A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XIII." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
From: The Montessori Method (1912) by Maria Montessori, translated by Anne Everett George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912. pp. 185-214.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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THE education of the tactile and the thermic senses go together, since the warm bath, and heat in general, render the tactile sense more acute. Since to exercise the tactile sense it is necessary to touch, bathing the hands in warm water has the additional advantage of teaching the child a principle of cleanliness–that of not touching objects with hands that are not clean. I therefore apply the general notions of practical life, regarding the washing of the hands, care of the nails, to the exercises preparatory to the discrimination of tactile stimuli.

The limitation of the exercises of the tactile sense to the cushioned tips of the fingers, is rendered necessary by practical life. It must be made a necessary phase of education because it prepares for a life in which man exercises and uses the tactile sense through the medium of these finger tips. Hence, I have the child wash his hands carefully with soap, in a little basin; and in another basin I have him rinse them in a bath of tepid water. Then I show him how to dry and rub his hands gently, in this way preparing for the regular bath. I next teach the child how to touch, that is, the manner in which he should touch surfaces. For this it is necessary to take [Page 186]  the finger of the child and to draw it very, very lightly over the surface.

Another particular of the technique is to teach the child to hold his eyes closed while he touches, encouraging him to do this by telling him that he will be able to feel the differences better, and so leading him to distinguish, without the help of sight, the change of contact. He will quickly learn, and will show that he enjoys the exercise. Often, after the introduction of such exercises, it is a common thing to have a child come to you, and, closing his eyes, touch with great delicacy the palm of your hand or the cloth of your dress, especially any silken or velvet trimmings. They do verily exercise the tactile sense. They enjoy keenly touching any soft pleasant surface, and become exceedingly keen in discriminating between the differences in the sandpaper cards.

The Didactic Material consists of: a –a rectangular wooden board divided into two equal rectangles, one covered with very smooth paper, or having the wood polished until a smooth surface is obtained; the other covered with sandpaper. b –a tablet like the preceding covered with alternating strips of smooth paper and sandpaper.

I also make use of a collection of paper slips, varying through many grades from smooth, fine cardboard to coarsest sandpaper. The stuffs described elsewhere are also used in these lessons.

As to the Thermic Sense, I use a set of little metal bowls, which are filled with water at different degrees of temperature. These I try to measure with a thermometer, so that there may be two containing water of the same temperature.

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Children playing a game with tablets of coloured silk.

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(A) GIRL TOUCHING A LETTER AND BOY TELLING OBJECTS BY WEIGHT. (B) ARRANGING TABLETS OF SILK IN THEIR CHROMATIC ORDER BY WEIGHT. There are eight colours, and eight shades of each colour, making sixty-four gradations in all.

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I have designed a set of utensils which are to be made of very light metal, and filled with water. These have covers, and to each is attached a thermometer. The bowl touched from the outside gives the desired impression of heat.

I also have the children put their hands into cold, tepid, and warm water, an exercise which they find most diverting. I should like to repeat this exercise with the feet, but I have not had an opportunity to make the trial.

For the education of the baric sense (sense of weight), I use with great success little wooden tablets, six by eight centimetres, having a thickness of 1/2 centimetre. These tablets are in three different qualities of wood, wistaria, walnut, and pine. They weigh respectively, 24, 18, and 12 grammes, making them differ in weight by 6 grammes. These tablets should be very smooth; if possible, varnished in such a way that every roughness shall be eliminated, but so that the natural colour of the wood shall remain. The child, observing the colour, knows that they are of differing weights, and this offers a means of controlling the exercise. He takes two of the tablets in his hands, letting them rest upon the palm at the base of his outstretched fingers. Then he moves his hands up and down in order to gauge the weight. This movement should come to be, little by little, almost insensible. We lead the child to make his distinction purely through the difference in weight, leaving out the guide of the different colours, and closing his eyes. He learns to do this of himself, and takes great interest in "guessing."

The game attracts the attention of those near, who gather in a circle about the one who has the tablets, and who take turns in guessing. Sometimes the children [Page 188]  spontaneously make use of the blindfold, taking turns, and interspersing the work with peals of joyful laughter.


The education of this sense leads to the recognition of objects through feeling, that is, through the simultaneous help of the tactile and muscular senses.

Taking this union as a basis, we have made experiments which have given marvellously successful educational results. I feel that for the help of teachers these exercises should be described.

The first didactic material used by us is made up of the bricks and cubes of Froebel. We call the attention of the child to the form of the two solids, have him feel them carefully and accurately, with his eyes open, repeating some phrase serving to fix his attention upon the particulars of the forms presented. After this the child is told to place the cubes to the right, the bricks to the left, always feeling them, and without looking at them. Finally the exercise is repeated, by the child blindfolded. Almost all the children succeed in the exercise, and after two or three times, are able to eliminate every error. There are twenty-four of the bricks and cubes in all, so that the attention may be held for some time through this "game"–but undoubtedly the child's pleasure is greatly increased by the fact of his being watched by a group of his companions, all interested and eager.

