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Practical Life: It's Amazing!

Loading the whites...

"I went to a session last week at my daughter's Montessori school where they talked about how they believe in overestimating what kids can do. So today I decided to break from my usual routine...and explained to her that we were going down to the laundry room and she was going to help. It was amazing. She started loading the whites completely on her own." —Father of the toddler in photo

It is indeed amazing what children can do! As you undoubtedly know, they always want to do what you are doing. With a little thought and preparation, you can show your child how to really help, rather than just being in the way. You will be as delighted as your child with the resulting success.

What Maria Montessori called the exercises of Practical Life actually help children's brains develop. With the repetitive movements, the child is learning how to learn. And, in the process, children become confident and independent.

From Imitation to Learning

Observing young children in the early twentieth century, Montessori understood how a child's brain develops through movement. She provided children with activities to perfect their seemingly random motions and involve the thinking process. When performing the skills of daily living, an adult sees a chore to be completed while the child loves the process itself. At the same time, the child gains muscle control, improves eye-hand coordination, and activates the brain.

Recently, Montessori's theories have been confirmed by pediatric neuropsychologist Steven Hughes, PhD. In his research at the University of Minnesota, he found that the child's strongest link to his brain are his hands, noting that repeated motor movements help develop the pathways in the brain that help children learn.

For the Youngest Child

The young child of 12 to 18 months is very observant and will imitate the adult. He learns and can follow your lead as you return toys to the shelf or put clothes away. You might show your child how to:

  • Take one item, such as a pair of socks or a t-shirt, and carry it with two hands to place on the low shelf or open drawer in his room.
  • Hang a towel on a low hook and put his toothbrush in its holder.
  • Put clothes in the nearby laundry basket or hamper as he undresses.
  • Remove one spoon at a time from the dishwasher, taking it to the silverware drawer or basket.

"I Can Do It Myself"

Between the ages of two and four, your child becomes more verbal and independent, with more muscular control and a greater ability to be of help. Previously, there was little interest in actually completing a task, because the activity itself was intriguing to your child as she unconsciously refined the brain-to-body pathways. With increased coordination and a growing sense of independence, your child is ready to take on more complicated tasks. Now you might demonstrate how to:

  • Fold simple items of laundry such as dish towels or napkins before they are placed in their proper place.
  • Set the table, carrying one placemat to the table at a time, then napkins, and then a spoon on each mat. You will know when her coordination is good enough to add the forks, knives, and plates.
  • Buckle the car seat chest straps, showing how they snap together.
  • Pour dry ingredients like rice or beans from one container to another, in preparation for pouring milk from a small pitcher to a glass.

You can watch as your child figures out how to accomplish a new activity by herself. There's no need to remind or hover, she will know she can ask someone for help if needed. More ideas can be found in the article Let Me Help.

Small Steps Lead to More Freedom

As your child develops and grows, he can do more. Continue to be patient, and be certain to demonstrate each new activity slowly and simply. Perform only the necessary movements and separate each individual step. Stay nearby to offer assistance if necessary. Observe; do not correct or interrupt.

Young children live in the present - they do not hurry on to the next thing as adults do. Watch your child busy at work, gaining control over the muscular and nervous systems. It is the process itself, not the goal that is involving. Imagine how your child's brain is making new connections - you can almost see the wheels turning. Your child might repeat the task over and over, fulfilling the inner need for movement that connects brain and hand. It's amazing!

"Once a direction is given to them, the child's movements are made...so that he himself grows quiet and contented, and becomes an active worker...calm and full of joy."
—Maria Montessori, Montessori's Own Handbook

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

—Originally Published 2013

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