Oct 2, 2007

characteristics of practical life activities

Removing kernels of corn

Here's a good example of a practical life activity that is culturally relevant here in rural Mexico. Sandra is removing the corn kernels, one by one. Later, she or another child will mill the corn outside. To complete the process, an older child who has had a lesson can make tortillas to share with the class as part of the day's snack:

Making tortillas - practical life

What is practical life? My short answer - everything the child does to care for herself and to help maintain the community in which she lives. Practical life is the basis of any Montessori community or any home. Without it, living in community, be it in a family or in a classroom, would be impossible. Here are just a few examples of practical life activities:

Wiping your nose
Setting the table
Washing your face
Preparing food
Washing dishes
Feeding the animals
Cleaning the house
Cleaning your shoes
Zipping your coat
Buckling your shoe
Doing the laundry
Caring for your garden

Some of these things we (adults) enjoy - some of them we come to abhor, and some of them we do without even thinking about it! Young children, on the other hand, truly enjoy the activities of practical life. They help them to develop coordination, concentration, and independence. In addition, they are gaining new skills, developing helpful and selfless habits, and learning to adapt to their culture.

Here are the basic characteristics of practical life activities:

Practical life exercises are things the child has already seen regularly in his family life. She might
have witnessed an older sibling, a parent, or a grandparent perform these tasks on a daily basis. Perhaps she has even done certain exercises before coming into the Montessori environment. This familiarity helps the child orient to her new classroom.

Culturally Specific
The exercises should be relevant in the child’s day-to-day life. For example, if the child lives in
Southeast Asia, the practical life exercises offered by the directress will differ from those offered in France. If the culture eats their meals with chopsticks, it would be useless to have an exercise dealing with setting the table with a spoon, fork and knife. Practical life activities should help the child adapt to her environment.

Providing the child with real, functional tools and activities conveys to the child that her work is
valued. (Another key point here is that the activities themselves should be purposeful. We must ask ourselves - is tweezing beads from one tray to another really a purposeful activity? Not really. While there are MANY activities that we could come up with that "help the child develop her pincer grip," these don't really have a place on the Montessori practical life shelf. Before putting an activity on the shelf, ask yourself: "Would I do this in my day-to-day life? Is this necessary to maintain my classroom (or home) environment? Or is this simply busy work?" Such busy work that the child enjoys and which helps her concentrate would, however, be very appropriate to place on a toy shelf.

Physically Proportioned
Well-proportioned tools help the child to fine-tune his motor skills and perfect precise movements. The size, weight and design of the material should be taken into account before offering it to the child. It should be heavy enough to provide tactile feedback to the child about the success of his movements, but should not be unwieldy or awkward in his small hands. Michael Olaf and Montessori Services provide wonderful child-sized items.

Breakable a.k.a. "Get rid of that sippy cup!
The value of glass in the environment extends beyond its aesthetic qualities; if the child recognizes that a piece of material is breakable, she will show care in her movements. In addition, a glass pitcher weights more than its plastic counterpart, giving the child feedback on her actions. In the event of a breakage, the teacher acts very detached and impartial about the accident. She does not lecture: she simply states that it should be swept up. The teacher removes the broken material and its corresponding exercise from the shelf and waits for several days before replacing it. This gives the children an appreciation of and respect for the material, knowing that it cannot be immediately replaced.

The material should be aesthetically pleasing, clean, and functional. Children are attracted to
beauty and order, and the teacher recognizes this and assures that all of the exercises and materials are ready for the children before the start of the day. (A word about plastic, here. Instead of filling your home or classroom with plastic trays, take a visit to your local thrift stores! Thrift stores, in fact, are the BEST place to look for trays. On one trip a while back, I was able to fill a large box with the most beautiful silver trays - each one original. The advantage of silver trays? You can now put out a silver polishing activity!)

Color-coding the exercises to indicate level of difficulty helps the child to choose work independently. It also adds to the beauty and order of the environment. Do not sacrifice beauty for color, however. Like I said, a silver or brass tray is much more desirable than an orange plastic one.

Order is found throughout the practical life exercises. The exercises are presented in order of
difficulty and then displayed on the shelves in order of difficulty. The teacher places the more elementary exercises on the left of the shelf; the more challenging exercises are toward the right. The presentation of the exercises themselves remains consistent. The steps are clearly
demonstrated in sequential order. In an activity such as table washing, the teacher displays the necessary tools in the order in which they are needed, from left to right. This attention to order helps the child integrate and form connections between things in his environment.