One day a directress called my attention to a little girl of three years, one of our very youngest pupils, who had repeated this exercise perfectly. We seated the little girl comfortably in an armchair, close to the table. Then, placing the twenty-four objects before her upon the table, [Page 189]  we mixed them, and calling the child's attention to the difference in form, told her to place the cubes to the right and the bricks to the left. When she was blindfolded she began the exercise as taught by us, taking an object in each hand, feeling each and putting it in its right place. Sometimes she took two cubes, or two bricks, sometimes she found a brick in the right hand, a cube in the left. The child had to recognise the form, and to remember throughout the exercise the proper placing of the different objects. This seemed to me very difficult for a child of three years.

But observing her I saw that she not only performed the exercise easily, but that the movements with which we had taught her to feel the form were superfluous. Indeed the instant she had taken the two objects in her hands, if it so happened that she had taken a cube with the left hand and a brick in the right, she exchanged them immediately, and then began the laborious feeling the form which we had taught and which she perhaps, believed to be obligatory. But the objects had been recognised by her through the first light touch, that is, the recognition was contemporaneous to the taking.

Continuing my study of the subject, I found that this little girl was possessed of a remarkable functional ambidexterity–I should be very glad to make a wider study of this phenomenon having in view the desirability of a simultaneous education of both hands.

I repeated the exercise with other children and found that they recognise the objects before feeling their contours. This was particularly true of the little ones. Our educational methods in this respect furnished a remarkable exercise in associative gymnastics, leading to a rapidity of judgment which was truly surprising and had the [Page 190]  advantage of being perfectly adapted to very young children.

These exercises of the stereognostic sense may be multiplied in many ways–they amuse the children who find delight in the recognition of a stimulus, as in the thermic exercises; for example–they may raise any small objects, toy soldiers, little balls, and, above all, the various coins in common use. They come to discriminate between small forms varying very slightly, such as corn, wheat, and rice.

They are very proud of seeing without eyes, holding out their hands and crying, "Here are my eyes!" "I can see with my hands!" Indeed, our little ones walking in the ways we have planned, make us marvel over their unforeseen progress, surprising us daily. Often, while they are wild with delight over some new conquest,–we watch, in deepest wonder and meditation.


This phase of sense education is most difficult, and I have not as yet had any satisfactory results to record. I can only say that the exercises ordinarily used in the tests of psychometry do not seem to me to be practical for use with young children.

The olfactory sense in children is not developed to any great extent, and this makes it difficult to attract their attention by means of this sense. We have made use of one test which has not been repeated often enough to form the basis of a method. We have the child smell fresh violets, and jessamine flowers. We then blindfold him, saying; "Now we are going to present you with flowers." A little friend then holds a bunch of violets under the child's nose, that he may guess the name of

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(A) DRAWING TABLE AND INSET. (B) WOODEN TABLETS. These are partly covered with sandpaper to give rough and smooth surfaces. (C) SOLID INSETS. With these the child, working by himself, learns to differentiate objects according to thickness, height, and size.

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(A) BROAD STAIR. (B) LONG STAIR. (C) TOWER. Blocks by which children are taught thickness, length, size.

[Page 191]  the flower. For greater or less intensity we present fewer flowers, or even one single blossom.

But this part of education, like that of the sense of taste, can be obtained by the child during the luncheon hour;–when he can learn to recognise various odours.

As to taste, the method of touching the tongue with various solutions, bitter or acid, sweet, salty, is perfectly applicable. Children of four years readily lend themselves to such games, which serve as a reason for showing them how to rinse their mouths perfectly. The children enjoy recognising various flavours, and learn, after each test, to fill a glass with tepid water, and carefully rinse their mouths. In this way the exercise for the sense of taste is also an exercise in hygiene.


I. Differential Visual Perception of Dimensions

First. Solid Insets: This material consists of three solid blocks of wood each 55 centimetres long, 6 centimetres high and 8 centimetres wide. Each block contains ten wooden pieces, set into corresponding holes. These pieces are cylindrical in shape and are to be handled by means of a little wooden or brass button which is fixed in the centre of the top. The cases of cylinders are in appearance much like the cases of weights used by chemists. In the first set of the series, the cylinders are all of equal height (55 millimetres) but differ in diameter. The smallest cylinder has a diameter of 1 centimetre, and the others increase in diameter at the rate of 1/2 centimetre. In the second set, the cylinders are all of equal diameter, corresponding to half the diameter of the largest cylinder in the preceding series–(27 millimetres). The cylin- [Page 192]  ders in this set differ in height, the first being merely a little disk only a centimetre high, the others increase 5 millimetres each, the tenth one being 55 millimetres high. In the third set, the cylinders differ both in height and diameter, the first being 1 centimetre high and 1 centimetre in diameter and each succeeding one increasing 1/2 centimetre in height and diameter. With these insets, the child, working by himself, learns to differentiate objects according to thickness, according to height, and according to size.

