“If we would but think of it, the carrying out of a practical life affords an abundance of exercise, and the gymnasium for perfecting one’s actions is the very environment in which he lives.” —Dr. Maria Montessori
Let’s take a look at “Practical Life” so that you can get a better understanding of how these subject areas can be implemented to best enhance learning through self-direction. Historically, this area is broken into two sections, the care of the child’s own person and the care of the environment. Under such a curriculum’s guidance, children are able to take an everyday task, such as putting on a jacket, and gain more from the experience than an adult ever would. This is because an adult may put on a jacket for a purpose that has an end, such as going outside to get the mail on a snowy day. However, a child fulfills a strong desire within to copy the adult doing the task for the sake of doing it. Children are natural mimics, and this is because they have a biological need to learn new things through experience.
Maria Montessori once said, “The first thing to realize 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”. Once the child has put on the jacket (often over and over again!), it may be time to zip up the jacket. Here, a practical life lesson called the “zipper frame” was developed for the Montessori classroom to practice this common step. It is a small wooden frame with two panels of fabric fastened in the middle by a zipper. What the child does not know is that by doing this practical life lesson he is not only learning how to dress himself, but is also developing hand/eye coordination, order, and independence. When the child completes the task, then he is rewarded with self-esteem. This confidence aids in the building of concentration, which in turn lengthens the attention span of the individual. Finally, the pincer grasp is developed, which indirectly strengthens the muscles of the hand in preparation for holding a pencil. Just the one seemingly simple exercise has many purposes, all of which build upon one another.
Montessori goes on to say, “…no other occupations which could be undertaken by the children at this stage (3-5) could be more important for their whole development—physical, mental, and moral—than these ‘exercises of practical life’ as they are called”. This occupation should not contain any type of pretend tools or stand-ins. Under the Montessori philosophy, you must always show the student the “real” object and work your way to the abstract. For example, when introducing language, you would show a student a real apple, and then a fake apple, and then a picture of an apple. This allows him or her to connect the word with the item and helps develop abstract thinking. As a further example, in the kitchen one can find a knife that is appropriate in size for a child and not blunt. Instead it would function and allow the child to grow in experience as a picture would not.
While activities such as the zipper frame or washing hands go toward care of themselves as a person, the children are also encouraged to care for the environment. They engage in such activities such as washing a chalkboard, sweeping, or dusting. The child will eventually come to recognize when such activities need to be done and will engage in them independently, developing not only a sensitivity to the environment around them but also working on their motor skills and coordination.
Montessori taught (or indicated) her lessons slowly and repeated them several times to allow the child’s mind to absorb the information given. Often, a child will naturally repeat the task over and over in order to learn. The teacher refrains from correcting, especially in the middle of work—the child is learning and developing skills at his own pace. Montessori said,”…it must be borne in mind that it is only at this epoch—during which the child has a sensitive period for perfecting muscular coordination— that the best and most permanent results will be obtained with the exercises of practical life.”
This sensitive period for practical life includes a prepared environment which is invigorating, unhurried, and full of repetition, with an internal aim geared toward shaping the child into the adult he or she will become. In the prepared environment, materials are doing the teaching and the teacher is only indicating the lessons. The passive teacher or “control of error” is the link between the child and the prepared environment.
The perfect complement to practical life exercises are those involving grace and courtesy. Children are instantly able to use lessons given on greeting a visitor, standing up from a chair, or quietly shutting a door. Montessori said, “In a word, there is no action which we do not try and teach so as to approach perfection.” Because no skill is “left to chance,” the child is able to spontaneously use a lesson they have learned when a situation arises. For example, when a visitor comes into a three-to-six classroom, one can bet that they have a chair waiting for them, food or drink may be offered, and the door behind them is closed quietly. All of this falls into the category of grace and courtesy. The teacher’s actions are a lesson plan that the child will observe and emulate.
Practical life in the Montessori classroom has come a long way; it originally consisted of hand washing, setting the table, and maintaining cleanliness of the body. Today its scope ranges from polishing brass to washing a baby. This area is the most “teacher intensive” part of the classroom. The end result is to develop concentration and order to lengthen the attention span of the individual.
I hope you enjoy the Practical Life activities I’ve included at the end of this chapter! As you become more familiar with the goals and processes of the Montessori Methods, you can develop your own activities to use at home or in the classroom. Many of the materials can be purchased cheaply at your local dollar store; there’s no need to go to great expense. Finally, the entries are so detailed for a reason! The child is observing and learning from every action you take, so each step is important for their development.