Dr. Montessori realized early on that young children were concrete thinkers. This means that their brains have a hard time interpreting concepts that cannot be isolated and experienced through the five senses. Color is one such concept. Hues are almost always connected to an object: “red” apple, “blue” sky, “yellow” duck. The very young child struggles to separate the name of the color from the object it belongs to, and this can bring about imprecise impressions that take time and effort to sort out.
To support the child’s precise assimilation of these concepts, Dr. Montessori developed the Sensorial materials. She isolated the concept – in our example, color – and made everything else about the material the same. The Color Tablets vary only in color and can be sorted and classified, allowing the child to have a clear and tangible experience of an otherwise abstract concept. We in Montessori refer to these tangible experiences of abstract concepts as “materialized abstractions”.
There are some abstract ideas, however, that can’t be completely “materialized”, and which only become accessible through daily life experiences once the brain reaches a certain level of maturity. One of these is time. In Elementary, we have a material that the children use to learn to read an analog clock. We also provide children with experiences that allow them to “feel” and “see” the passage of time, but the concept can only be truly grasped when the brain is ready to do so.
Cooking gives children many opportunities to experience the passage of time, and it’s one reason why it’s one of my favorite developmental tools. During our recent Thanksgiving feast preparation, a six-year old and a seven-year old were making cornbread in a crock pot. The recipe called for the bread to be cooked in the slow cooker for two hours.
The seven-year old took one of our two kitchen timers, the type that goes up to 60 minutes and is set by twisting a knob, and turned to me: “The recipe says ‘two hours’. Our timer only goes to sixty minutes. How do we time the bread?”
I said, “Hmmm, what could you do?”
The boy thought for a second and his face lit up. “We can turn the timer to 60 minutes and when it rings, we can turn it to 60 minutes again!”
The six-year old, who had been listening quietly to the exchange, suddenly got very agitated. He took the other kitchen timer, ran over to us, and cried out with excitement: “No, I have a better idea! Let’s set BOTH timers! One hour and one hour makes TWO hours!!!”