In the schoolroom, these three sets may be played with by three children gathered about a table, an exchange of games adding variety. The child takes the cylinders out of the moulds, mixes them upon the table, and then puts each back into its corresponding opening. These objects are made of hard pine, polished and varnished.

Second. Large pieces in graded dimensions:–There are three sets of blocks which come under this head, and it is desirable to have two of each of these sets in every school.

(a) Thickness: this set consists of objects which vary from thick to thin. There are ten quadrilateral prisms, the largest of which has a base of 10 centimetres, the others decreasing by 1 centimetre. The pieces are of equal length, 20 centimetres. These prisms are stained a dark brown. The child mixes them, scattering them over the little carpet, and then puts them in order, placing one against the other according to the graduations of thickness, observing that the length shall correspond exactly. These blocks, taken from the first to the last, form a species of stair, the steps of which grow broader toward the top. The child may begin with the thinnest piece or with the thickest, as suits his pleasure. The control of the exer- [Page 193]  cise is not certain, as it was in the solid cylindrical insets. There, the large cylinders could not enter the small opening, the taller ones would project beyond the top of the block, etc. In this game of the Big Stair, the eye of the child can easily recognise an error, since if he mistakes, the stair is irregular, that is, there will be a high step, behind which the step which should have ascended, decreases.

(b) Length: Long and Short Objects:–This set consists of ten rods. These are four-sided, each face being 3 centimetres. The first rod is a metre long, and the last a decimetre. The intervening rods decrease, from first to last, 1 decimetre each. Each space of 1 decimetre is painted alternately red or blue. The rods, when placed close to each other, must be so arranged that the colours correspond, forming so many transverse stripes–the whole set when arranged has the appearance of a rectangular triangle made up of organ pipes, which decrease on the side of the hypothenuse.

The child arranges the rods which have first been scattered and mixed. He puts them together according to the graduation of length, and observes the correspondence of colours. This exercise also offers a very evident control of error, for the regularity of the decreasing length of the stairs along the hypothenuse will be altered if the rods are not properly placed.

This most important set of blocks will have its principal application in arithmetic, as we shall see. With it, one may count from one to ten and may construct the addition and other tables, and it may constitute the first steps in the study of the decimal and metric system.

(c) Size: Objects, Larger and Smaller:–This set is made up of ten wooden cubes painted in rose-coloured [Page 194]  enamel. The largest cube has a base of 10 centimetres, the smallest, of 1 centimetre, the intervening ones decrease 1 centimetre each. A little green cloth carpet goes with these blocks. This may be of oilcloth or cardboard. The game consists of building the cubes up, one upon another, in the order of their dimensions, constructing a little tower of which the largest cube forms the base and the smallest the apex. The carpet is placed on the floor, and the cubes are scattered upon it. As the tower is built upon the carpet, the child goes through the exercise of kneeling, rising, etc. The control is given by the irregularity of the tower as it decreases toward the apex. A cube misplaced reveals itself, because it breaks the line. The most common error made by the children in playing with these blocks at first, is that of placing the second cube as the base and placing the first cube upon it, thus confusing the two largest blocks. I have noted that the same error was made by deficient children in the repeated trials I made with the tests of De Sanctis. At the question, "Which is the largest?" the child would take, not the largest, but that nearest it in size.

Any of these three sets of blocks may be used by the children in a slightly different game. The pieces may be mixed upon a carpet or table, and then put in order upon another table at some distance. As he carries each piece, the child must walk without letting his attention wander, since he must remember the dimensions of the piece for which he is to look among the mixed blocks.

The games played in this way are excellent for children of four or five years; while the simple work of arranging the pieces in order upon the same carpet where they have been mixed is more adapted to the little ones between three and four years of age. The construction of the tower

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(A) GEOMETRIC INSETS OF WOOD, AND FRAME. The frame furnishes the control necessary for exactness of work. (B) CABINET. (For storing geometric inset frames.)

[Page 195]  with the pink cubes is very attractive to little ones of less than three years, who knock it down and build it up time after time.

II. Differential Visual Perception of Form and Visual-tactile-muscular Perception

Didactic Material. Plane geometric insets of wood: The idea of these insets goes back to Itard and was also applied by Séguin.

In the school for deficients I had made and applied these insets in the same form used by my illustrious predecessors. In these there were two large tablets of wood placed one above the other and fastened together. The lower board was left solid, while the upper one was perforated by various geometric figures. The game consisted in placing in these openings the corresponding wooden figures which, in order that they might be easily handled, were furnished with a little brass knob.

In my school for deficients, I had multiplied the games calling for these insets, and distinguished between those used to teach colour and those used to teach form. The insets for teaching colour were all circles, those used for teaching form were all painted blue. I had great numbers of these insets made in graduations of colour, and in an infinite variety of form. This material was most expensive and exceedingly cumbersome.

In many later experiments with normal children, I have, after many trials, completely excluded the plane geometric insets as an aid to the teaching of colour, since this material offers no control of errors, the child's task being that of covering the forms before him.

