One of the first things a parent might notice after their child starts in a Montessori programme is their child’s increased ability to function independently in their environment. In their classrooms they learn to pour their own water, button their clothes, serve and feed themselves food, and more. These actions can be messy at times– it takes a while to master the complex motor tasks of pouring and scooping– but allowing the child to practice without interference is essential for their physical, social and emotional development. So essential, in fact, that Maria Montessori dedicated an entire area in the classroom just to these tasks. This area of learning is aptly named “Practical Life”.
Understanding Montessori Practical Life and how it is practiced in your child’s school will help you to incorporate similar lessons and strategies at home, reinforcing your child’s development and growth. Practical Life is taught through activities on trays and on shelves in the classroom, and also in the daily interactions and happenings of the classroom. It teaches caring for the self and for the environment, grace and courtesy, and control of movement. It focuses on skills development such as concentration, fine and gross motor coordination, self-awareness and control, and builds confidence and independence.
Care for the Self
Caring for the self is not only something children should learn, but something they want to learn. You might often notice your child observing as you go through daily tasks such as food preparation and dressing, and they may express a desire to do these things as well. They not only want to mimic the ‘grown up’ activities, but Montessori taught us that children also have an innate desire to be independent. They want to care for themselves.
Consider your child’s daily routine and how you may grant them more independence in carrying it out. If you put their clothes in a lower drawer, they can not only choose their clothes and dress themselves, but they can also help fold and put the clothes away after washing. Encourage them to wash their own hair in the bath, and to hang up their towel when they are done.
At school your child is learning skills that will aid them in these actions. Some are quite directly related; learning to fold their table mats will translate to folding clothes, and washing their own bowls teaches them to control the amount of soap they pour and prepares them for showering. If your child is not quite ready to fold and put away the clothes on their own, consider focusing on individual skills and allowing them to practice the skill in isolation. After folding repeatedly folding the kitchen towel, they may begin to show more interest and ability in folding and putting away their clothes.
Care for the Environment
Caring for the environment relates to both the micro environments of the classroom and home, and also the macro environments of the city or planet. Care for the environment is a way of showing care for yourself, for the community, and for nature. In class children learn to clean up their own spills, put their materials away for the next child to use, to recycle paper and plastic, and to treat plants and animals in the garden with care.
One of the greatest ways you can teach care for the environment is to model the behavior yourself. These are not just daily chores but acts of care for the environment. When your child sees you caring for the environment they will want to participate as well, and it is important to let them! Involve your children in daily care for the environment, whether it is cleaning the kitchen, watering plants, feeding pets, or picking up litter from the neighborhood. These actions not only help develop skills such as pouring, transferring, and sorting, but with your guidance these acts can be part of developing social awareness. Talk with them about your larger environmental decisions, whether it is switching to solar energy or refusing single use plastic. It is never too early to learn habits that help better our environment and community.
Grace and Courtesy
Grace and Courtesy is everywhere in the Montessori classroom, but unlike other practical life activities it is not so easily spotted on the shelves. Maria Montessori described grace and courtesy as “preparing the child for the forms of social life.” It involves manners and social awareness and can be seen in how children interact with friends and adults. Manners vary from culture to culture and from house to house, but no matter the lesson being taught Maria Montessori gave us a method for how to do it.
It is important to remember that children need to be taught, and re-taught, lessons on grace and courtesy; manners are not instinctual knowledge. Just as you would not expect to teach a child how to behave during a 12-course meal all in one lesson, you cannot expect to teach all manners in one day. Instead, begin to identify lessons you want to focus on and teach them in isolation. Many of these lessons might be inspired by parental frustrations, such as children interrupting when they’re on the phone, or not sitting still on the bus.
As with learning to care for the self and the environment it is important to model the behavior to our children, they are more likely to pick up on what we do than what we say, and also to create an environment for them that gives space for mistakes and practice. Demonstrations, practice, and role play are very important in making sure your child understands the lesson and for building confidence in the new skills. If you’re teaching about how to introduce friends, you can do a demonstration with a partner and have your child watch, then they can practice it with you. You can role play whispering in the library before you go to the library, so they will be comfortable doing it once they are there.
Control of Movement
Alongside all the skills already mentioned in care for the self, care for the environment, and grace and courtesy is the matter of movement control. The Practical Life work cycle, while on one level teaching the above mentioned skills, also creates a daily practice of learning to control one’s body and movements. As a child goes to the shelf to choose a Practical Life tray they must hold and balance the tray as they walk to the table, pull out the chair, and use fine motor skills to conduct the activity. When they finish they must stand up, push in their chair, and walk to return the tray to the spot they first found it in on the shelf. They do this all quietly and carefully to respect their friends who are also working.
Teaching and practicing control of movement at home is a matter of awareness; in every activity a child must control their bodies in some manner, and we should pay attention to how they move and give them opportunities to focus on these skills. Two popular activities in the Montessori classroom that can easily be adapted for home are Walk the Line and The Silence Game.
Practical Life, as its name suggests, is about empowering children to operate independently and confidently in their various environments. A dedicated area of learning in their Montessori classrooms, Practical Life is also translatable to their home life.
Understanding the reason why Montessori educators focus on Practical Life, and how they teach it, can allow parents to support and further their child’s Practical Life schools by working on them at home.