Why is There Always a Child Sweeping in the Montessori Classroom?
One writer investigates the importance of practical life activities in the Montessori classroom
My first experience of "Montessori" was when I visited a Montessori preschool for a job interview. I remember walking into a classroom with the Head of School and being surprised to see a young child diligently sweeping the floor. He couldn't have been more than four years old. I looked around to see which adult was forcing this child to tidy up. But there was no one. Just a teacher helping a child at the other end of the classroom, and another teacher sitting on the opposite side of the classroom, observing all the children.
I then noticed two girls washing a window, and a child scrubbing a table with soap and water. There was a girl mopping the mess on the floor that the boy cleaning the table was creating. There was also a boy sat on a bench, polishing his leather shoes. "What is happening?" was initial reaction to these seemingly dull activities. There was no fuss, and none of the children seemed as though they were carrying out some kind of punishment. They actually seemed quite happy.
Within my first few weeks of teaching at the school, I learned that this type of activity is referred to as Practical Life (meaning, anything the child does that serves a real-life purpose, like washing their hands or preparing food), but with Montessori schools having such a strong reputation for serious subjects like Math and English, I wondered what purpose these Practical Life activities serve. Wouldn’t the children’s time be better spent practicing something like reading or writing?
After extensive reading on the subject, I got in touch with Montessori Teacher Trainer and Expert Ana Amiguet about the role of Practical life, and she explained that there is actually direct link between how well a child can carry out Practical Life activities and how successful they will be in other areas of the classroom, such as Math, Music and Geography. She argued that Practical Life gives the child opportunities he needs to develop the skills he needs in order to flourish at school: his co-ordination of movement, intelligence, and will power.
As adults, we can generally move our bodies in the way we want to as we go about our daily lives. We go to the store without walking into anyone and can chop up an onion without cutting our fingers. We became so able bodied through practicing our movements over the years, even though we may not have been aware of it. And that’s the very reason Montessori classrooms offer the child plenty of physical tasks in the form of Practical Life: to practice control of movement. When a child carries out physical tasks in the classroom, like watering plants or washing windows, he becomes more spatially aware and more graceful in his movements. This helps him develop the precision needed to carry out more sophisticated pieces of work that his teacher will introduce later on and gets him used to the movements required for his own daily life, like zipping up his coat.
Intelligence is the ability to absorb knowledge and to apply it to the world around you. Practical Life allows for both of them. For example, when a child practices hand-washing in the classroom, he learns through watching the teacher and from trying himself that he needs to get his hands wet before adding soap or he won’t get a soapy lather to wash with. He absorbs this knowledge and applies it every time he washes his hands. Not only that, when he tries washing a table for the first time, he instinctively knows that the table has to be wet before adding the soap, for the same reason as before, to create a soapy lather. He’s applying knowledge he learned and applying it to another area – at only three years old! And just like when we adults try something for the first time, they way it becomes easier with practice, the child finds it easier and easier to concentrate on the task at hand – which is absolutely vital for thinking.
This is strongly tied in to the fact that Montessori classrooms allow for choice. Once a child has been introduced to a piece of Practical Life by the teacher, he can use it whenever he wants. Within a few weeks of school, a child will have been introduced to at least ten different activities. So when he chooses what activity he wants to do, he exercises his will power. And what comes with exercise? Strength! His will power builds and builds to the point that the child gets used to starting an activity, like sweeping, and following it through right to the end, even if he loses interest. (This is completely different to the traditional preschool setting where teachers tell their students what to do and when.) There’s a really popular food preparation activity where the child can slice up a banana, put the slices in a bowl, and then eat them as a snack. Imagine the will power it takes for a four year old to complete the final step – putting away his apron – before tucking in? By willfully delaying his enjoyment, the child builds strength of character. No one is born with the ability to do that, but with practice, every child is capable.
I asked Amiguet whether there were other activities that could help the child develop the skills she mentioned. For example, couldn’t you just send children to dance lessons to help with their co-ordination of movement? The answer was yes. But what do you do when it’s 6.30pm on a Thursday evening and your child doesn’t want to go to Ballet class? Children go through immense physical and psychological changes during the early years of life. Their interests come and go within seconds, which is why all activities are available at all times in the Montessori classroom. When the moment arrives and a child feels compelled to wash a table or arrange some flowers, he can do so.
As Montessori parents and educators, we have high ambitions for our children: to grow into intelligent, independent adults who will lead successful lives. How can we help them develop the necessary skills they need? We can prepare activities that appeal to their interests.
Maria Montessori observed in young children their immense desire to use and understand the objects they had seen at home during their first two years of life. Glasses, plates, cutlery, forks, sponges, cloths, mops. All these objects their parents and grandparents used on a daily basis were mysterious and yet familiar to the child. That innate interest is something we still see in children today.
A child will sit down a play with a puzzle for twenty minutes, but he will wash tables for forty. He will tire of a cuddly toy after a few weeks or months, and yet he will want to act upon his environment in real, useful ways for the rest of his life. So, now you know that Practical Life offers children daily opportunities to cultivate skills like intelligence and strength of will, consider how convenient it is for adults to allow children an active role in shaping their surroundings, especially as they reap such immense joy from keeping things clean and beautiful.
When young children are given the freedom to help with the day-to-day to running of the classroom – serving drinks at lunchtime, watering the plants – there are bound to be a few spills from time to time. But this is all part of the learning process. Putting the question in reverse: why wouldn't there always be a child mopping in the Montessori classroom?
Melissa is an AMI-certified educator who has taught children aged 10 weeks to 18 years old in the UK, US and China. She is also a positive discipline parent coach, helping families integrate Montessori principles into their lives.
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