I have kept the geometric insets, but have given them a new and original aspect. The form in which they are [Page 196]  now made was suggested to me by a visit to the splendid manual training school in the Reformatory of St. Michael in Rome. I saw there wooden models of geometric figures, which could be set into corresponding frames or placed above corresponding forms. The scope of these materials was to lead to exactness in the making of the geometric pieces in regard to control of dimension and form; the frame furnishing the control necessary for the exactness of the work.

This led me to think of making modifications in my geometric insets, making use of the frame as well as of the inset. I therefore made a rectangular tray, which measured 30x20 centimetres. This tray was painted a dark blue and was surrounded by a dark frame. It was furnished with a cover so arranged that it would contain six of the square frames with their insets. The advantage of this tray is that the forms may be changed, thus allowing us to present any combination we choose. I have a number of blank wooden squares which make it possible to present as few as two or three geometric forms at a time, the other spaces being filled in by the blanks. To this material I have added a set of white cards, 10 centimetres square. These cards form a series presenting the geometric forms in other aspects. In the first of the series, the form is cut from blue paper and mounted upon the card. In the second box of cards, the contour of the same figures is mounted in the same blue paper, forming an outline one centimetre in width. On the third set of cards the contour of the geometric form is outlined by a black line. We have then the tray, the collection of small frames with their corresponding insets, and the set of the cards in three series.

I also designed a case containing six trays. The front

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Some of the Card Forms used in the exercises with the three series of cards.

[Page 197]  of this box may be lowered when the top is raised and the trays may be drawn out as one opens the drawers of a desk. Each drawer contains six of the small frames with their respective insets. In the first drawer I keep the four plain wooden squares and two frames, one containing a rhomboid, and the other a trapezoid. In the second, I have a series consisting of a square, and five rectangles of the same length, but varying in width. The third drawer contains six circles which diminish in diameter. In the fourth are six triangles, in the fifth, five polygons from a pentagon to a decagon. The sixth drawer contains six curved figures (an ellipse, an oval, etc., and a flower-like figure formed by four crossed arcs).

Exercise with the Insets. This exercise consists in presenting to the child the large frame or tray in which we may arrange the figures as we wish to present them. We proceed to take out the insets, mix them upon the table, and then invite the child to put them back in place. This game may be played by even the younger children and holds the attention for a long period, though not for so long a time as the exercise with the cylinders. Indeed, I have never seen a child repeat this exercise more than five or six times. The child, in fact, expends much energy upon this exercise. He must recognise the form and must look at it carefully.

At first many of the children only succeed in placing the insets after many attempts, trying for example to place a triangle in a trapezoid, then in a rectangle, etc. Or when they have taken a rectangle, and recognise where it should go, they will still place it with the long side of the inset across the short side of the opening, and will only after many attempts, succeed in placing it. After three or four successive lessons, the child recognises the geomet- [Page 198]  ric figures with extreme facility and places the insets with a security which has a tinge of nonchalance, or of slight contempt for an exercise that is too easy. This is the moment in which the child may be led to a methodical observation of the forms. We change the forms in the frame and pass from contrasted frames to analogous ones. The exercise is easy for the child, who habituates himself to placing the pieces in their frames without errors or false attempts.

The first period of these exercises is at the time when the child is obliged to make repeated trials with figures that are strongly contrasted in form. The recognition is greatly helped by associating with the visual sense the muscular-tactile perception of the forms. I have the child touch* the contour of the piece with the index finger of his right hand, and then have him repeat this with the contour of the frame into which the pieces must fit. We succeed in making this a habit with the child. This is very easily attained, since all children love to touch things. I have already learned, through my work with deficient children, that among the various forms of sense memory that of the muscular sense is the most precocious. Indeed, many children who have not arrived at the point of recognising a figure by looking at it, could recognise it by touching it, that is, by computing the movements necessary to the following of its contour. The same is true of the greater number of normal children;–confused as to where to place a figure, they turn it about trying in vain to fit it in, yet as soon as they have touched the two contours of the piece and its frame, they succeed in placing it perfectly. [Page 199]  Undoubtedly, the association of the muscular-tactile sense with that of vision, aids in a most remarkable way the perception of forms and fixes them in memory.

In such exercises, the control is absolute, as it was in the solid insets. The figure can only enter the corresponding frame. This makes it possible for the child to work by himself, and to accomplish a genuine sensory auto-education, in the visual perception of form.

Exercise with the three series of cards. First series. We give the child the wooden forms and the cards upon which the white figure is mounted. Then we mix the cards upon the table; the child must arrange them in a line upon his table (which he loves to do), and then place the corresponding wooden pieces upon the cards. Here the control lies in the eyes. The child must recognise this figure, and place the wooden piece upon it so perfectly that it will cover and hide the paper figure. The eye of the child here corresponds to the frame, which materially led him at first to bring the two pieces together. In addition to covering the figure, the child is to accustom himself to touching the contour of the mounted figures as a part of the exercise (the child always voluntarily follows those movements); and after he has placed the wooden inset he again touches the contour, adjusting with his finger the superimposed piece until it exactly covers the form beneath.

