Practical Life is, in fact, the heart of the Montessori classroom for children up to six years old. It is less emphasized in the Elementary years as the child’s focus moves from practical skills to imagination and abstraction, but its benefits are carried through the rest of each child’s life.
The name seems fairly self-explanatory, but still – what is it exactly?
Activities of Practical Life are tasks or exercises of simple daily chores and actions that people do in order to care for ourselves, others, and our environment. In the Montessori classroom, they are carefully designed to be fully accessible to the child and allow them to carry out the activity without the adult’s help or interference, past the initial introduction.
Concrete examples include preparing food (washing, peeling and slicing fruit; baking pastries or bread; assembling sandwiches and serving food to others); maintaining the classroom (sweeping, mopping, dusting, polishing furniture or washing windows); maintaining the outdoors (planting, weeding and watering flower beds, raking leaves, sweeping paths); doing for oneself (dressing, washing, brushing hair and teeth) and the very special category of interacting with others, which in Montessori we call Grace and Courtesy, and which will have its own future post.
To adults, ever so many of these activities are often considered chores and unpleasant duties. Something we must get over with in order to be able to do work that truly matters, or things we truly enjoy. To a young child however, these are endlessly attractive to the point of being irresistible, and just as endlessly rewarding. So whilst an adult might consider a kindness if someone were to come and take care of these “Practical Life” things for them – we might even pay others to do so – they are a gift and an investment in a child’s future.
“The activities which I have just indicated are called ‘exercises in practical life’, because in the Children’s House real everyday life is carried on in which all housework is entrusted to the little ones, who execute with devotion and accuracy their domestic duties, becoming singularly calm and dignified.”
Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child
Of course, the most obvious goal of the mirror washing activity is to, well, have clean mirrors; but if that were the only purpose, it would be ever so much easier to hire a custodian. Going a step further we could say that its goal is to have each child learn how to wash a mirror. Then of course you could ask whether that’s really such an important skill for a young child to have. Perhaps not – but in truth this is the least of it. Because when a toddler of eighteen months (and this is indeed the age we introduce it) practices cleaning mirrors, glass doors and low windows, he or she gets so many indirect developmental benefits that they will carry with them for the rest of their life.
First, they practice their motor coordination, both gross and fine. They refine the dexterity of the hand and the purposefulness of movements, more so when learning to use tools. Next, they train the mind to follow a sequence of actions leading to a purposeful goal, develop their will, and have opportunities for repetition, refinement and concentration – all key parts of neurological development. Third, there is a wealth of sensory experiences to enjoy and process in a setting lending itself to natural exploration. Fourth, by learning and cooperating together with an adult, the child practices collaboration and communication for a common goal. Fifth, they find themselves imposing and restoring external order on the environment, leading to the development of inner order and organization, heightened self-respect, confidence, and security in one’s abilities and influence. In short: Practical Life quite literally makes a child smarter and happier.
This might seem like lofty aims to apply to an adorable little toddler learning to splash water onto a window. But the influence of being able to care for oneself and others cannot be overstated in early childhood. Dr. Montessori spoke at length about the satisfaction, happiness and calm dignity children experience when given opportunities for such independence, and we cannot but agree.
There is also the cultural aspect to consider. From dressing ourselves, preparing and serving meals to cleaning and maintaining our houses, these are some of the most intimate and basic expressions of our culture – the type of dress we wear, food we eat, the way we set up our living spaces. A young child is primed to absorb and internalize these expressions of our humanity and takes a lot of pleasure out of carrying them out alongside the adult.
Quite often, parents visiting Montessori preschool classroom ask – where is the pretend play? It is true – our students don’t have play-kitchens or play-workshops or dress-up corners, where they would pretend to be like adults. We know these activities are popular with children, but we also know that the real thing is ever so much more appealing – and useful. Why would a child pretend to make muffins for a tea party with their plush animals when they can bake muffins for their family? Given the choice between pretend and real, who wouldn’t choose the real thing?
Hopefully, by now you agree and want your child to have Practical Life opportunities! How to go about it?
The younger the child, the more you will need to prepare and adapt your home to enable their activity. Think of it like this: our homes are suited to the needs of the adult, not the young child; what are the key differences?
Below is a simple timeline of skills and activities children that are developmentally appropriate throughout childhood.
Of course, without upright walking and free hands, the older infant’s options are limited. Still, a baby should not be treated like an inert object that must be constantly cared for – the development of self-image is already well underway. With a parent showing the way, they can be asked and expected to:
Once a child can walk, however, a whole new world opens up! Now they can:
As children develop an awareness of their abilities and a conscious desire to refine and perfect them, they approach these tasks with a much greater intensity and motivation to:
In Elementary, the child’s focus shifts away from practical hands-on activities to the intellectual and abstract, and to a degree, the activities of old lose its appeal. If you want a child to help with chores and cleaning at this age, now it’s important to have a foundation of skills from earlier years! However, now the nature of Practical Life changes to:
For the younger child, Practical Life meant active participation in the life of the family (or classroom). As the world expands in the later years, so does the scope of what Practical Life means to a pre-teen and adolescent: now it is active participation in the life of a community. It is then a natural extension of Practical Life to: