When we first moved into the schoolhouse, the middle schoolers immediately began cooking the daily meal, and while it served to feed and nourish the whole community, more importantly it served as one of many “occupations” within the curriculum that led to progressive levels of community involvement and a fuller understanding of civilization and place.
These occupations, at another developmental level in the Montessori school, are better known as the exercises of “Practical Life”. They provide the child with activities that have intelligent purpose and build skills of independence. These activities teach the everyday living skills necessary to do things for oneself and to interact with others in a manner which is socially acceptable. For the younger child they serve to build a bridge from home to school by providing the child with the necessary tools proportioned to his size and the thoughtful means to do work done by adults in the home.
Dr. Montessori recognized that children not only require skills to care for themselves but utilize activity as the means for development. She sought to build into her practical activities movement that is orderly and directed by the mind to an intelligent purpose. While the work the children practice builds their abilities, they also subtly learn to concentrate, sustain their attention for long periods of time, and control and coordinate their movements.
The benefits derived from this productive real work lie in what Montessori termed as “normalization”. This state of activity is characterized by four key observable behaviors:
1) Love of work, a kind of spontaneous enjoyment derived from the work itself
2) Concentration, a special absorption of genuine interest in the activity
3) Self-discipline, demonstrated by a responsible perseverance to completion
4) Sociability, characterized by a harmonious working relationship with others towards a common goal
At all ages these fundamental benefits aid in the healthy development of the personality and have a positive impact on the child’s ability to achieve academically. Yet of equal benefit is the development of the individual’s self esteem and his social relations with his peers.
For adolescents these occupations are the point of engagement in the collective work of the community. Adolescents begin to fuse the heart and the mind, thinking from the heart. The work of the hand, the mind and the heart come together in these occupations. The adolescent comes to know that participation is what makes their community work, that their mission starts here, in this place. So these occupations are not only a source of meaningful work, but is work that can be valued by all the members of the community, work that challenges the mind and the body, work that is recognized as legitimate by the culture, work that has economic validity, work that is made noble by being done with integrity and passion. These occupations provide the means for the adolescent to belong and be valued.
As an occupation, cooking is the ultimate interdisciplinary exercise which builds the bridge between the individual and their community. Cooking for the community provides meaningful practical work that is engaging, experiential and collaborative. It provides challenges that are both social and intellectual. It engages the body in movements that are refined and intelligently directed. It requires a high level of coordination and a sense of timing. It constantly applies skills in mathematics and the sciences, as well as connecting us with our own culture and history.
In these ways the daily meal not only nourishes the body, but serves the collective needs of the whole community. Each student may benefit from the activities that lead up to the meal, but the coming together of the community for a common meal strengthens us all each day.