Second Series. We give a number of cards to the child together with the corresponding wooden insets. In this second series, the figures are repeated by an outline of blue paper. The child through these exercises is passing gradually from the concrete to the abstract. At first, he handled only solid objects. He then passed to a plane figure, that is, to the plane which in itself does not exist. [Page 200]  He is now passing to the line, but this line does not represent for him the abstract contour of a plane figure. It is to him the path, which he has so often followed with his index finger; this line is the trace of a movement. Following again the contour of the figure with his finger, the child receives the impression of actually leaving a trace, for the figure is covered by his finger and appears as he moves it. It is the eye now which guides the movement, but it must be remembered that this movement was already prepared for when the child touched the contours of the solid pieces of wood.

Third Series. We now present to the child the cards upon which the figures are drawn in black, giving him, as before, the corresponding wooden pieces. Here, he has actually passed to the line; that is, to an abstraction, yet here, too, there is the idea of the result of a movement.

This cannot be, it is true, the trace left by the finger, but, for example, that of a pencil which is guided by the hand in the same movements made before. These geometric figures in simple outline have grown out of a gradual series of representations which were concrete to vision and touch. These representations return to the mind of the child when he performs the exercise of superimposing the corresponding wooden figures.

III. Differential Visual Perception of Contours:–Education of the Chromatic Sense

In many of our lessons on the colours, we make use of pieces of brightly-coloured stuffs, and of balls covered with wool of different colours. The didactic material for the education of the chromatic sense is the following, which I have established after a long series of tests made upon normal children, (in the institute for deficients, I used as I

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(A) LACING. (B) SHOE BUTTONING. (C) BUTTONING OF OTHER GARMENTS. (D) HOOKS AND EYES. Frames illustrating the different processes of dressing and undressing.

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TABLETS WOUND WITH COLOURED SILK. Used for educating the chromatic sense. The tablets are shown in the boxes in which they are kept.

[Page 201]  have said above, the geometric inserts). The present material consists of small flat tablets, which are wound with coloured wool or silk. These tablets have a little wooden border at each end which prevents the silk-covered card from touching the table. The child is also taught to take hold of the piece by these wooden extremities, so that he need not soil the delicate colours. In this way, we are able to use this material for a long time without having to renew it.

I have chosen eight tints and each one has with it eight gradations of different intensity of colour. There are, therefore, sixty-four colour-tablets in all. The eight tints selected are black (from grey to white), red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and brown. We have duplicate boxes of these sixty-four colours, giving us two of each exercise. The entire set, therefore, consists of one hundred twenty-eight tablets. They are contained in two boxes, each divided into eight equal compartments so that one box may contain sixty-four tablets.

Exercises with the Colour-tablets. For the earliest of these exercises, we select three strong colours: for example, red, blue, and yellow, in pairs. These six tablets we place upon the table before the child. Showing him one of the colours, we ask him to find its duplicate among the mixed tablets upon the table. In this way, we have him arrange the colour-tablets in a column, two by two, pairing them according to colour.

The number of tablets in this game may be increased until the eight colours, or sixteen tablets, are given at once. When the strongest tones have been presented, we may proceed to the presentation of the lighter tones, in the same way. Finally, we present two or three tablets of the same colour, but of different tone, showing the child how to [Page 202]  arrange these in order of gradation. In this way, the eight gradations are finally presented.

Following this, we place before the child the eight gradations of two different colours (red and blue); he is shown how to separate the groups and then arrange each group in gradation. As we proceed, we offer groups of more nearly related colours; for example, blue and violet, yellow and orange, etc.

In one of the "Children's Houses," I have seen the following game played with the greatest success and interest, and with surprising rapidity. The directress places upon a table, about which the children are seated, as many colour groups as there are children, for example, three. She then calls each child's attention to the colour each is to select, or which she assigns to him. Then, she mixes the three groups of colours upon the table. Each child takes rapidly from the mixed heap of tablets all the gradations of his colour, and proceeds to arrange the tablets, which, when thus placed in a line, give the appearance of a strip of shaded ribbon.

In another "House," I have seen the children take the entire box, empty the sixty-four colour-tablets upon the table and after carefully mixing them, rapidly collect them into groups and arrange them in gradation, constructing a species of little carpet of delicately coloured and intermingling tints. The children very quickly acquire an ability before which we stand amazed. Children of three years are able to put all of the tints into gradation.

Experiments in Colour-memory. Experiments in colour-memory may be made by showing the child a tint, allowing him to look at it as long as he will, and then asking him to go to a distant table upon which all of the colours are arranged and to select from among them the tint simi- [Page 203]  lar to the one at which he has looked. The children succeed in this game remarkably, committing only slight errors. Children of five years enjoy this immensely, taking great pleasure in comparing the two spools and judging as to whether they have chosen correctly.

At the beginning of my work, I made use of an instrument invented by Pizzoli. This consisted of a small brown disk having a half-moon shape opening at the top. Various colours were made to pass behind this opening, by means of a rotary disk which was composed of strips of various colours. The teacher called the attention of the child to a certain colour, then turned the disk, asking him to indicate the same disk when it again showed itself in the opening. This exercise rendered the child inactive, preventing him from controlling the material. It is not, therefore, an instrument which can promote the education of the senses.