The children are presented with enough activities so that their interest remains peaked. This
does not necessitate an exceedingly large number of exercises - even less if you are homeschooling! First, the environment should only contain exercises that are pertinent to classroom life. The child would be overwhelmed if presented with too many choices. Giving them a tenable number of choices helps them become decisive and come to understand their own preferences. In addition, the child’s natural tendency is toward repetition; therefore it is beneficial to have a limited number of activities on the shelves. If given the opportunity to repeat an exercise, the child will acquire a level of mastery, and the consequent independence. Instead of placing everything out at once, consider rotating activities to maintain interest.
Only one type of each exercise is on the shelf. If a classmate has already chosen the shoe polishing exercise, the child will have to choose an alternative piece of work. It is an important and constructive lesson to learn that one’s first choice is not always available. The child begins to understand that the classroom
community shares its resources.

Phew! Did you make it this far? Then you must really be interested in Montessori! If you want to learn more, join the Montessori By Hand Yahoo group in the side bar. Sign up for a nice little Montessori-style surprise! (Hint: read my most recently posted message to the Yahoo group.)


marit said...

Thank you for sharing- this was really interesting! I read and kept asking myself how I could apply this to MY everydaylife with children. Homeschooling is not an option, but there might be other opportunities/possibilities.
Have a nice day:-)

The Wooden Spool said...

Love this! So precious!!!! You are having so much fun, aren't you, Meg!

Bethany Hissong said...

I just looked at your Yahoo site and I think this is wonderful! I wish I had something like this when my children were this young. Though I still think the lessons you presented here could apply to upper elementary just as well. I love that you use real glass-- I always have at home too! You are a wonderful spokesperson for Montessori!!!

Amanda said...

Excellent information! I'm off to join the yahoo group now.

Joyful Abode said...

What a fantastic post. I really am interested in learning more about Montessori. I basically learned an overview in my education classes, but my sister teaches art in a Montessori classroom, and her kids attend the school and it seems really interesting and great.

How did you learn what you know? Was there a Montessori program you went through? Or was it independent learning?

Also, I was driving home tonight and somehow got "una gatita" stuck in my head. Thanks. haha.

Meg McElwee said...

Yay! "Una Gatita" is my hit single! (It's just one of those tunes that sticks in your head like super glue, right?)

I studied at the Washington Montessori Institute, which is associated with Loyola College of Baltimore. After I graduated with my M.Ed, I continued studying on my own time - but my most fantastic and influential teachers have been my students here in Mexico.

Steph said...

I love your blog so much. I haven't had much time lately online, so I am digesting every morsel you've posted the past month with a certain glee, late tonight, while everyone else here is sleeping.

You are one of the few who have inspired me to de-cloak the sewing machine and create more with my children. I somehow got lost for a while among other details, and it feels so good to regain center.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I love this post! I will be incorporating some Montessori principles into our daily life. Thank you so much!


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy Montessori ideas a lot. Although at present, the breakable part has been just that- breakable. For this particular child of mine, plastic that looks like glass is our safest option. I have said no to sippy's with my last two kids, and I must say they do so much better at such an early age with not purposely spilling water out of their cups.

And for anyone wanting to teach a young child how to drink from a straw...

Adult sucks up a bit of water with straw, and then covers the top end with finger.
Then put the straw in baby's mouth, taking your finger off a little at a time.
Repeat until the baby sucks without you removing your finger. Once they have done this, you can just keep the straw in the glass.

I didn't learn how to teach this until child number four, and it is a very handy skill for a young child to know.


Amy Lu said...


You are going to hit the ground running when you start the "mommy" segment of life!

Oh, to have such wonderful wisdom so early in life! If I have half the lessons you already know down pat by the time I'm 70, I would be thrilled!

Do you accept apprentices? (grin)

Marcy said...

What a fabulous and thorough explanation of Practical Life. =) Thanks for doing such a great job of sharing the wonders of Montessori!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog Meg and joined the Yahoo group this week. My son starts Montessori Cycle 1 in Melbourne Australia this week and I's so excited for him. Its been wonderful to share your day to day life within a Montessori school. Your work is inspiring. Thank you

Willow said...

I just found your blog via Red Yarn. I teach kindergarten in California. I am familiar with Montessori methods but I see that I have much to learn, not the least for my expected grandchild!

Jessica said...

Thanks for this post, Meg! As a homeschooling Mom this brought me back to what practical life activities should be in my home--PRACTICAL! A collection of tweezers and tongs is not what I need.

Thanks for the "aha" moment. I made a blog post all about it :)

michele said...

I enjoy reading your blog. My two children have just started montessori this year- from Waldorf and I am trying to understand more. Thank you for this insightful post.

Village Mama said...

This is wonderful, thank you for the gift of your knowledge, time to write this and sharing.

This Sunday I am giving my first private cooking class for the 6 and under crowd. Your photos have inspired me and given me the courage I need to be confident that all is going to work out just fine if I let the kids do even more than I'd planned.

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