They need us desperately. Babies without proper stimulation can actually sicken and die. Babies are born without being able to turn over in bed or lift the head, but their brains are well developed, ready to cope with any environment, any culture, but they need a culture to cope with. There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses, so it is only right and proper that the senses should be well developed first, keen eyes, keen ears, and a body that stays put so that all the time is spent looking, listening, feeling, tasting and smelling.
The desire for sense stimulation amounts to a craving. Every inch of skin aches to be touched, preferably by the skin of another human being. The eyes crave something to look at, preferably a human face. The ears crave something to listen to, preferably the human voice. It is as strong as the sex urge in the adult. Our young parents would never refuse this if they understood it. Too often they do not. Our baby cannot talk, it can only cry or smile. The larynx is not ready, the brain is.
New neurons are being formed from the first day of life, how far ahead we still do not know. Connections are ready to be made, and are made with great speed. Adults cannot possibly see this. Every new thing to see, every new sound uttered in the room, is recorded, makes new connections, opens another synapse which can make many more connections. The brain actually grows in complexity as new sights, new smells, new sounds come into experience. Can an adult remember how all this felt? Probably yes. All adults should at least try.
Babies after a month or two can distinguish phonemes in every language of the world. They listen intently and perk up the attention with each new tiny difference in intonation, each new difference in pronunciation, things adults have not the power to distinguish. The baby does not listen so intently to the train whistle, though a very loud one may be heard every hour. The baby does not listen so intently to the barking of the dog, even though the dog is in the house making quite a bit of noise. No, the attention goes to the human voice. The baby does not know he will eventually be talking, but does it anyway.
Babies see our bodies well, our heads are not the largest part as the babies’ heads are to them. However, the interesting part of us is the face, particularly the eyes and the mouth. In the first few months of life the baby loves to look even at pictures of the human face. He knows in a surprisingly short time that these are pictures of people, not bits of colored paper. If the baby can learn so much in a couple of months it is staggering to think how much is possible in ten years! Faces are the first thing a child draws when the ability is mastered. Even we adults look first at the face of a new acquaintance.
It is thought that children have heightened sensory abilities, beyond those of adults. Colors are brighter, sounds are louder. They probably have more taste buds. Certainly they have more intense likes and dislikes of food. Most adults can remember the wonderful smell of the kitchen just before dinner. It is delightful today, but not in the same way. Children need to make the most of these early abilities.
Babies need to figure things out. Do things disintegrate when they leave the room? They appear as if by magic. Unless you handle something how do you know it has three dimensions? When things are far away they seem small, but enlarge as they grow nearer. Why? Some things seem to move by themselves, others need hands to carry them about. Some things have the same shape but different in color or size. Where do we get out ideas of softness, hardness, length, height, warmth, wetness and so on? We have inner instincts to do this, to feel soft things and hard things, then to know what softness means. To do this we need someone to give us the experiences, and someone to give us the word to describe it.
Experience and language must go together. In order to build intelligence you must know what you are looking at, what you are hearing, and somebody must tell you. If no one ever tells you the names of the flowers in the garden you will soon lose interest and never be able to tell them apart. The sooner you know the words for the colors, the better distinctions you can make. Artists can distinguish many shades of color because they probably learned their names in early childhood. Children then make a large card-file system in the brain, to enclose everything they know, every experience they have had, using the words to name the file-folders. It is like a replica of the outside world, making you able to manipulate things in your head. You can decide what to look at.
It doesn’t take many months for babies to discover the wonders of the human hand and the glories of touching. They love to be touched, especially by human hands. The feeling is obviously ecstatic. Their own hands are especially sensitive. Before they can turn over in bed the hand will quiver when they see something they would like to touch. This means that the thing is interesting, it also means that the baby has decided what he would like to do. It usually does not occur to parents to wonder why such a desire should be there at all. We pass it off as random movements and let it go without proper appreciation.
We cannot close our ears. Everything comes in-the barking of the dog, the clatter of feet, the music of the stereo, the sound of water running. We must learn to isolate these sounds so that we can think about them one at a time. It is the only way to put them into the card-file system in our brains. Each one must have a name, or it will be part of a chaos. This is not as easy to do as to categorize sights, but the baby tries. It is a great help to have an adult play one note at a time and tell you its name. Then when you hear it again you say to yourself, “What ho!” It is of great help if you can see the thing you are hearing, it is of even better help if you can touch it. Then there are the qualities of the things you hear, such as loudness, tonality, smoothness, and the intricacies of rhythm. When music plays all sorts of inner rhythms respond, as if a piece of you goes out toward the sound to sing with it.
Children pay extremely close attention to shapes and sizes. They want to know the name of each one. Usually, since we adults studied geometry in high school, we do not think it appropriate to give the children these names when they are very small and care so much. Actually the words “triangle” and “circle” are not difficult to pronounce. Since they are generic names they give the children the opportunity to sort out all the shapes they see. These words are easy to learn in the early years of keenness of eye. They love to sort gradations of size, and you may find many toys on the market to help. They love to fit things together. It is a pleasure to see a key fit into a keyhole, a puzzle piece fit into place, a screw into a hole. As the child handles things he gets the “feel” of something an inch long, but only if someone tells him that this is the length.
Other words children need at the time of sensory glory are those that compare the wonderful sights and sounds and feelings – such words as “bigger”, “longer”, “higher”, “darker”, “heavier”. There are a lot of them to give, and children are grateful for each one. They give you an ecstatic look when they come at the right time. Words such as these enable a person to make sub-categories, fine distinctions.
Some things, such as the moon, are out of reach. Babies can reach only so far. Reaching requires making deliberate movements, deciding on what to reach for, whether it will be possible to make it, what it will feel like when you do. Sensitive fingers try to grasp, they miss, try again, finally make it.
