“Practical Life” is the name coined by Dr. Montessori to explain an area of curriculum in the Montessori method that departs dramatically from traditional forms. Practical life activities refer to the necessary everyday functions that we all perform to care for ourselves, maintain our physical environment and interact with others in a socially acceptable manner.
These activities are essential for all children to learn so that they may acquire the behaviors required to become both independent and join the larger community in which they live. It is also recognized that these patterns of behavior form the basis of culture, the distinguishing attribute of the human species, which forms the basis of the development of the personality. Therefore, practical life activities are the fundamental bridge, which we all must cross to join the society in which we live while maintaining the integrity of our own individuality.
Educators lose sight of the importance of this work in childhood, focusing only on the adult perspective that work is a means to an end, the process of which should be speedy and economical in both time and effort. The result of the adult’s work is the resolution of the task at hand, the product being more important than the process. In addition, any division of labor is desirable, for “many hands make for light work”. It is this attitude towards work, which becomes the fundamental obstacle to the child, his work is unique and different.
“But the child too is a worker and producer. If he cannot take part in the adult’s work, he has his own, a great important, difficult work indeed-the work of producing man.”1
The work of the child is process oriented, for the result is not the completion of a task, but rather the development of attributes of character and personality, which form the basis for his individuality. This work allows him to inculcate his culture and join society, he is indeed, “the father of man”. The activity that characterizes this important motive of the child must no only be understood but also nurtured by adults.
“When a little child works he does so not to attain an outward end. The aim of the work is the working…his work is the satisfaction of an inner need, a phenomenon of psychic maturation.”2
In this understanding lies the basic aim of practical life activities. The practical life exercises performed by children provide motives for each child to channel his energies into constructive activity, and act as the grist for the mill of psychic maturation.
“Pleasant activities are also provided, because we know that development results from activity. The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences”.3
What better activities are there to provide than the ones the child sees performed by the adults he loves and cares for, yet he is rejected time and again from joining in due to their ignorant attitudes and the unwieldy tools. By isolating the difficulties and devising child-sized tools, Dr. Montessori was able to make it possible for the child to perform these activities, not just imitate them. It is no wonder that the exercises of practical life continue to be a favorite amongst children all over the world after 80 years since their inception. How disappointing is it that other methods of early childhood education have not incorporated these truly developmental functions into their programs. While children continue to play house without satisfaction of accomplishment in other methods, at Montessori schools all over the world children “do” house with results that are not only rewarding but constructive for their development.
The exercises of practical life have as their goal more than the channeling of the child’s work into constructive activity. They also form a comprehensive movement training curriculum, one which goes beyond physical education.
“In ordinary schools it usual to call by the name ‘gymnastics’ a kind of collective muscular discipline the aim of which is to carry out movements under commands given to a whole class…These different kinds of movements have been found useful in order to counterbalance the muscular inertia of pupils who have to follow a sedentary life in their studies…All these methods, however, are reactions from a life wrongly understood…”4
Educators, having attitudes which divide into categories work and play, have seen exercise and freedom of movement as a panacea to the natural urges of the child. They constrict freedom of movement to the play yard where children idle away their time in fantasy play or have as a means of constructing their personality sandboxes and water tables which provoke nothing for the intellect.
“He is the Forgotten Citizen, who lives in a world where there is plenty for everyone else, but nothing for him. In the empty world he wanders aimlessly, getting constantly into mischief, breaking his toys, vainly seeking satisfaction for his spirit, while the adult fails completely to realize what are his real needs.”5
The educators structured learning activities are normally in groups in which the children must sit quietly and “behave”, like Montessori once observed “transfixed butterflies”.
“Making muscular movement penetrate into the very life of the children, connecting it with the practical life of every day, formed a main part of the practical side of our method, which has introduced education in movement fully into the indivisible whole of the education of the personality of the child.”6
Montessori education incorporates a sequential unfolding of movement activities which bring under the child’s control of his own movements and aid him in coordinating these movements to the purpose of his conscious mind. These activities not only meet the child’s physical need but also a deep- rooted psychic need.
Much of the focus of these practical activities is on the hands, which are really the tools of the mind. The child
“…becomes fully conscious and constructs the future man, by means of activity…He does it with his hands, by experience, first in play and then through work. The hands are the instrument of man’s intelligence.”7
An entire portion of the exercises are therefore devoted to helping the child bring under control and coordinate this hand movements.
“Before the year is out his hands become busy in various ways which to him, one may say, are so many kinds of work: the opening and closing of cupboards, of boxes with lids, the sliding of drawers in a cabinet, taking corks and stoppers out of bottles and replacing them, removing oddments from a basket, and putting them back. It is by dint of these efforts that he comes to acquire more and more control over his hands.”8
Mental development is thereby promoted through movement exercises.
