The Importance of Practical Life

Maria Montessori once observed that children are happiest when they are engaged in real-life, ordinary activities. They enjoy wiping down tables, sweeping floors or watering the plants at home. These tasks proved to be so important to a child’s development that Montessori added an area of the Montessori classroom devoted to these activities, and she called it Practical Life

The Guidepost Team

Montessori is an education for independence, preparing not just for school, but for life.

Dr. Maria Montessori
Dr. Maria Montessori

Montessori observed that young children are happiest when they are engaged in real-life, ordinary activities. They enjoy wiping down tables, sweeping floors or watering the plants at home. These tasks proved to be so important to a child’s development that Montessori added an area of the Montessori classroom devoted to it, and she called it Practical Life.

What is Practical Life?

The Practical Life area of a Montessori classroom covers two main areas of development:

  1. Care of self
  2. Care of the environment

Each activity, like water pouring or shoe shining, is purposeful and helps to develop fine motor skills and the ability to concentrate through a multi-step task. These meaningful activities also instill a sense of responsibility within the child, who is naturally motivated to be independent not just for himself, but for and with community.

Essential precursor to reading and writing

Like all areas of a Montessori classroom, shelves in Practical Life are sequenced left to right, from simple to complex. As the level of difficulty increases, a child will move from the introduction of a skill to the mastery of it. The left to right placement of each material is also indirect, tangible preparation for reading and writing. Holding a pair of tongs, for example, promotes proper pencil grip, and sequencing materials from left to right is pre-reading practice.

Why are children so drawn to "work?"

You may have heard the saying, "Play is work, and work is play." As adults, we view work in a negative light because it entails the chores we have to do for a certain outcome. So, "play," to us is anything separate from work. The young child does not view these activities through that same lens, though. They are working to understand what things are and how things work, and so they are naturally drawn to real-life work for the sake of process.

Children experience the same joy when they are washing the dishes as when they are building with legos. But, there is a reason that even a baby will reach for your water bottle over a pretend cup. They get superior feedback when trusted to explore more of the real world.

Practical Life activities ensure that children are not restricted in their capacity to learn through real experiences, and instead, ensures this drive is supported.

For the child, practical life work is grounding

  • It helps students bond with the classroom environment. Sometimes, a child will spend a lot of time in this area, especially if he is new to the classroom. He might appreciate the connection and the relaxation one is afforded when working on Practical Life activities. The same way an adult sometimes feels some sort of leisure while washing the dishes or folding laundry, the child feels this sense of calm in the work, too.
  • Time for peace and quiet. The timing that each child spends in Practical Life varies. One may need more time with certain activities to respond to their inner direction. If a child’s home life is hectic, he might spend more time in Practical Life to gain peace and quiet.
  • Ownership and responsibility. More than completing activities on the shelves, students can sweep the floors, wipe down plants or set the tables for lunch, allowing them to care for their environment and their peers. Students in Children’s House and elementary especially take on these responsibilities willingly, excitedly, and with immense pride.
  • Hand strength & coordination: Practical Life hones the development of the hand. Montessori said, “The skill of man’s hands is bound up with the development of the mind.” When children train their hands, they train their minds, and materials in Practical Life are meant to sharpen fine motor coordination while fostering an awareness of surroundings. All this work assists in increased functionality in the home as well.

Practical life is connected to academic and life success

Practical Life activities actively nurture executive functioning skills, which are the life skills that enable us as adults to plan and follow through with tasks successfully. Executive functioning skills are not only critical for academic success, but later success in all areas of our adult lives. Here's how Practical Life work is connected to executive functioning skills:

  1. Emotional control: When a child is done with a snack, for example, he gets to choose whether he washes his plate so that others might have a snack next. The student is learning to empathize with his peers by participating in the responsibilities the environment provides.
  2. Inhibition: The ability to control one’s own thoughts and actions is practiced indefinitely in a Montessori classroom because there is usually only one item per material on the shelves. A child must wait patiently for his peer to complete his work before returning it to the shelf for someone else to choose.
  3. Working memory: A child practices spatial awareness in Practical Life when taking care of the prepared environment. If a plant is out of place, for example, the child will take it upon himself to return the plant where it belongs and water it as needed. The materials as well need to be returned to their rightful place on the shelves.
  4. Initiation: In the thoughtfully prepared space of a Montessori classroom, a child is getting feedback from the environment, which helps to initiate activities. If the sink is full of dirty dishes, the dishes must be cleaned. The tables must be wiped down before lunch can begin, and hands must be washed before and after snack, for example.
  5. Prioritization: Practical Life activities each have a sequence of events, and the child must go in that order to complete a task. If a child wants to wash dishes, he must first run the water, then he must use dish soap, then he must rinse the dish and dry the dish before returning it to the dryer rack. There are natural consequences to either completing or not completing a task in Practical Life.
  6. Adaptability: Much like all the other materials in a Montessori classroom, a child must practice patience and adaptability when choosing along with his peers which materials to work on during the day.
  7. Organization: A Montessori classroom is very intentionally organized per development of the child. Outer order creates inner order, which is why each shelf is carefully thought out left to right and placed meticulously toward the front. This sense of organization is also developed in Practical Life based on the responsibility the child feels toward the environment. If the environment is disorganized, the child is not taking responsibility for the tasks needed to restore order.
  8. Self-monitoring: Materials in Practical Life are giving positive feedback to the child. A child can look at the floor and see that it needs to be swept, see his laces on his shoes need to be tied or that a plant is dry and needs water. This helps the child to tangibly assess his performance.

Meet the Author

The Guidepost Team

The Guidepost Team is a group of writers and educators dedicated to helping demystify all things Montessori.

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