Practical Life Lessons
Updated: 4 days ago
One of the pleasures of watching a child grow is watching them find joy in learning how to do everyday things. The most ordinary things that we seemingly know without thinking and can do without trying, are for the child wondrous, new discoveries and engaging, joyous challenges. This includes the everyday routines and practices of life: preparing food, dressing oneself, cleaning, habitual courtesies, and more—these are for the child new, maybe daunting, exciting tasks that are visibly part of the human world and that are empowering to master.
One of the hallmarks of the Montessori method is that it takes full advantage of the child’s motivation to learn these things at a very young age. The practical life curriculum in Montessori provides a scope and sequence for these everyday routines and practices. And exactly like the other, more academic areas in the Montessori classroom, the Montessori approach offers a pedagogy that elevates and empowers the child in her pursuit of these skills. Practical life in Montessori is purposeful activity, develops motor control and coordination, and develops independence, concentration, and a sense of responsibility. The exercises in practical life cover two main areas of development: care of self, and care of the environment. What are practical life activities?
Practical life activities are applicable for all ages, even infants, and change depending on what the child can do at each stage of development. The activities can start with something as simple as pulling pants up or washing hands and can get as complicated as baking a dessert, or even developing a business plan in the elementary or middle school years.
Why are practical life activities necessary?
When taken seriously and presented as an approachable, impactful challenge, these activities hold inherent dignity. It’s not “just” getting dressed or "just" juicing an orange if one is doing it oneself. The child is learning to follow a complex motor sequence, independently, in order to fulfill his or her own desires and needs. These skills, when taught early in life, allow children to believe in themselves as well as develop the self-discipline needed for success throughout their lives.
Those who are unfamiliar with the Montessori method may question why a child is doing something like washing the dishes over learning something more academic like mathematical concepts. The practical life Montessori curriculum teaches the child things they need to (and are motivated to) learn anyway, and does it in a way that is of a piece with the more academic disciplines, developing the same key fundamental executive and emotional skills. Math, reading, and language all require one to have the ability to focus, to be able to follow logical and sequential steps, to make intelligent choices, to see a task through from start to finish, to persist when one makes a mistake, and to correct one’s mistakes—and all of these are present in the process of learning and practicing the practical life activities.
What types of practical life activities are there?
Care of Self: These activities provide the means for children to become physically independent. Activities in this area may include learning to wash one’s hands or learning to put on one’s clothing. For an 18-month-old, it could be as simple as assisting in pulling down his own pants, but for an elementary student, it could be packing lunch or an overnight bag.
Care of the Environment: Keeping a clean, orderly classroom is important in a Montessori environment. The practical life activities teach children how to take care of the space around them—from physically cleaning to, on a deeper level, appreciating one’s environment. These activities may include how to set the table, how to clean dishes, or how to water and care for plants. For example, in the Montessori table washing activity, the child would be shown how to go to the correct area of the room to gather cleaning supplies, take a pitcher to the sink and fill it with water, and then methodically scrub the table. Another example: toddlers love learning how to put out a flower arrangement in the classroom. Not only is it beautiful, but they get to make choices about what will make it the most beautiful, all while performing a very involved sequence of tasks with a naturally mandatory order (separating the flowers, filling vases with water, etc.)
There are multiple layers to these activities! They may seem straightforward and repetitive, but a lot is going on under the surface.
First, as mentioned, for children, these activities are complicated, multi-step processes that pave the way for a problem-solving mindset and a fulfilling experience. But second, there are often subtle curricular integrations within these tasks. Washing a table has an immediate purpose because the child is learning to clean up after herself—but there’s also an indirect purpose because the child learns to wash, in a Montessori classroom, from left to right, and then top to bottom, thus habituating motor control and attention in the direction of English reading and writing.
In doing practical life activities, the child can develop a high level of concentration, develop a sense of order, take pride in completing a job, increase independence, develop respect for his or her community and surroundings, and improve fine motor skills—both in general and with an eye to the particular skills that a child will need for more cognitively demanding work such as reading, writing, and mathematics.
The practical life activities should be taken seriously as children are working diligently to perfect and master specific skills. This fundamental range of work has many layers of purpose that include joyously earning mastery over the "mundane," as well as constructing and practicing core human faculties. (This was was copied from a Montessori site, which included that they would love the information to be shared. Montessorians are usually very happy to share any and all information that helps children learn.)
Some examples of Practical Life in our Toddler Classroom are the food preparation pieces of work, such as banana slicing, mandarin orange peeling, and butter spreading. These are all easy to continue at home. If you don't have a banana slices, make make small beginning slices in a banana and let them cut the rest of the way through with a butter knife. We also have care of environment work in the class; the children "wash" the windows (with a small spray bottle full of water), a small squeegee, and a small towel. After they eat they crumb their table with a very small dustpan and use a dustpan and hand small broom to clean under their table. This is a great opportunity to have them learn practical life things, such as putting on their own clothes, folding their clothes, matching and folding socks together, putting on and taking off their own jackets, combing/brushing their hair, clearing the table, helping prepare meals, helping load the dishwasher...these are all wonderful opportunities for learning, feeling like a valued family member, and spending time with you. The more you allow them to do themselves, the higher their self-esteem will be. Try to remember not to overpraise; the pride they feel in doing things for themselves is what is important.
We have the same things in our preschool classrooms in our Practical Life area. We also have a great deal of pouring work (water, small grains, beans...), hanging clothes on a clothesline, transferring items (with a spoon, tongs, tweezers), bead stringing, screw driver work, lacing/sewing work, care of a plant work, orange juice squeezing...Again, these are to teach independence, build the child's self-esteem, teach them the importance of being an important part of their classroom (home), increase their concentration skills, and develop their fine motor skills. Your children would love to do this type of work at home! Have them spoon rice or beans from one bowl to another, pour water from one glass into three smaller glasses, transfer dried beans from one cup to another and back...just be prepared for a mess. They will really enjoy cleaning up after themselves once you show them what how to do it. I am including a video that shows a lesson on spooning. (As Montessori teachers, we really do have to learn all of the steps before we give lessons.) You'll notice that there is very little talking during the lessons; the idea is that the child becomes absorbed in what the teacher is DOING, not what she is saying.