“…mental development must connected with movement and be dependent on it. It is vital that educational theory and practice should become informed by this idea.”9
Practical life exercises provide opportunities to synthesize the work of the hands and the mind as the prerequisite experiences necessary for the development of the intellect.
As a result of freeing the child to perform purposeful activities that were practical in nature and rich with activity, Dr. Montessori observed an emerging quality in the child’s personality.
“Having in our schools broken this barrier and torn aside the veils which hide the truth, having given the child real things in a real world, we expected to see his joy and delight in using them. But actually we saw far more than that. The child’s whole personality changed, and the first sign of this was the assertion of independence. It was as though he were saying: ‘I want to do everything myself. Now, please don’t help me’.” 10
A sense of dignity and respect for self emerges in all of us when we can do things for ourself. These satisfying moments build our self-esteem, and lay the roots of confidence for struggles in the future. It is this by-product of the practical activities which alerted Dr. Montessori to the benefits of the exercises. She was given to note that,
“Development takes the form of a drive towards an ever greater independence.”11
This independence comes by means of work and takes the form of an independence of the mind and body. Herein lies another of the many benefits of the practical exercise.
Montessori proposed that one of the child’s early guiding instincts was the sense of order. Appealing to this sense of order is more than creating a logical and graded sequence of the exercises of practical life. It must be understood as a form of guidance, which helps the child orient himself in a painfully confusing world. Order is more the connection between objects and their functions, a discovery of relationship. This is the real deep-rooted nature of knowledge, not ideas in isolation, but connected concepts. For this reason the child is sensitive to order, and while keeping things in their place is an outward manifestation of this sensitivity, it behooves us to understand the cause as opposed to the symptom.
“Nature gives small children an intrinsic sensibility to order, as built up by an inner sense which is a sense not of distinction between things but of distinction of the relationship between things, so that it perceives an environment as a whole with interdependent parts. Only in an environment, known as a whole, is it possible for the child to orient himself and act with purpose; without it he would have no basis on which to build his perception of relationship.”12
It is for this reason that the materials are structured in patterns of sensibility so that the child may decipher their relationship, and his patterns of behavior are altered to help him make a relationship with the real world around and with others. In this way the mind connects with movement to build intelligence and the spirit connects with others to build sociability. Order orients the work of the child for these purposes.
Appealing to the child’s sense of order also had another benefit which delighted Dr. Montessori, that of intense concentration in small children as exhibited by their repetition of activities vital to meeting their inner needs. After observing a child who would not be distracted from repeating an activity forty-two times she commented,
“Here was a peep into the unexplored depths of the child’s mind. Here was a very small child, at an age when attention flits from one thing to another and cannot be held down. Yet she had been absorbed in concentration such that her ego had withdrawn itself from external stimulus. That concentration was accompanied by a rhythmic movement of the hands, evoked by an accurately made, scientifically graduated object.”13
By giving the children freedom of choice and allowing them their own time to process an exercise this concentration was lengthened and strengthened. It is what Montessori said, “the children showed me”.
Given conditions that freed the child to work unhindered, with practical material which met basic inner needs and developed attributes of character, the children began to exhibit interest in relating to others with the dignity that they felt for themselves. Having been shown simple social functions such as laying the table and serving others as well as greeting guests (there were many visitors to the Casa dei Bambina) the children transcended their humble status and
“They learned to behave at table like princes, and they also learned to wait on the table like the best waiters…Truly, this is what was happening to our children. There was a resurrection from sadness to joy, with the disappearance of many faults, that are usually feared because considered incorrigible…”13
Though simple lessons in grace and courtesy the children became sociable and their characters were developed. This is why today we continue to provide simple lessons in grace and courtesy. It was not just lessons in social interaction that brought about the changes in the children. It was that the fundamental obstacles were removed in a prepared environment, and the child soon emerged from a cocoon of ego-centrism and wanted to interact and participate in the community.
“No sooner was the child placed in this world of his own size than he took possession of it. Social life and the formation of character followed automatically.”14
Further facilitating this process was the mixing of age groups, providing a community in which children could contribute by helping others less capable, and children could look up to others as models for their future. These combined characteristics form the fundamental reason why children become socialized in a Montessori environment.
In the end, the rationale for practical activities must reflect an understanding of the child. Each unique individual must be given time, means and scope to follow inner guides. The material we provide acts as a link between inner needs and the outer world. Our goal then is to provide the raw material for the child to construct himself from, and hope that it is more than just entertaining, for
“Happiness is not the whole aim of education. A man must be independent in his powers and character, able to work and assert his mastery over all that depends on him. This is the light in which childhood revealed itself to us, once consciousness had come to birth and begun to take control.”15