During these early years children pay close attention to every sensation, no matter how small. Adults pay attention too, but usually only to those sensations that have to do with what we think is important. Children have no thought of relative importance. Everything is grist to the mill, everything goes into the mind as a whole and is sorted out later. It is a different way of learning. To aid this the child is given a photographic memory, such a memory as few adults possess. Adults tend to remember the things they need to remember.
Children know that they have sharp eyes and ears. There is too much joy connected with them not to notice. It is interesting to ask a small child to help you find your lost keys. He will have at it with gusto, usually locating them quite quickly. When you compliment him on this prowess he will look at you with gratitude-it is not often that it is appreciated.
These abilities seem to fade as we grow older to make way for new ones, but do they really? Perhaps it is only the interest that fades. Certainly we build our lives on the sensory foundations we laid down in the early years. Perhaps children lose interest after they are older because they want to pattern themselves after the adults who are not so immersed in sensations.
The very basis of intelligence is awareness of fine distinctions. I have a friend who has a body and fender shop. When he needs to repaint a fender he can match the colors just by looking. A good mechanic can tell you by looking just how far apart are the threads on a screw. Many musicians can tell the names of every instrument played on a radio program. Ancient Hawaiians could navigate by the feel of the swells and the location of the stars. These things cannot be learned without great interest and attention, the sort that needs to begin in childhood, the sort we are born with.
Human beings, unlike other creatures, cannot walk for nearly a year do not speak for nearly two. However, the greatness of the human being is in intelligence and in adaptation, and the instincts for these things are well established at birth. The urge to use these instincts is overpowering. The proper use of them brings great joy.
It is no accident that the body is inert until the mind gets going. It insures that every movement will be under the direction of intelligence, first intelligence must be built up.
It is no accident that the eyes and ears are keener than they will ever will be again, that the memory is tremendous in the beginning. Each new sensory experience is stored in this memory, never to be forgotten. Scientific experiments have shown that each new stimulation makes for new neural connections, and actually forms the basis for intelligence itself. It is no accident that the hearing is so very acute, that attention is drawn to the human voice during the early years of acquiring language. The few children who have been locked away from contact with speech until they are seven or so will never acquire a rich vocabulary. The greater amount of sensory experience in these early years the better. Later interests will depend on them.
In order to build intelligence you must know what you are looking at, what you are hearing, and somebody must tell you. If no one ever tells you the names of the flowers in the garden you will soon lose interest and never be able to tell them apart. The sooner you know the words, the better distinctions you can make. Children can and do understand language very early because they have listened so intently from the first days.
Only parents have the patience to give the baby and the toddler the attention, the sensory experiences that they desperately need. A good daycare center can only approximate it. If they only understood this they would never shut a child in a playpen to wail despondently. They would never feel that the child cries for attention so that he can dominate the parents.
The baby is so inert that he can’t touch anything unless an adult carries him near the object and gives him time to focus the hand, the eye and the mind together. It takes a bit of experience to do it well, and some adult must take time to give it. If the adult gets tired before the baby has had time to get things together he will howl with frustration.
When the time comes to crawl about there is the need to handle everything, to see how hard it is, how it tastes, how much it weighs, how far you can throw it. You can never learn to live in a real world if you are shut away from it. Once you are sure of something you are ready to go on to the next thing. If you have never handled water how can you know what it does? The baby sees everyone else touching things, why can’t he? Why does everyone say “Don’t touch” when the need is so great to find out about it? How can you learn to be careful with glassware if you never see anything break? Why should some things be dirty? “Don’t touch” is probably the most repeated phrase in any language.
The more words a child knows, the more things he can handle, the better will be the behavior. You need to safety-check the house as well as every house you enter for some time. The little spies find everything, the afraid cleaners, the electric cords, little pins. You do not have to depend on slapping, by this time of life you can explain things quite well. This period is difficult. It will pass only when the curiosity is satisfied. If there are too many prohibitions the child will either rebel or become too compliant. If you wait too long to allow touching the crucial time will be gone, there will be dropped stitches in development.
Often in despair you set the child in front of the TV set. This holds his attention because there is much to see there, but there is nothing to touch. The small hands twitch and don’t make proper connections with the brain. The inner guide screams, the child screams, and you try to comfort him.
Babies are cute and cuddly, but they are not dolls or invalids to be kept quiet. They will fight for the right to move about no matter how inconvenient it is for you, the parents. They are obsessed with their own development, it is all they can think about. You come into their thoughts as the means by which they can find out about everything in the whole society. Such dependence is awesome.
A parent of my acquaintance was most successful about touching valuable things. The treasures were locked in a glass cupboard and brought out on special occasions for the children to touch. It was so special a time that the children needed to sit on pillows set out for the occasion. Each precious thing was slowly handled by the parent, then presented to the child who imitated the adult very exactly. Several presentations were necessary for some of the things, and the children were proud of each success. It became a weekly occurrence.
These toddlers miss nothing. They use every waking moment to explore, for what reason adults do not seem to even question. They get into everything, the chew the electric cords, they climb up on the stove. Yes, they need you to keep them out of trouble, to put some sort of rein on them to save them from themselves. But how exciting they are, these sensory experiences, how important they are to future years.
Northwest Montessori School was founded in 1965 by Marietta Rawson, who began her career in education as a public school teacher. After attending a lecture on the Montessori method of individualized education, Marietta was so inspired that she traveled to Italy to take Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) training. Upon her return, Marietta started the first Montessori school in Seattle.
Today Northwest Montessori remains one of a select few AMI-recognized schools in the Seattle area.