"Make Your Own Sensorial Material" - Part 2
I would like to explain here 1) the reason why I decided to make "authentic" Montessori materials as opposed to going with the "good enough" funny blocks (which I think are an excellent toy, and I will continue to use, by the way) and 2) how I wish I had been able to make the sensorial material.
Why Using the Real Pink Tower and Brown Stair Matters
My initial contact with the Montessori method came through Elizabeth Hainstock's excellent book: Teaching Montessori In The Home: The Pre School Years which is fantastic for beginners, especially those who are looking for that "something more" to do with their preschool child. It does not delve deeply into the Montessori method, but gives a simple overview, and provides plenty of "lesson plans" that a parent can easily do with their child. She even includes instructions on how to make your own Montessori materials, which is very handy. But it is preliminary at best, and there is so much more to the Montessori method.
If you are not planning on homeschooling your child using the Montessori method, and you are not going to be able to send your child to a Montessori school for the elementary years, then this book would be perfect. It allows a parent to use the ideas of Maria Montessori without having to spend hours researching and studying, or thousands of dollars buying materials. But for many, once they get a taste of what Montessori is all about, they can't help but delve deeper, study more, and (like me) see the benefit of the actual Montessori materials.
I initially bought the funny blocks to replace the pink tower, but as I read more, and realised how many important things we'd be skipping by relying solely on Hainstock's work, I branched out, both in my reading and in my lesson plans.
There is a beautiful simplicity to the pink tower, and obviously, if you don't have the correct dimensions, it cannot fit with the brown stair for the sensorial extensions. Once I saw the ideas for the extension activities, I realised that I would have to buy or make the pink tower because there was more to it than I initially thought.
Furthermore, there is a beautiful logic to the metric system, that corresponds to the decimal system, and that becomes more and more clear as a child (or an adult!!) uses the pink tower and broad stair.
The dimensions of the pink tower make it perfect for further use in elementary mathematics and science. The smallest cube in the pink tower is 1 cm3 (1cm x 1cm x 1 cm). Every cube thereafter become one centimetre larger in all three dimensions, so the second one is 2cm x 2cm x 2cm and so on up to 10cm x 10cm x 10cm.
For those who are unfamiliar with the metric system, it becomes remarkably simple to use once you understand that it is entirely based around the most common and important element on earth: water. So, if you had 1cm x 1cm x 1cm of water (1cm cubed, or 1 cm3), it would weigh 1mg (milligram), and its volume would be 1 ml (millilitre). As for the 10 cm3 (the largest cube of the pink tower), if you had those dimensions in water, it would weigh 1 kg (kilogram), and it's volume would be 1 l (litre).
You see the same logic with the centigrade (Celsius) measurements of temperature. 0 C (0 degrees centigrade/Celsius) is the point at which water freezes and 100 C (100 degrees centigrade/Celsius) is the point at which water boils.
When you realise this, it makes virtually a limitless number of uses in mathematics for the pink tower and the brown stair, even up into the later elementary years - and if you're inventive, it has applications for science as well. For example: How many of the ___ pink cubes would it take to make a row 1 kilometre long? Or, when studying chemistry: What would the weight of ___ pink cube be if rather than imagining that it was water, we pretended that it was mercury? Or, which of the broad stairs, if water, would weigh 1 kilogram?
If You Want to Make the Pink Tower and Brown Stair
I've got them made, and although they are adequate, they are not as good as I'd hoped. By the time the painting is all done, though, you wouldn't (probably) be able to tell the difference. But if you're thinking of doing it yourself, make it easy on yourself, and do as I say, not as I do!
1) Get good wood! Hardwood would be preferable, but isn't necessary if you get a decent piece of softwood. Look for cracks, fissures, knots, and rot. Some of these are easier to take care of than others, but the better your wood, the less your work!
2) Think about your wood dimensions! Cutting a log down to a 1cm x 1cm x 1cm piece is ridiculous. Make it easy on yourself and for the two smallest pieces, get square dowels. I used a 1/2 inch dowel and trimmed it with the table saw down to 1 cm for the smallest pink cube and brown stair. For the second smallest I used a 1 inch dowel trimmed down. For the next group of sizes (3-8cm), ideally you should have a good 4x4, but make sure it is not pressure-treated!!! That will save you a lot of gluing. Depending on your saw size, you probably could get away with a 6 foot piece, but you might want to error on the side of caution and get an 8 foot piece instead. And I know what some of you may be thinking: "Why can't we use the 4x4 to make all the pieces up to the 10cm x 10cm sizes?" Here's what I learned, not only does the lumber industry use inches and feet rather than centimetres and metres (even in Canada), but they also lie!!! When you say you want a 2x4, they give you a piece of wood that once was a 2x4, but has since been cut down and smoothed off, so it isn't 2x4 anymore! In theory a 4x4 should be able to make the largest cube and stair, but it's really only a 3.5x3.5. Now, if you are really lucky, you might be able to find a 6x6 that's not pressure treated, but you'd probably be going some (I tried and couldn't fine one), so instead stick with the 4x4 and buy an additional 2x6 that is at least 8 feet long. This wood you will need to cut into thirds and glue, one atop the other, so that you end up making you own 6x6 that's just over 2.5 feet long. Out of this you can make your 9cm x 9cm and 10cm x 10cm cuts.
3) To do the actual cutting, you will need a table saw, a mitre saw, and (if possible) a belt sander. Use the table saw to get the width you want (e.g. 1cm x 1cm) and sand it smooth. After you have done that, then use the mitre saw to cut off the lengths you need (one 20cm length for the brown stair, and then another length that matches the width). When it comes to the 4x4, you might want to cut it into appropriate lengths first (e.g. 35cm would be long enough for the 8cm x 8cm size. You would need 28cm, 20cm + 8cm, plus the width of the saw cuts to make the piece, so you'd have some wiggle room in case of making a mistake). This may be stating the obvious, but if you decide not to pre-cut the 4x4 into easier-to-deal-with lengths, then make sure that you work from the largest (8cm) to the smallest (3cm)! And while you're at it, seriously consider making a few extra cubes of the smallest sizes. 1cm x 1cm x 1cm is very tiny and can get easily lost!
4) Finally, all you will be left with is the fine sanding and the painting!