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Practical Life: The Soul of the Montessori Classroom

"Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence."
—Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family

Practical Life ActivityWhile recently visiting a Japanese-immersion Montessori classroom I was impressed by the carefully prepared Practical Life area. The tokkuri (sake pot and cups) and other glassware for pouring were gleaming. Fresh flowers in a large container were ready to be arranged in a small vase. Chopsticks, used daily during lunch, were available for practice, first to pick up cotton balls and later, the more challenging small rubber balls. A four-year old boy sat at a table using the apple corer to cut through a one inch cross section of an apple (the perfect thickness for success). Then he placed the apple pieces on toothpicks and offered them to his classmates on an apple-shaped plate.

The Importance of Practical Life

Children are naturally curious and want to participate in the activities of daily life they see all around them. Maria Montessori developed the Practical Life exercises to give children the opportunity to practice those skills, gain independence, and become fully functional members of their community.

A parent, new to Montessori, once asked me why we were training her daughter to "become a janitor, with all of this sweeping, mopping, and dusting" It's important to educate parents about the crucial role that Practical Life exercises play in their child's social, emotional, and academic development, providing a foundation for confidence and success.

These activities help children develop their motor skills, refining both large and small muscle coordination. A child may repeat a particular exercise over and over, perfecting her movements and developing concentration. Pediatric neuropsychologist Steven Hughes found that children's strongest link to their brains are their hands, noting that repeated motor movements develop the pathways in the brain that help children learn.

The Exercises

In the preliminary exercises, children learn basic life skills such as pouring, cutting, folding, and spooning. In the applied exercises, children learn how to care for themselves (hand washing, combing hair), as well as the environment (polishing furniture and washing their own snack dishes, for example).

The other two areas of the Practical Life curriculum are Grace and Courtesy, (which include asking for something, letting someone pass, covering a sneeze or yawn), and Control of Movement, (carrying scissors, walking around a rug, the Silence Game).

Spontaneous Contributions

At first the child acts solely for himself, washing a table for the sake of doing the activity. Later he will wash a table because it is dirty. Eventually, what were once exercises become spontaneous and natural expressions of community life. Unprompted, children will often help each other mop up a spill or sweep the dirt from an overturned potted plant.

As his world expands, each child comes to realize that he is an important part of the community, someone with something to give. Children feel trusted and respected when adults provide them with the opportunity to take part in the real work of their family and school. Perhaps this is one reason why Margot Waltuch, who trained with Maria Montessori, said that "Practical Life is the soul of the Montessori classroom." (NAMTA Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2)

Role of the Teacher

The teacher must prepare the environment with materials that are real, breakable, child-size, functional, and related to the child's culture. Teachers provide lessons that enable children to cut cheese with a real knife, drill holes with a real (child-size) drill, and dust shelves with a real lambswool duster. New activities are introduced regularly to maintain the children's interest.

When presenting lessons, use as few words as possible. Either move your hands or speak, but don't do both at the same time. The goal is to give the lesson so that children can repeat the activity in their own successful ways. Don't worry if they don't repeat the steps exactly the way you demonstrated. Montessori emphasized, "Our task is to show how the action is done and at the same time destroy the possibility of imitation." (E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work)

Practical Life for the 21st Century

Are some of our Practical Life activities outdated? A friend who taught in the 1970s remembers that she often walked around the classroom with only one shoe on because a child was busy polishing her other leather shoe. How many adults today polish shoes or silver? Children, however, continue to delight in the polishing exercises, and these are still valuable life skills to learn.

We can be creative and add activities from daily life in the 21st century to our Practical Life shelves, like using a soap-pump dispenser, applying sunscreen, wrapping a gift and curling the ribbon, or using a Velcro® dressing frame.

For Older Children

Offer your five- and six-year-olds progressively complex and purposeful activities such as weaving, gardening, grooming a dog, quilting, and embroidery. Introduce advanced cooking projects, using recipes from other cultures, such as making sushi rolls or wrapping tamales in corn husks.

Before becoming a Montessori teacher I worked in the skilled trades, and I was pleased to be able to bring to my kindergarten and elementary students some Practical Life activities based on mechanical and woodworking skills. Children enjoyed fixing a bicycle, building an electrical circuit to make a light bulb light, gapping a spark plug, and building a birdhouse.

Making Sushi

As lunchtime approached in the Japanese-immersion class, the five- and six-year-olds led the way, speaking fluent Japanese. They showed their younger classmates how to make sushi. First they spread a scoop of rice, flavored with rice vinegar, across a dark green sheet of dried seaweed. Thin strips of cucumber and carrot were added before carefully rolling the seaweed around the rice with the bamboo sushi rolling mat. Most of the older children made recognizable sushi-shaped cylinders. Some of the younger ones had more unusual looking creations. Still, everyone seemed pleased with their work.

The children carried their food to the table, set by classmates with a tablecloth, glass plates, chopsticks, and cloth napkins. After waiting politely until everyone was seated, the children cut their sushi rolls into bite-size pieces and began to eat. Contentment and a sense of belonging shone in their bright faces and animated discussions. The community spirit evident in making and enjoying this lunch exemplifies why Practical Life truly is the soul of the Montessori classroom.

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 20 years, she has served as a Montessori consultant and teacher-trainer for primary and elementary levels, and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS conferences. Her work with students and teachers is infused with her passions: storytelling, history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, poetry, meditation, music, and the natural world.

—Originally Published 2018

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