How to Smell a Rose: An Introduction to Montessori Sensorial Activities

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, light up the the Earth in a burst of golden flames, and draw you into its delicate beauty petal by petal. Eyes closed. You breathe. In the darkness, you are attuned to the unique scent of this one flower in this one moment. Trying your best to memorize it, you move to the next and repeat.

And yet when all of our senses are engaged at once, we can miss the nuances. The experience overwhelms us, and our brains struggle to put the entire puzzle together. It's instinct for us to close our eyes when smelling deeply and pull our noses away when we open our eyes to focus on the symmetry.

Maria Montessori noticed this as well, and she took it a step further. When teaching small children, concepts are much more easily focused on (and therefore learned) when they are isolated.

Give a child a set of colorful bottles filled with different scents and he will play with them like any open-ended toy. Give a child a set of plain bottles, distinguished only by the scents to match, and he will engage his sense of smell and concentrate, blissfully aware of only the scent.

Trust in the Method

I will admit this to you here. There is a part of me that resists immensely. How dare we improve upon the rose experience itself, eyes closed, as we began? Is the natural beauty of the world so distrustfully puzzling for us that we feel our children would learn better with an artificially created sensory experience? Why not just smell the darned rose and be done with it?

I go back to The Absorbent Mind and read Maria's plea, and I remember. It's because we are offering a gift. We are clearing a path, freeing the child of distractions as he allows one sense to completely take over, learning not just that he is able to smell an object but that his sense of smell is a powerful tool for exploration.

The senses, as Maria so clearly puts it, are merely "points of contact with the environment". How kind it is to offer experiences that allow a child's mind to practice isolating one sense at a time in order to more fully understand the real world. If there is an alphabet to decoding words in books, so there is an alphabet to the senses, parts that must be practiced one at at a time before they can come together in harmony.

A Sensorial Adventure

Would you like to take a sensorial adventure with me for a moment? Imagine that you are walking through a museum exhibit featuring hundreds of wondrous gems. Rubies, emeralds, diamonds - they all appears to sparkle, dazzling the eyes. Now imagine that is nearing closing time. The guards have given a warning: the museum will be closing in fifteen minutes. The overhead lights are dimmed and the crowds have drifted toward the exit, leaving in silence. 

Each glass-covered exhibit glows in the near-darkness, illuminating just one piece at a time, and suddenly the subtle differences in shades of purple seem more apparent than before. The light reflects through each one at a different angle. You gaze at each gem in turn, appreciating the uniqueness. You pick which one is your favorite and try hard to memorize it. You whisper the name out loud.

You remember more about the last fifteen minutes than in the entire two hours of the visit not because your time was running out but because you were visually guided by the environment.

Your visual perception is heightened for a little while. When you walk out those museum doors, you notice with perfect clarity the green treetops against a blue background. You admire the marble steps and notice the glint of the sunlight off of the handrail. You've just experienced a classic Montessori sensorial lesson.

When we offer a sensorial activity for focused exploration, whether it's matching distinct smells, ordering objects by size, feeling a gradation of weights, or noting variations in color, we are shining that beam of light directly upon one characteristic of the material, arousing the child's natural curiosity and interest.

Senses refined, the brief encounter with a rose takes the whole experience to a new level of appreciation.