It would be desirable to have in this connection the didactic material used for the "auricular education" in the principal institutions for deaf mutes in Germany and America. These exercises are an introduction to the acquisition of language, and serve in a very special way to centre the children's discriminative attention upon the "modulations of the sound of the human voice."

With very young children linguistic education must occupy a most important place. Another aim of such exercises is to educate the ear of the child to noises so that he shall accustom himself to distinguish every slight noise and compare it with sounds, coming to resent harsh or disordered noises. Such sense education has a value in that it exercises aesthetic taste, and may be applied in a most [Page 204]  noteworthy way to practical discipline. We all know how the younger children disturb the order of the room by shouts, and by the noise of over-turned objects.

The rigorous scientific education of the sense of hearing is not practically applicable to the didactic method. This is true because the child cannot exercise himself through his own activity as he does for the other senses. Only one child at a time can work with any instrument producing the gradation of sounds. In other words, absolute silence is necessary for the discrimination of sounds.

Signorina Maccheroni, Directress, first of the "Children's House" in Milan and later in the one in Franciscan Convent at Rome, has invented and has had manufactured a series of thirteen bells hung upon a wooden frame. These bells are to all appearances, identical, but the vibrations brought about by a blow of a hammer produce the following thirteen notes:

The set consists of a double series of thirteen bells and there are four hammers. Having struck one of the bells in the first series, the child must find the corresponding sound in the second. This exercise presents grave difficulty, as the child does not know how to strike each time with the same force, and therefore produces sounds which vary in intensity. Even when the teacher strikes the bells, the children have difficulty distinguishing between sounds. So we do not feel that this instrument in its present form is entirely practical.

For the discrimination of sounds, we use Pizzoli's series of little whistles. For the gradation of noises, we use [Page 205]  small boxes filled with different substances, more or less fine (sand or pebbles). The noises are produced by shaking the boxes.

In the lessons for the sense of hearing I proceed as follows: I have the teachers establish silence in the usual way and then I continue the work, making the silence more profound. I say, "St! St!" in a series of modulations, now sharp and short, now prolonged and light as a whisper. The children, little by little, become fascinated by this. Occasionally I say, "More silent still–more silent."

I then begin the sibilant St! St! again, making it always lighter and repeating "More silent still," in a barely audible whisper, "Now, I hear the clock, now I can hear the buzzing of a fly's wings, now I can hear the whisper of the trees in the garden."

The children, ecstatic with joy, sit in such absolute and complete silence that the room seems deserted; then I whisper, "Let us close our eyes." This exercise repeated, so habituates the children to immobility and absolute silence that, when one of them interrupts, it needs only a syllable, a gesture to call him back immediately to perfect order.

In the silence, we proceeded to the production of sounds and noises, making these at first strongly contrasted, then, more nearly alike. Sometimes we present the comparisons between noise and sound. I believe that the best results can be obtained with the primitive means employed by Itard in 1805. He used the drum and the bell. His plan was a graduated series of drums for the noises,–or, better, for the heavy harmonic sounds, since these belong to a musical instrument,–and a series of bells. The diapason, the whistles, the boxes, are not attractive to the child, and do not educate the sense of hearing as do these other instru- [Page 206]  ments. There is an interesting suggestion in the fact that the two great human institutions, that of hate (war), and that of love (religion), have adopted these two opposite instruments, the drum and the bell.

I believe that after establishing silence it would be educational to ring well-toned bells, now calm and sweet, now clear and ringing, sending their vibrations through the child's whole body. And when, besides the education of the ear, we have produced a vibratory education of the ear, we have produced a vibratory education of the whole body, through these wisely selected sounds of the bells, giving a peace that pervades the very fibres of his being, then I believe these young bodies would be sensitive to crude noises, and the children would come to dislike, and to cease from making, disordered and ugly noises.

In this way one whose ear has been trained by a musical education suffers from strident or discordant notes. I need give no illustration to make clear the importance of such education for the masses in childhood. The new generation would be more calm, turning away from the confusion and the discordant sounds, which strike the ear to-day in one of the vile tenements where the poor live, crowded together, left by us to abandon themselves to the lower, more brutal human instincts.

Musical Education

This must be carefully guided by method. In general, we see little children pass by the playing of some great musicians as an animal would pass. They do not perceive the delicate complexity of sounds. The street children gather about the organ grinder, crying out as if to hail with joy the noises which will come instead of sounds.

For the musical education we must create instruments as well as music. The scope of such an instrument in [Page 207]  addition to the discrimination of sounds, is to awaken a sense of rhythm, and, so to speak, to give the impulse toward calm and co-ordinate movements to those muscles already vibrating in the peace and tranquillity of immobility.

