One of the more recognizable aspects of a Montessori education is the emphasis on independence and involving children in “real life” tasks. When researching Montessori education, you will often find images or blog posts about child-sized brooms, mini-kitchen set-ups, children cutting vegetables, or maybe even a small child scrubbing a table. But why is practical life a part of the Montessori classroom?
Let’s first begin by defining practical life. Practical life is tasks that one does to take care of oneself. These include personal grooming, preparing food, cleaning and maintaining your environment, and navigating social relationships. As adults, we often view many of these tasks as chores. However, to a young child, these tasks are not only developmentally stimulating, they are also an important opportunity to integrate themselves into their family or school culture. Young children are wired to want to be like the adults and older children around them. They have a deep desire to be a part of their community and practical life activities allow them to meet this need in a real, purposeful way.
When Maria Montessori first began her work with young children in the slums of Italy, she quickly became concerned with their need for basic hygiene. When she taught the children how to wash their hands, she soon noticed that they would repeat this work again and again, long after their hands were clean. In other words, the children were repeating the task despite the fact that the actual purpose had already been met. They seemed to find deep concentration and pleasure from completing and repeating tasks. This prompted her to
delve even deeper into the study of this phenomenon and ultimately, to develop the Montessori approach to practical life.
Practical life work has two purposes. The first is the indirect purpose which is to practice and gain the overall skill the work aims to accomplish. When it comes to skill building, we often observe two phases in a child’s use of the practical life materials. The first phase is practicing the skill itself. When a child is in this stage, they may wash a table that is already clean or polish a trinket that is already shiny. Their developmental goal at this stage is to repeat this task over and over, simply for practice. The second phase comes when the child has mastered the skill and begins to use it in order to take care of a need. For example, noticing that a table is dirty and washing it or finding a tarnished spoon and polishing it.
However, the direct (but possibly less obvious) purpose of these works is to build four very important foundations for the child’s learning. These are control of movement, concentration, independence, and adaptation. Who doesn’t want their child to be independent, able to focus on their work, and to be someone who is able to learn from and adapt to the environments they may find themselves in throughout their lifetime? When a Montessori guide thinks about practical life, they are looking at this big picture approach. They are trained to view these practical life works as a purposeful means for the child to build those four foundational skills for themselves. They understand that these skills and the independence created through these works, are what ultimately form the type of lifelong learner we hope to develop.
From infancy through childhood, the child is learning and perfecting how to move and control their body. All practical life materials involve movement but they also challenge the child to gain more control over those movements. For example, the use of breakable items teaches natural consequences and ultimately urges the child to move slowly and with great care. Buttons, snaps, knobs, and utensils offer the opportunity to challenge the child’s development of the pincer grasp. A strong and coordinated pincer grasp is
necessary for writing success. Lessons are presented in a way that calls the child’s attention to the precision of particular movements. All of these things come together to create a more coordinated child that is better prepared for their next developmental challenges.
Concentration is the key to successful learning. However, just like exercising a muscle, concentration takes time and work to build. The practical life materials are presented strategically in order to help the child build up their capacity to concentrate. Have you ever noticed yourself get pulled into an almost meditative state while washing dishes or mopping the floor? That feeling of calm, repetitive movement is exactly what the practical life materials provide in order to naturally pull the child into a state of concentration. The ability to sustain concentration is essential for literacy, math, and science.
Many cultures view young children as entirely dependent on those around them. Although a young child still requires a lot of care, attention, and guidance, their brains are wired to want to do for themselves. When offered the correct tools and enough opportunity, children are able to complete many tasks independently. The practical life materials offer child-sized tools, plenty of opportunity to practice, and just the right level of challenge to build within the child the skills and confidence to be independent in these tasks. Through this independence, the child learns that they are capable of caring for themselves, their environment, and others. This realization quite literally changes the child’s brain. They become more curious, more confident, and they begin to view challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.
Children have the potentiality to be born in to a wide array of cultures, circumstances, and family settings. Practical life activities offer the child the opportunity to adapt to the culture in which they find themselves. They will be much more comfortable and understanding of an environment in which they are invited to be an active participant than one in which they are left on the sidelines, only looking in. Avid travelers will often suggest that tourists immerse themselves in the culture and activities of the locals in order to fully experience a new place. This is the same experience we offer to our children when we invite them to participate in the activity going on around them.
As you can see, practical life is designed to meet the physical, mental, and emotional needs of the young child. The benefits of including young children in everyday tasks are endless. Check out our blog to find more ideas on how to incorporate practical life in your home.