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The Montessori Materials: Not Just Manipulatives

By Chrystal Dahlmeier

Many educational programs recognize the importance of manipulatives to assist children's learning process. Research shows that when young children learn experientially, that learning is more complete and is retained longer. For example, it is easier and more effective when the child combines objects together to learn addition than by coloring a worksheet.
Maria Montessori was a pioneer in the area of concrete learning materials. She was one of the first to recognize that children learn best when they are actively involved, and she understood that children must move if they are to learn. The materials she developed, however, are more than just manipulatives. They are carefully and scientifically designed to meet the ever evolving needs of children as they reveal their nature, interests and developmental needs. The Montessori learning materials are designed to follow several principles. They have certainly stood the test of time. For over 100 years they have assisted children world-wide and form the "core" of the Montessori method.

Beauty, simplicity and appeal are necessary attributes of the material if children are to be drawn to explore and learn from them. The materials also must be child-sized and complete, with all parts in good condition. Imagine how frustrating for a child engaged in puzzle work to find one piece missing!

The Trinomial Cube, a complex puzzle for the very young child, represents the cube of a polynomial (abc)3 where a=2cm, b=3cm, and c=4cm

The materials have an inner aim. Montessori wrote that she did not set out to teach any "subjects". Instead, the child, through active involvement, will develop independence, self confidence, attention and critical thinking skills. With these strengths, the child is more prepared to become an independent, responsible learner.

Each material is designed to teach only one new concept at a time. The child's attention is better focused when there is only one new piece of knowledge to be learned. Do you remember how difficult it was to learn how to hold a pencil, support the paper, sit up straight AND remember where each letter started on the lined paper? With Montessori materials, children learn to do each of those in isolation. Only then is the child encouraged to combine all the steps and form letters on paper.

An especially important aspect of the materials is that they can be used repeatedly at different developmental levels. In a multi-age classroom, where children remain for three years, it is imperative that each material has multiple levels of challenge. This is built independently after a brief, personalized lesson. Then the child repeats and explores for a long as interest remains, thus learning to be responsible for herself and her own learning. In this way, the curriculum follows the child - - the opposite of the more common approach in which all children must conform to the standardized curriculum.

Children (and adults) have different preferred learning styles. While we all use a combination of styles, usually one is dominant. The Montessori learning materials are multi-sensory and can accommodate children's unique learning styles. The sandpaper letters utilize touch, vision and hearing to teach letter sounds. Children will utilize these materials in many different ways in order to internalize the shape and sound of letters.

Finally, the materials allow us to follow the child's natural development. Some children prefer a very sequenced, ordered approach, others, a more "smorgasbord" approach. One child may systematically do all ten shapes of the metal insets over a series of days. Another child may decide to explore them more spontaneously. The materials and the responsive environment can respect and respond to both styles.

The Montessori materials are an integral and central part of the Montessori philosophy. They facilitate children's cognitive development from concrete learner to abstract thinker. Having observed children's use of the materials over twenty years, I am in awe of their universal appeal and aid to development.