A Montessori classroom encourages independent, self-directed learning in a clean, organized environment. Rather than following a strict lesson plan, the children have the opportunity to seek out and complete tasks on their own accord. A very popular and busy section of the Montessori classroom is known as Practical Life. Here, the children have the freedom to choose from an array of activities that correspond to their daily routine. When designing materials for the Practical Life shelf, the tray should be set up in an ordered way that encourages repetition thus developing concentration. The environment must provide materials that climb the developmental ladder, are attractive, real and self-correcting. The materials are designed to promote care of self, care of the environment, grace and courtesy, and control of movement.
In designing the Practical Life materials, the teacher must consider each child’s interest and developmental stage. Developing thematic units encourages exploration of materials and can cross over into many areas of the classroom. For example, in a thematic unit based on apples, a teacher may have an apple with an apple corer on a tray for slicing as part of a food preparation activity. Once sliced, this apple can be shared with fellow classmates, offering the students another opportunity to extend their grace and courtesy. This type of apple could also be changed each week, allowing the children to sample many apple varieties as well as acquire the related vocabulary. The parts of the apple could be discussed, extending to science and, in an art activity, the children could choose an apple cut-out, glue the parts of the apple together and finally, label the different parts of the apple. It is crucial that the activities appeal to the child visually and contain various points of interest so the child is drawn to the material and will choose to work with it. The materials must always have a clear order and be organized on the tray from left to right as a preparation for reading and language. Woods suggests, “These materials support the development of orderly, sequential thinking” (2000, p. 39). It should be easy for the child to understand the flow of the activity and encourage repeated use. Through repetition, the child is developing focus, concentration and inner-discipline.
With each tray on the Practical Life shelf set up in an ordered way from left to right the child reads the tray and understands how to complete the work, often without being given a formal lesson. This encourages self-directed and independent learning. This type of order, seen throughout the Montessori classroom, sets the child up for success as they choose more complex Practical Life works like polishing or table scrubbing.
A child scrubbing a table is learning so much more than may be obvious. They understand how to organize their work, concentrate and sequence steps in a functional and successful way. For example, the child must walk to the sink, turn on the faucet, fill a pitcher with water, turn off the faucet, carry the full pitcher back to the work space, mindfully pour the water from the pitcher to the basin, twist open the bottle of soap and squeeze the soap from the dropper into the basin. The child remembers the sequence of this work and is able to repeat the work whenever they choose. The child can refer to the steps in conversation (and give a younger student a lesson!) and is able to complete every step independently; all of this sequencing is key to language development and preparation for reading. This type of work also manifests a sense of pride and confidence within the child. As Montessori clearly defines, “After the child has finished his work, he appears satisfied, rested and happy.” (1972, p. 114).
Throughout Practical Life, children are unknowingly developing their control of movement. Children refine their pincer grip (pointer and middle finger together with the thumb) as they choose a verity of works like sorting, tweezing, tonging, basting, spooning and pouring. Developing this fine motor skill is crucial for future academic work. The child is strengthening the muscles in his/ her hand so that he/she can use a writing utensil with exactness and precision. In the above mentioned beginning steps of table scrubbing the child is seeing moving throughout the room gathering all the necessary components to complete the scrubbing. Just within these first few steps, the child develops coordination between the fine and gross motor skills.
The tasks are designed as a model for activities that occur in a child’s daily life and incorporates the care of the environment. Children are constantly trying to mimic the adults around them, but often do not have the means to accomplish this. Practical Life, however, offers the child a way to complete this same work on a smaller scale with real tools and utensils. In the Practical Life area, we often see children polishing plants, figurines, shoes, and more. We will also find children washing dishes, scrubbing shells, and arranging flowers, watering plants and maintaining a garden. The children are caring for their environment and learning a sense of respect for their shared space. As the children move about the classroom, we hear “excuse me” when walking around children working on rugs and “thank you” for the flowers that are placed on the individual tables. The classroom is bubbling over with gracious and courteous manners that then extend into the child’s reality at home and in the world.
Not only are the children caring for the environment, but they are also learning to care for themselves independent of an adult. The environment invites the children to prepare their own snack, pour water from a pitcher into a glass and eat a snack with a friend. The children are free to eat at their own pace and, when finished, wash their dishes and place them in the drying rack.
Practical Life is a major asset in the Montessori environment. It is key in developing a child’s relationship with the world through the use of real tools and activities that foster growth. Each activity climbs the developmental ladder and addresses the needs of each child in the classroom. Through these activities, children develop a sense of order, concentration, coordination and independence and lay the foundation for learning in future years. Refining fine and gross motor skills leads to great accomplishments in language, math and overall intellectual development.
Montessori, M. (1972). The secret of childhood. New York: Random House.
Woods, C.S. (2000, Winter). Back to basics for the Montessorian: The practical life foundation. Montessori Life, 39.
A blog by various Alcuin staff members.