The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.


Sorting Things Out

Spend just a little bit of time in our Sensorial Area and you’ll notice some common tasks: labeling, comparing, contrasting and sorting chief among them. These materials support the child’s developing sensorial awareness and his or her ability to discriminate between different sensorial stimuli. Advanced lessons offer the child the opportunity to identify and label qualities of objects in his or her environment. From “longest” to “shortest” or “darkest” to “lightest,” from learning the names for “bitter,” “sour,” “sweet” and “salty,” to being able to match smells from tiny, nameless jars, the Sensorial materials support the intrinsic motivation to discern and name the qualities of the world around us.

But before the child can distinguish between subtle differences in scent, volume or tone, he or she is driven to practice sorting unlabeled things into like categories. At this point in the child’s development, the names of those categories aren’t so important. Instead, the visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory or gustatory qualities are enough to say, “These are alike. These are not.” To meet this need, we offer lots of different opportunities to sort: sorting pegs of different colors but the same size, sorting buttons of different sizes but the same color, sorting nuts of differing colors and size. These early lessons often need no presentation at all: the child is intrinsically motivated to take groups of differing items and sort them into similar categories.

In child development, we identify this as the child’s process of testing his or her “schema,” that understanding of what a concept includes and excludes. A young child, for example, may say “woof woof” every time he or she sees a dog. The caregiver reinforces this expression, saying, “Yes, that’s a dog,” or prompts it, asking, “What does a dog say?” The child ultimately learns that things exist with four legs and tails and little noses and that we call those things, “dogs.” But what happens when the child sees a possum? He or she may ask, “Woof?” and the caregiver will clarify, “No, that’s not a dog. That’s a possum.” The complex operating system of the child’s brain knows that things with four legs, tails and small noses are dogs, but now he or she will expand that schema to understand that not all things with four legs, tails and small noses are dogs.

You probably have seen this in your own child long before he or she came to school: the need to label our environment is evident as soon as the child can distinguish between the faces or his or her parents. The child is driven to put things in their place, to discriminate between things that are the same and things that are different, because, by doing so, he or she begins to understand the rules for how this world works. He or she can exert some control on the environment by being able to identify its qualities. He or she can test what is reliable about that identification and what needs more details, as new qualities expand and challenge the child’s previously held schema. This is perhaps the most essential inner drive of the first six years of life: to label the cognitive files into which a lifetime of information will be stored.

When your child wants to organize her Lego bricks into same colored piles, or sort out his socks into stripes or no-stripes, indulge the urge. As children better understand all the ways things in our world can be different, they internalize all the ways in which they can be the same. They learn to define their environment and, eventually, to control it.