'The first thing to realise about these exercises of practical life is that their aim is not a practical one. Emphasis should be laid not on the word “practical” but the word life. Their aim …is to assist development.'
Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, pp. 213
Practical life exercises are of vital importance to the children. Not only because they introduce skills that provide them with the ability/power to take care of their own needs, but because they provide the opportunity to exercise their body, develop concentration on the task at hand and learn that every activity we engage in life has a beginning, middle and end. This is powerful knowledge to have!
Entering a Practical Life area in a Montessori classroom, what comes to our attention are the carefully prepared activities, consisting of 'cute' little jugs, funnels and dishes, beautifully displayed on wooden trays, color coded for orientation and order. However, behind the beauty of the 'best for the smallest' there is a powerful scientific message.
Practical life activities are the first that a child does in the classroom and they form the foundation of everything that comes later. They offer the child the opportunity for orientation and exploration. They also form a bridge between home and school.
The names of the areas of the activities reinforce their functional nature:
- Care of self
- Care of the environment
- Social relations
- Analysis and control of movement.
However, the real purposes of the activities are hidden behind their useful practical nature.
When the child enters the classroom at age three, they are first introduced to the area of transitional activities. They are familiar links from home to school – some natural puzzles, picture books, and the always welcoming garden – and they help the children feel comfortable in the new environment.
As soon as the welcome is complete and the child feels ready to explore, the things offered to them include activities that will prepare the child for life in the Children's House environment. They have a component that the child might have been presented before like: carrying a bucket, chair or tray, spooning, walking around the mats, level of talking and using your voice, what language is used, where things go in the classroom. Children are also learning by observing the others.
Care of self activities help the children to be functionally independent, to gain self-care skills. However, as I mentioned before, by performing these activities, the children are also supporting their physical and cognitive development.
The activities are prepared in a way that the child not only learns the skills, but also provides their body with practice that enhances their hand-eye coordination, muscle strength, coordination of movements and in the end, creating and strengthening the neuro-pathways in their brain. It has now been some time since the science officially confirmed that movement with purpose helps build intelligence – something Maria Montessori knew and introduced into her method a hundred years ago. To give you some examples of what activities belong to this area I will list just a few:
- Dressing frames
- Hand washing
- Food preparation
Care of the environment activities relate to independence and building of self-confidence in a child. They are not just domestic tasks. Their purpose is to build social cohesion and unity in the group of children by caring for their class community together. Children take pleasure from being carers of their own environment, they love performing these domestic, everyday tasks and when they are performing them, muscular memory and refinement and coordination of movement are enhanced. There is some good muscle work needed to properly scrub a table and set it out for lunch! Sweeping, cleaning and polishing is not a small task either. But what a rewarding feeling to see a beautiful classroom when the work is done. This feeling is then taken with the child to their home environment present and future and a life of order and beauty will accompany them to adulthood.
Analysis and control of movement are a set of activities which have been established for the conscious consideration of movement. There are two special exercises of Movement: Walking on the Line and the Silence Game. Each of these is done with a group of children, which enhances the child's sense of collaboration and belonging. To work as a group means that sometimes we have to be able to control our own body to walk together, take turns, coordinate. Practice of these activities helps the child bring muscles under the control of the brain. Walking on the line activities also enhance equilibrium. Silence game – further use of developing the will to control movement. These games have a significant social aspect as well.
Social relations/Grace and Courtesy. This unique curriculum of socially focused activities have been an important part of the Montessori Method in its aim to help people create better and kinder communities.
Courtesy activities always involve interactions with others. It helps us involve other people, say kind and proper things in social interactions present within our own culture – like greetings, making requests, excusing ourselves. Developing grace helps us carry our bodies in space and be a peaceful and reassuring presence among others.
These activities need to be role-modeled and practiced daily in our environment: table etiquette, bathroom, nose blowing, etc. are all to be learned. These lessons introduce the little child to the techniques and social skills that are valued in the community and allow the child to be an early participant in the community/family.
Practical life activities are attractive and appealing. By working with them the young child may be experiencing for the first time the absorbing, intelligent experience of the purposeful, rewarding, self-chosen work. This experience leads to the normalisation and ultimately self-discipline.