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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Celebrating the Pink Tower

"The human hand allows the mind to reveal itself."
Maria Montessori

What is it with the Pink Tower?  Why does it have such a prominent place in Montessori classrooms?  What is its purpose?  And (I am sure some parents ask) when will my child stop playing with blocks and start doing some real academic work?   All good questions, and deserving a good answer….

If only we could witness the growth and the connections happening in a young child’s brain.  We adults can only see the outer evidence, and then we often forget to marvel.  In our Children's House, the glimpses we are afforded through observing their work can inspire awe.  I can think of no work that is more meaningful for your children as they begin, no better learning activity in our classrooms, and none more revealing for us as observers, than the Pink Tower.

The Pink Tower is one of the earliest sensorial activities we introduce to a child, after the Knobbed Cylinders.  All of these concrete materials support the development and organization of the child’s perceptions through the five senses:  sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  The materials are hands-on, attractive, self-correcting, and fun to use.  Working with the pink cubes specifically develops and refines the child’s sense of size and sequence, through both touch and sight; these are critical skills for future learning.   The cubes are very precisely created too - from 1 cm cubed to 10 cm cubed - so geometry and algebra are wonderfully and quietly embedded in their design.

When first giving this lesson, the teacher carefully demonstrates the carrying and setting out on the rug (one at a time, building movement and memory into the work), and the stacking of the cubes, from the largest to the smallest.  Then the child tries it, and we never expect him to get it right immediately (if he does, the lesson has come too late.)  For me, it is a joy to watch a young child attempt this work for the first time – it is like a window into his development, his temperament, and his readiness. 

Then we watch for and encourage repetition.  Repetition is crucial for children - trying an activity again and again, exploring the possibilities, building muscular memory, and creating no one knows how many synaptic trails and connections in the brain.  Every child has her own inner process to follow every time she gets her hands on the pink cubes.   What sequence of blocks will allow the tower to still stand?  Where does this big one go, that I missed on the way up to the smallest cube?  Can I count them?  What other ways might I arrange the cubes? What else can I build?  How can I put them away when the biggest is on the bottom? 

Some days, weeks, or even months later, at a point initiated by the child’s inner guide, interest, and experience, he will stack them perfectly for the first time.  There is almost always an expression of joy, "I did it!”  Look at Seamus - genuine pleasure and pride!

When the cubes alone no longer hold the same interest or challenge for a child, he goes on to further explorations and creations.  He has been introduced to the Brown Stair in the same careful way. And then one day the child discovers that the pink tower and the brown stair are built to the same relative dimensions, and new possibilities open up.  Lots of new possibilities....

We invite older children who have worked through and mastered most of the sensorial materials to begin to try some of them blindfolded. They have done certain activities blindfolded from the beginning - in particular the Fabric Box and Opening and Closing - so the experience is familiar, but this is a new adventure, sidelining the usually dominant sense of sight.   It's a whole new level of challenge, and always a lot of fun to observe.  

During this extended period of exploration, free building begins for many children, using the pink tower and brown stair as a foundation, and this activity seems to hold an endless attraction. Their creativity explodes.  Early this fall, we had to ask certain older children to stop doing it for a while, because they were setting a rather wild example for the younger ones.  Now we've opened it up again, with some moderation and balance encouraged.  I can't tell you how many different and amazing "marble runs" and "castles" we have seen just over the past year - they have been countless, unique, and mostly not photographed.  

All three of these next photos were taken last year.

The Pink Tower.  Throughout this time working with this one material, from the experience of that first, precious lesson at 2 1/2 or 3 years old, to the shared creation of the sensorial  "grand array" when she is 5 or 6, the child has been ordering her world, both literally and psychically, and she has been developing a muscular, sensory memory and awareness, with a vital neurological base.  I like to imagine the synapses firing and connecting, over and over.  Other higher executive functions like problem-solving, creativity, concentration, and collaboration are beginning to form too, through the child's experience with these beautiful, simple pink cubes.  

So here's to the Pink Tower!  In this age of iPads and movies and all digital media, the Pink Tower shines as a prime example of the importance of hands-on materials, experiences, and learning for young children.  As Dr Montessori wrote long before the digital age, "The hands are the instrument of man's intelligence." 

P.S.  This blog post needs a postscript.  Remember the smallest pink cube, only 1 cm cubed? It is a favorite tiny object for the younger children, one that disappears and then reappears in Montessori classrooms everywhere.   Just this fall, two have gone missing.  The first was in September, and after a month, I replaced it with my last extra (I opened Chickadee with 3 extras).  A few weeks later, it was gone again, and this time it disappeared while the cubes were out on a rug, in use, in full view.  Ten were brought out, nine put away.    Pockets and cubbies were checked, rugs were lifted, shelves were searched.  We looked everywhere.  I have no more extras stashed in the basement.  In past years, more than one parent has found the tiny pink cube in a pocket at home, but not this time. So any day now I will order some more extras from a supplier, along with some pink paint to touch up the cubes. Because nine pink cubes are just not enough....