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The Lesson in Practical Life Skills

Ahhhhh, Practical Life, the heart of the Montessori classroom…….

The Practical Life area of the Montessori classroom is much more than meets the eye. An observer of the physical layout of the classroom sees the beautiful, ordered physical skills works laid out sequentially on the shelves. He may also observe the methodical pouring, squeezing, scooping, spooning of these works, as the child works so carefully left to right, practicing time and time again so he doesn’t spill a drop. The observer may also see the child-sized brooms and dustpans, the individual drinking cups and the feather duster hanging in the corner; all tools to assist the child in maintaining his environment. And one can even see a child’s grace and courtesy skills manifesting themselves through a quiet “please” or “thank you” or as a child lays their hand on a teacher’s arm, rather than verbally interrupting that teacher.

But what you don’t necessarily see so easily with the naked eye are all the direct aims of the Practical Life exercises: the new found independence, the concentration that transfers into other tasks, the coordination as the child refines her body movements, and the inner sense of order which permeates all aspects of a child’s life. These are the true skills that your child is absorbing, to take into a lifetime of learning.

Excerpts from: The Lesson in Practical Life Skills

By: Tim Seldin, President of the Montessori Foundation

From Tomorrow’s Child magazine, September 2014

There is this wonderful photograph from the early years of this last century that captured a small child in a Montessori school carefully ladling soup into bowls for his fellow students’ lunch. I’m sure that his parents wondered: “What has this got to do with helping children learn to read and write?”

The exercises of Practical Life are the very heart of the Montessori approach with young children. As they wash tables, pour liquids, polish silver, sweep and dust, they are developing an inner sense of order, concentration, coordination and independence. It is through the process of caring for their environment, meeting their own needs and helping others, this process that we call the area of Practical Life, that Montessori children begin to learn how to learn.

The following excerpt from a description of a child’s day in Montessori exemplifies what I mean:

A Day in the Life of a Montessori Child

It’s about 10 am now, and Nicholas is hungry. He wanders over to the snack table and prepares himself several pieces of celery stuffed with sun nut butter. He pours himself a cup of apple juice, using a little pitcher that is just right for his small hands. When he is finished, Nicholas wipes off his placemat.

Clearing up his snack has put Nicholas in the mood to really clean something and he selects table washing. He gathers the bucket, little pitcher, scrub brush, towel and soap needed and proceeds to slowly and methodically scrub down a small table. As he works, he is absorbed in the patterns that his brush and sponge make in the soap suds on the table’s surface. Nicholas returns everything to its storage place. When he is finished, the table is more or less clean and dry. A four-year-old washes a table for the shear pleasure of the process; that it leads to a cleaner surface is incidental. What Nicholas is learning, above all else, is an inner sense of order, a greater sense of independence and a higher ability to concentrate and follow a complex sequence of steps.

Noticing that the plants need watering, Nicholas carries the watering can from plant to plant, barely spilling a drop. He moves freely around the class, selecting activities that capture his interest. In a very real sense, Nicholas and his classmates are responsible for the care of this child-sized environment. When they are hungry, they prepare their own snack and drink. They go the bathroom without assistance. When something spills, they help each other carefully clean things up. We find children cutting raw fruit and vegetables, sweeping, dusting, washing windows. They set tables, tie their own shoes, polish silver and steadily grow in their self-confidence and independence.

The real object of Montessori education is not to teach children basic skills and knowledge; it is to create the foundation on which the child will construct the men and women they will become. Our goal is to lead children to self-discovery, self-mastery and to nurture the fragile flame of their curiosity, creativity and imagination. Ultimately, this helps them master the very process of learning, which is based on patience, observation and the willingness to accept their own intelligence. This is an education of the heart and mind, as much as of the intellect.

The Montessori class for children between the ages of three and six is a community of children, a children’s house or “casa”. What Maria Montessori established was more than an elaborate kindergarten in which children learn to read and write. Montessori offers a social and emotional environment where children are respected and empowered as individual human beings. It is an extended family, a community in which children truly belong and take care of one another.

Within this safe and empowering community, young children learn to believe in themselves and their abilities. In an atmosphere of independence within community and personal empowerment, they never lose their sense of curiosity and innate ability to learn and discover. Confident in themselves, they find that mistakes are not something to be feared but rather the opportunity to learn from experience.

The Montessori classroom for three-, four- and five-year-olds is designed to be a children’s house. The children are encouraged and delighted to participate fully in the actual life of the little community. They help to prepare snacks, clean the environment and maintain things. In this way, they develop not only muscular control and simple competency over little tasks, but a deep sense of self-respect and independence.

Success in school is directly tied to the degree to which children believe that they are capable and independent human beings. If they knew the words, even very young children would ask “Help me learn to do it myself!”

We allow students to develop a meaningful degree of independence and self-discipline, we also set a pattern for a lifetime of good work habits and a sense of responsibility. In Montessori, students are taught to take pride in their work.

The ability to control one’s body and to move carefully and gracefully around the room, often carrying things that must not be dropped, is an important aspect of the practical life lessons. The children walk along a line on the floor, heel to toe, carefully balancing while carrying small flags. They will do the same task while carrying things on tray or cups on saucers.

Learning how to work and play together with others in a peaceful and caring community is perhaps the most critical life skills that Montessori teaches. Montessori schools are intended to be close-knit communities of people living and learning together in an atmosphere of warmth, safety, kindness and mutual respect. Teachers become mentors and friends. Students learn to value the different backgrounds and interests of their classmates.

Everyday kindness and courtesy are vital practical life skills. Montessori students come to understand and accept that we all have responsibilities to other people. They learn how to handle the new situations that they will face as they become increasingly independent. Montessori students develop a clear sense of values and social conscience. Montessori consciously teaches students everyday ethics and interpersonal skills from the beginning. Even the youngest child is treated with dignity and respect.

“The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self.”

-Maria Montessori


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