Toward Best Practice in Montessori: The Exercises of Practical Life
The exercises in Practical Life are the very heart of Montessori education. As young children wash tables, pour liquids, polish silver, sweep and dust, they are developing the inner aptitudes of calmness, order, concentration, coordination, and fine motor skills. At the same time, through the process of learning to meet their own needs, learning to take care of the classroom environment, and through the experience of helping others, children in Montessori programs begin to develop independence, self-confidence, and self-respect.
Observations and Reflections on Current Practice
As Montessori consultants and teacher educators, between us we have observed hundreds of Montessori programs all over the United States. Among countless examples of beautiful environments and excellent Montessori classes at work, we have tended to notice that the area of Practical Life in many Montessori classrooms deserves a fresh look.
For example, in many early childhood programs, there seems to be the assumption that five-year-olds are ready for "real work." New Practical Life lessons are no longer presented and the older children are discouraged from wasting their time doing Practical Life activities. But while these children may have mastered the simple tasks that absorbed them when they were three, and while they may not particularly enjoy table scrubbing any longer, Practical Life is just as vital as it was before.
The key is to keep in mind once again the two distinct objectives of Practical Life at any age level:
to help children continue to develop a concentration, coordination, self-reliance, and self-discipline; and
to help children master increasingly challenging and developmentally appropriate tasks and situations that lead them toward the care of self and of the social community within which they live and learn.
Observation In many Montessori classrooms we see children rarely spending much time on Practical Life after age four-and-a-half, as if it is no developmentally or socially necessary.
Reflection The fine motor development that children are working toward in the basic Practical Life tasks needs to continue through the elementary years and into adolescence, as does the development of calmness, concentration, order, and independence. Often times in classrooms where teachers complain about children who are restless, disruptive, and unfocused, you see an absence or weak presence of Practical Life work.
Observation Many Montessori teachers rapidly rotate their Practical Life materials; every month we see new variations on the basic exercises.
Reflection Montessori pedagogy is based on allowing children to move toward self-mastery. If we rotate exercises out of the environment too quickly, we prevent them from mastering each task in turn. For example, when we begin to teach young children how too pour liquids, we show them how to hold the front of the pitcher with their non-dominant hand. The extension of this exercise comes when the child is ready to pour using just one hand.
Observation In many classes, we find a great many short sequence activities, such as cloth folding, water pouring, rice spooning, as opposed to the more complex sequence exercises, like table washing, dish washing, food preparation, and polishing.
Reflection If there is one developmental competency lacking in American children of all ages it is the ability to focus on one task through to completion. In providing children with Practical Life activities that are completed very quickly with just a few steps, we are not adequately addressing the need for children to interactively practice skills of concentration and perseverance. In following the many steps involved in washing a table, children learn to attend to an entire sequence of visual motor tasks.
Observation In many classrooms, Practical Life exercises tend to be discrete developmental tasks on a shelf. There is no transfer of the skills learned abstractly to the real life application of caring for the environment or oneself. For example, in some classes, children learn to sweep by pouring dried beans on the floor and sweeping them onto a square laid down with tape, but then fail to progress to taking charge of sweeping the room on a daily basis.
Reflection The Montessori classroom for three, four, and five-year-olds is designed to be a "Children's House." The children are guided to participate fully in the actual life of their community. They help to prepare snacks and meals, clean the environment, and maintain the order of the classroom. In this way, they develop not only muscular control and competency over daily tasks, but a deep sense of self-respect, independence, and interdependence.
Observation In many classrooms, we observe teachers presenting most of the lessons to younger children themselves instead of encouraging older children to take the lead.
Reflection Who ultimately do we want to own and operate the classroom community: the children or the adults? Who ultimately needs to learn to lead, mentor, and be mentored by their peers? Who ultimately ties the shoes in your classrooms? Who prepares the snacks? Who sets the tables, washes the dishes, and cleans up the spills? What is the role of the older children? Do they mentor and teach the younger ones?
Reprinted with the permission of the Montessori Foundation. © 2007 The Montessori Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
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