One area of great importance to Dr. Montessori in the 3 – 5 year old classroom is the work she called practical life. In fact, she believed practical life lessons are the foundation for everything else that happens in a Montessori classroom. It is real work that children enjoy. Montessori wrote, “All objects in practical life invite a child to do something that is a real task with a goal to be obtained.” It calls to their internal need for order. In life, this work never ends.
This area is designed to help students develop care for themselves, the environment, and each other. It also allows a child the opportunity to develop physical skills that they will need for future learning and everyday life. Dr. Montessori called this, control of movement. Children learn to care for themselves by practicing zippering, buttoning, tying shoes, hand washing and even using a tissue properly. They begin to care for their environment by taking care of plants and animals, scrubbing tables, washing dishes and polishing items. Taking care of each other is learned when a child picks up their work and leaves the space ready for the next person. This act shows empathy and it taught in a non-directional way. Works practiced to develop everyday skills needed in life are endless, some used include: using keys on real locks, hammering a nail, sewing and putting together a flashlight. All this work is purposeful and refines as a result of repetition and perseverance.
Each activity has its place in the classroom and is self-contained and self-correcting. Each activity leads directly to a new level of learning. This is accomplished by starting with simple skills and progressing to multiple skills; working with two hands and progressing to one handed tasks; the presentation of materials from left to right and top to bottom; and the difficulty of the task, starting with large motor skills and refining to fine motor control. Through practice and continuing challenges, children develop a sense of order, concentration, coordination and independence. These qualities become invaluable as the child moves on to upper grades, when the work changes from concrete to abstract.
Dr. Montessori stressed the importance of introducing and practicing these lessons during the 2.9 – 5 year old time frame, which she defines as the sensitive period for learning muscular movement with small objects. During this period, they are naturally attracted to these activities and learn them quicker and with less effort than at any other time. Additionally, there is a need for order in their environment because their internal thinking is not so organized. Developing order in their environment, allows for future internal order by opening the mind for higher skills.
Order is not the only skill developed which will help the child in their education. In practical life, children develop fine motor skills to prepare then for writing. Children use order to aid in language development and math. The ability to concentrate helps children in all subjects. Montessori wrote, “When mental development is under discussion, there are many who say, “How does movement come into it? We are talking about the mind.” But mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it. It is vital that educational theory and practice should be informed by that idea.”
The teacher must take great care in preparing the environment to meet these needs. Our preparations are an effort to support and reinforce the natural development path the child is on. We can offer materials, but we cannot force a child to participate and learn. We must draw children to activities that support their development. All activities must be neat, clean and attractive. Order in the space helps the child from becoming overloaded and unable to concentrate on the task at hand. Order also allows the child to memorize the environment and helps tune his observational skills. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create such an environment.
“Only practical work and experience lead the child to maturity.
~”Dr. Maria Montessori