for practicing different types of hand grasp. Children usually start with the most primitive grasp (using their whole hand) and slowly work their way to the most evolved ones, which are the pincer grip or tripod grasp, the ones we use for writing.
Palmar grasp is the most basic one, and the first technique that small babies use when learning to grab objects. They take an object with their whole fist, creating a cylindrical shape with their palm and fingers.
A fun palmar grasp activity can be prepared with just two bowls and a sponge. One of the bowls must be full and the other empty. The child’s work is to transfer all the water to the empty bowl, by soaking the sponge in a bowl and squeezing it on the other one.
First pincer grip
If working with tongs try transferring little spherical objects from one bowl to another (use grapes, pompoms, Ping-Pong balls, cotton balls, etc.). Please take care that the child doesn’t try to eat them!
If you have a big dropper I recommend you add some food colouring to the water to make the activity more interesting.
The thumb opposes to three or four fingers of the hand in order to create this type of grasp.
We do transfer work with tongs and big droppers. The material is prepared and used in a very similar manner to the previous one.
Tripod and bidigital pincer grip
The most precise grasp is the bidigital grip, in which we use only the index and thumb fingers to pick up objects. The tripod grip is similar, but it uses the middle finger too. There are many Montessori materials which stimulate the tiny hand muscles needed to develop a proper bidigital pincer grip, such as the first Montessori puzzles, the knobbed cylinders, etc.
This type of grasp is reinforced when working with small object transfers, such as marbles, beans or lentils, which the child must pick between his thumb and index fingers in order to put them in the right container. The goal of all these activities is for the child to be able to hold a pencil correctly when the time comes.