I believe that stringed instruments (perhaps some very much simplified harp) would be the most convenient. The stringed instruments together with the drum and the bells form the trio of the classic instruments of humanity. The harp is the instrument of "the intimate life of the individual." Legend places it in the hands of Orpheus, folk-lore puts it into fairy hands, and romance gives it to the princess who conquers the heart of a wicked prince.

The teacher who turns her back upon her scholars to play, (far too often badly), will never be the educator of their musical sense.

The child needs to be charmed in every way, by the glance as well as by the pose. The teacher who, bending toward them, gathering them about her, and leaving them free to stay or go, touches the chords, in a simple rhythm, puts herself in communication with them, in relation with their very souls. So much the better if this touch can be accompanied by her voice, and the children left free to follow her, no one being obliged to sing. In this way she can select as "adapted to education," those songs which were followed by all the children. So she may regulate the complexity of rhythm to various ages, for she will see now only the older children following the rhythm, now, also the little ones. At any rate, I believe that simple and primitive instruments are the ones best adapted to the awakening of music in the soul of the little child.

I have tried to have the Directress of the "Children's House" in Milan, who is a gifted musician, make a num- [Page 208]  ber of trials and experiments, with a view to finding out more about the muscular capacity of young children. She has made many trials with the pianoforte, observing how the children are not sensitive to the musical tone, but only to the rhythm. On a basis of rhythm she arranged simple little dances, with the intention of studying the influence of the rhythm itself upon the co-ordination of muscular movements. She was greatly surprised to discover the educational disciplinary effect of such music. Her children, who had been led with great wisdom and art through liberty to a spontaneous ordering of their acts and movements, had nevertheless lived in the streets and courts, and had an almost universal habit of jumping.

Being a faithful follower of the method of liberty, and not considering that jumping was a wrong act, she had never corrected them.

She now noticed that as she multiplied and repeated the rhythm exercises, the children little by little left off their ugly jumping, until finally it was a thing of the past. The directress one day asked for an explanation of this change of conduct. Several little ones looked at her without saying anything. The older children gave various replies, whose meaning was the same.

"It isn't nice to jump."

"Jumping is ugly."

"It's rude to jump."

This was certainly a beautiful triumph for our method!

This experience shows that it is possible to educate the child's muscular sense, and it shows how exquisite the refinement of this sense may be as it develops in relation to the muscular memory, and side by side with the other forms of sensory memory. [Page 209] 

Tests for Acuteness of Hearing

The only entirely successful experiments which we have made so far in the "Children's Houses" are those of the clock, and of the lowered or whispered voice. The trial is purely empirical, and does not lend itself to the measuring of the sensation, but it is, however, most useful in that it helps us to an approximate knowledge of the child's auditory acuteness.

The exercise consists in calling attention, when perfect silence has been established, to the ticking of the clock, and to all the little noises not commonly audible to the ear. Finally we call the little ones, one by one from an adjoining room, pronouncing each name in a low voice. In preparing for such an exercise it is necessary to teach the children the real meaning of silence.

Toward this end I have several games of silence, which help in a surprising way to strengthen the remarkable discipline of our children.

I call the children's attention to myself, telling them to see how silent I can be. I assume different positions; standing, sitting, and maintain each pose silently, without movement. A finger moving can produce a noise, even though it be imperceptible. We may breathe so that we may be heard. But I maintain absolute silence, which is not an easy thing to do. I call a child, and ask him to do as I am doing. He adjusts his feet to a better position, and this makes a noise! He moves an arm, stretching it out upon the arm of his chair; it is a noise. His breathing is not altogether silent, it is not tranquil, absolutely unheard as mine is.

During these manoeuvres on the part of the child, and [Page 210]  while my brief comments are followed by intervals of immobility and silence, the other children are watching and listening. Many of them are interested in the fact, which they have never noticed before; namely, that we make so many noises of which we are not conscious, and that there are degrees of silence. There is an absolute silence where nothing, absolutely nothing moves. They watch me in amazement when I stand in the middle of the room, so quietly that it is really as if "I were not." Then they strive to imitate me, and to do even better. I call attention here and there to a foot that moves, almost inadvertently. The attention of the child is called to every part of his body in an anxious eagerness to attain to immobility.

When the children are trying in this way, there is established a silence very different from that which we carelessly call by that name.

It seems as if life gradually vanishes, and that the room becomes, little by little, empty, as if there were no longer anyone in it. Then we begin to hear the tick-tock of the clock, and this sound seems to grow in intensity as the silence becomes absolute. From without, from the court which before seemed silent, there come varied noises, a bird chirps, a child passes. The children sit fascinated by that silence as if by some conquest of their own. "Here," says the directress, "here there is no longer anyone; the children have all gone away."

Having arrived at that point, we darken the windows, and tell the children to close their eyes, resting their heads upon their hands. They assume this position, and in the darkness the absolute silence returns.

"Now listen," we say. "A soft voice is going to call your name." Then going to a room behind the children, and standing within the open door, I call in a low voice, [Page 211]  lingering over the syllables as if I were calling from across the mountains. This voice, almost occult, seems to reach the heart and to call to the soul of the child. Each one as he is called, lifts his head, opens his eyes as if altogether happy, then rises, silently seeking not to move the chair, and walks on the tips of his toes, so quietly that he is scarcely heard. Nevertheless his step resounds in the silence, amid the immobility which persists.

