“So, from the age of three till six, being able to now to tackle his environment deliberately and consciously, he begins a period of real constructiveness.”
Maria Montessori, p.152, The Absorbent Mind – 1967
When visitors observe in a Montessori classroom, they see children enter the classroom and the practical life area is frequently their first stop for the day.
Some children head to the snack area to prepare food for themselves, a younger child might go get a pouring work and sit down to carefully practice water-pouring. Others start their day by sewing or polishing a metal vase. Then, one by one they finish their work and most move to work in other parts of the classroom.
Later in the morning, an observer might notice most of the children returning to the practical life area. When children are working in practical life, they visibly relax and focus as they set their mind to the task of washing a classroom table, or use tongs to transfer tiny objects from one beautiful bowl to another. When finished, the child is ready to rise to the challenge of the next work that captures their imagination, and thus it goes throughout the day with the child frequently returning to this area to use their hands and body in both familiar and new meaningful tasks. Practical life is known for having this centering effect on children’s work, but it is so much more than just calming filler between more ‘academic’ tasks.
Practical Life is an essential component of early childhood learning. Children are highly motivated to work in this area because of its visual and sensorial appeal and the opportunities it provides them to practice real-world skills. The practical life area of a Montessori classroom is full of real, working, child-sized dishes, utensils, and tools, that draw them to the work and give them the message that they are capable.
Children are, by nature, driven to become ever more independent, and they are particularly drawn to practical life work because they love being of help to their families and friends, and the practical life environment really allows them to master the skills needed to be contributors to their world.
The Montessori practical life area is designed to foster this independence by breaking down tasks into their components. Works such as spooning, buttoning, and cutting build upon one another in sequence so that the child is soon able to accomplish more complex tasks such as table scrubbing and flower arranging. Independence is one of the four underlying competencies that form the foundation of the Montessori curriculum. The others include the capacity to concentrate on a task, the coordination to utilize their hands and body to carry out tasks they desire, and the ability to organize tasks and related materials for use.
The practical life curriculum is the heart of the Montessori classroom because it builds these competencies in multiple ways for both the youngest and oldest children in the environment. As children branch out in the classroom from the Practical Life and Sensorial areas, they need the skills they have developed to work with the materials that support their learning of mathematics, language, and other more traditionally academic subjects.
For example, practical life supports the learning of reading and writing through the left to right, top to bottom progression. In the practical life area, all works are organized, taught, and reinforced in this left to right, top to bottom fashion so that children begin to organize tasks in this way. This holds true also for understanding mathematical equations and learning the layout of our base-ten number system.
Additionally, the hand strength and coordination gained through practical life tasks such as polishing and pin punching supports the child’s development of the pincer grip, which is the most efficient way to hold a writing utensil. As children work at practical life tasks, they internalize a sense of accomplishment, and this feeling of capability carries them forward to more and more challenging work. It is the ability to keep trying in the face of difficulty that teaches the mind that we improve incrementally. “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment” (Dweck, C.S., p.41).
In the Montessori classroom, the observer might sit and watch a young three-year-old take a tray off the shelf, and immediately spill its contents, clean every piece up, only to spill again before reaching their work space. These spills are not wasted time, but in reality they are gifts of learning because they build attention to detail, concentration, and give the child the sense that they can take care of themselves, with effort. Dr. Montessori was a genius in her observations of how children’s developmental needs drive them toward certain tasks to allow their abilities to grow. She noticed that at different stages in children’s growth, they are drawn to certain types of activity. She called these periods of time sensitive periods.
In the next installment of Practical Life in the Montessori Classroom, I’ll talk specifically about the parts of the classroom that are designed to help the child learn to care for themselves. Care of self is one of my favorite aspects of the Montessori Classroom!