The Practical Life part of our program is aimed explicitly at helping children become independent, so that they neither need nor are constantly seeking the help of adults. As Dr. Montessori put it: “We must help them to learn how to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All this is part of an education for independence.”
Through careful observation, the Directress identifies the most suitable material to introduce to each child and the best time at which to introduce it. She chooses an activity that is at the right level of difficulty for a particular child, something that presents a challenge but is within the range of his abilities. She then invites the child to join her in a presentation. The presentation itself is focused on introducing a material, as simply and with as few words as possible.
For example, to introduce the “buttoning frame”, the Directress will ask a student to choose a table, get the dressing frame and place it on the table. She will sit on a small chair, next to the child, and demonstrate how to button the frame. She will open up the buttons, and fold the cloth apart. Then, using slow, accentuated movements, she will go through the process of buttoning, step-by-step, aligning the edges of the cloth so the buttons are aligned with the holes, carefully inserting one side of the button into the hole from below the cloth, pulling it through, and straightening it out neatly on top of the cloth. Throughout the presentation, the emphasis is on action, not words – to enable the child to watch and learn, and not be distracted by superfluous language.
After the presentation, the Directress invites the child to try the activity, and provides guidance as needed to help accomplish the task.
Repetition until mastery
Dr. Montessori observed that if an activity was introduced to the child in such a manner, and the activity was developmentally appropriate, the child would repeat the activity over and over again, until they achieved mastery. We see this daily in our classrooms, we see that when each child has access to all the materials, and can choose freely they will indeed repeat the exercises that they have been presented. We see also that once the activity is mastered, the child is naturally embraces the challenge of a new activity .
The materials we use are self-correcting, they are designed so that the child can recognise whether they have completed the activity correctly. For example when carrying a jug full of water, if the movement isnt coordinated, the water will spill, when pouring rice from one container into another, any grains that land on the table provide feedback to pour more carefully next time, if a glass drops & breaks they learn about the need to better balance the little tray.
By locating the feedback within the materials, we free the child to learn directly from reality, to recognise that the reason to do the work is not to get the approval of adults or other children, but to succeed at a real task, objectively, through independent effort, and by their own thinking and judgement.
Real, everyday meaningful activities
The Practical Life activities use familiar objects the child also encounters at home, little jugs to practice pouring, tongs to transfer small objects from one container to another, dishes to wash, brushes, spray bottles, food to clean, peel and cut, flowers to arrange and plants to water. The activities are arranged on small trays and we use real, child-sized, high-quality items, made out of porcelain, glass and other attractive and fragile materials.
With these items, the child learns to do many everyday activities. They learn to prepare real food using real knives to cut strawberries, real peelers to peel carrots, real porcelain plates, not plastic, to set the table. They carry little jugs of water, and pour drinks into a real, open glass (not a sipper cup.)
They wash tables, an advanced, multi-step process:
- First take the tray with all the table-washing materials to the table that needs to be cleaned.
- Then, go to the sink to get the water in a small bucket, carry it, ever so carefully, to the table.
- Set out all the materials; a brush, a sponge, a drying towel, a bowl for the dirty water
- Begin work, first wetting the table, then soaping it up, then scrubbing it, then cleaning it off with the wet sponge (which has to be squeezed just so to get the dirty water back into his little bowl), then drying it with a towel.
- When done, empty out the dirty water, dry off all the materials, hangs up the towel, put away the sponge, and replaces the activity on the shelf, ready for another child to work with.
Another very important component of the Practical Life area is the dressing frames. Each frame isolates one skill of dressing and enables the child to work on it repeatedly. The frames are designed to allow a child to be successful with the skill of “buttoning” in a variety of different forms: the cloth has a straight edge, the sides are lined up exactly, the frames lay flat, and the buttons, snaps and zippers are made in a size easy to handle for small hands.
It is in Practical Life that young children first learn to extend their attention span, by repeating activities they find interesting, over and over again, until they have mastered them.
Our 4-year old's are able to plan, and then perform, processes with 10 or more steps in the correct sequence with attention to detail. They also learn to exercise the mental discipline necessary to master their impulses. For example, as each material exists only once in any given classroom, our students learn to wait their turn while someone else is using a material, and to do so gracefully, without complaining or snatching the work from their peer.
Social skills, including Grace and Courtesy.
Throughout their time with us, but especially during Practical Life activities such as preparing, serving and sharing snacks, we encourage our children to treat each other kindly and to respect each other’s personal space and work. We show them how to practice social graces such as saying “please” and “thank you”, and to ask for cooperation or help in a respectful manner, including not interrupting others’ conversations. Our students graduate able to conduct themselves with good manners, and to interact maturely and with poise, with peers and adults alike making the transition to primary school much easier.
Gross motor skills & coordination.
In conducting their daily activities, whether it is carrying a jug full of water, or balancing the materials on a tray as they walk around their peers little tables and mats or drying a porcelain dish our students learn to exercise and coordinate their large muscles. In taking action, they get immediate feedback, if they are not coordinated, the water will spill, the glass jug may fall and break, or the items may slide off the tray. This self-correcting nature of Practical Life activities allows the child to learn from direct feedback and to see for themselves how their skills grow as a result of dedicated efforts.
Fine motor skills.
Picking up small beans with three fingers and stringing them, using tongs to transfer items from one bowl into another, using droppers to transfer water, all these activities help strengthen the hand and prepare it for the later tasks of holding a pencil and writing.
A growth mindset
Our students learn that they can get better, that practice does lead to improvement over time. They experience the reward of task mastery, and see that they acquire it by applying themselves and practicing. The result is a profound, deeply ingrained, growth mindset attitude. They enjoy acting in the world, know the pride of a job well done, and feel the growing esteem of knowing they are physically & mentally capable.