Having reached the door, with a joyous face, he leaps into the room, choking back soft outbursts of laughter. Another child may come to hide his face against my dress, another, turning, will watch his companions sitting like statutes, silent and waiting. The one who is called feels that he is privileged, that he has received a gift, a prize. And yet they know that all will be called, "beginning with the most silent one in the room." So each one tries to merit by his perfect silence the certain call. I once saw a little one of three years try to suffocate a sneeze, and succeed! She held her breath in her little breast, and resisted, coming out victorious. A most surprising effort!

This game delights the little ones beyond measure. Their intent faces, their patient immobility, reveal the enjoyment of a great pleasure. In the beginning, when the soul of the child was unknown to me, I had thought of showing them sweetmeats and little toys, promising to give them to the ones who were called, supposing that the gifts would be necessary to persuade the child to make the necessary effort. But I soon found that this was unnecessary.

The children, after they had made the effort necessary to maintain silence, enjoyed the sensation, took pleasure in the silence itself. They were like ships safe in a tranquil harbour, happy in having experienced something new, [Page 212]  and to have won a victory over themselves. This, indeed, was their recompense. They forgot the promise of sweets, and no longer cared to take the toys, which I had supposed would attract them. I therefore abandoned that useless means, and saw, with surprise, that the game became constantly more perfect, until even children of three years of age remained immovable in the silence throughout the time required to call the entire forty children out of the room!

It was then that I learned that the soul of the child has its own reward, and its peculiar spiritual pleasures. After such exercises it seemed to me that the children became closer to me, certainly they became more obedient, more gentle and sweet. We had, indeed, been isolated from the world, and had passed several minutes during which the communion between us was very close, I wishing for them and calling to them, and they receiving in the perfect silence the voice which was directed personally toward each one of them, crowning each in turn with happiness.

A Lesson in Silence

I am about to describe a lesson which proved most successful in teaching the perfect silence to which it is possible to attain. One day as I was about to enter one of the "Children's Houses," I met in the court a mother who held in her arms her little baby of four months. The little one was swaddled, as is still the custom among the people of Rome–an infant thus in the swaddling bands is called by us a pupa. This tranquil little one seemed the incarnation of peace. I took her in my arms, where she lay quiet and good. Still holding her I went toward the schoolroom, from which the children now ran to meet me. They always welcomed me thus, throwing their arms about me, clinging to my skirts, and almost tumbling me over in [Page 213]  their eagerness. I smiled at them, showing them the "pupa." They understood and skipped about me looking at me with eyes brilliant with pleasure, but did not touch me through respect for the little one that I held in my arms.

I went into the schoolroom with the children clustered about me. We sat down, I seating myself in a large chair instead of, as usual, in one of their little chairs. In other words, I seated myself solemnly. They looked at my little one with a mixture of tenderness and joy. None of us had yet spoken a word. Finally I said to them, "I have brought you a little teacher." Surprised glances and laughter. "A little teacher, yes, because none of you know how to be quiet as she does." At this all the children changed their positions and became quiet. "Yet no one holds his limbs and feet as quietly as she." Everyone gave closer attention to the position of limbs and feet. I looked at them smiling, "Yes, but they can never be as quiet as hers. You move a little bit, but she, not at all; none of you can be as quiet as she." The children looked serious. The idea of the superiority of the little teacher seemed to have reached them. Some of them smiled, and seemed to say with their eyes that the swaddling bands deserved all the merit. "Not one of you can be silent, voiceless as she." General silence. "It is not possible to be as silent as she, because,–listen to her breathing–how delicate it is; come near to her on your tiptoes."

Several children rose, and came slowly forward on tiptoe, bending toward the baby. Great silence. "None of you can breathe so silently as she." The children looked about amazed, they had never thought that even when sitting quietly they were making noises, and that the silence of a little babe is more profound than the silence of [Page 214]  grown people. They almost ceased to breathe. I rose. "Go out quietly, quietly," I said, "walk on the tips of your toes and make no noise." Following them, I said, "And yet I still hear some sounds, but she, the baby, walks with me and makes no sound. She goes out silently." The children smiled. They understood the truth and the jest of my words. I went to the open window, and placed the baby in the arms of the mother who stood watching us.

The little one seemed to have left behind her a subtle charm which enveloped the souls of the children. Indeed, there is in nature nothing more sweet than the silent breathing of a new-born babe. There is an indescribable majesty about this human life which in repose and silence gathers strength and newness of life. Compared to this, Wordsworth's description of the silent peace of nature seems to lose its force. "What calm, what quiet! The one sound the drip of the suspended oar." The children, too, felt the poetry and beauty in the peaceful silence of a new-born human life.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


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* Here and elsewhere throughout the book the word "touch" is used not only to express contact between the fingers and an object, but the moving of fingers or hand over an object or its outline.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom