Toward Best Practice in Montessori: The Exercises of Practical Life (page 3)
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?
Toward best practice: Suggestions for enhancing the Exercises in Practical Life
When new materials arrive from the manufacturer, consider showing the children how to carefully unwrap and unpack them; just one more exercise in Practical Life and a first step toward appreciating the beauty of the materials and the importance of using them carefully.
Place a photo on each shelf showing how the entire shelf looks set up with all the materials that belong there placed in proper order. This allows the children to use the photo as a Control of Error whenever they take the materials off the shelves to work, dust, polish, or inspect them for damage.
When a piece of Montessori material needs repair, rather than taking it home or working on it after school, consider working on it right in the classroom when the children are present. Where appropriate and practical, teach the children how to help you repair or do simple repairs themselves.
Likewise, when you have new card materials that have been laminated, consider sitting back to quietly observe the children at work while you cut them out from the laminate. Older children can be taught how to help you with this process.
Demonstrate how you personally take responsibility for the care of the environment, and encourage the children to do likewise on a daily basis. Draw their attention to the small details, such as picking up stray paper, beads, or other debris from the floor.
In selecting trays, pitchers, and other utensils for Practical Life exercises, look for the most attractive materials that you can find and afford. Design activities that will draw the child's interest and create a prepared environment that is harmonious and beautiful.
If possible, avoid using plastic pitchers, bowls, trays, and other materials in preparing Practical Life activities. Children respond to the beauty of wood, glass, silver, brass, and similar natural materials.
Whenever possible, Montessori exercises are designed with a control of error. By the same principle, Practical Life exercises should be created with materials that will break if they are dropped or misused. This becomes a superb teaching tool for the child in the prepared environment, and an opportunity for a re-presentation by the teacher or further exploration by the child. It may also lead to a new lesson in problem solving ("How do I gather up all those beads?" or safely clean up the broken pieces. )
Practical Life exercises should not be confined to a small tiled area of the room, with the exception of exercises that may lead to damaged carpet or similar concerns. Practical Life should be integrated into every area of the classroom throughout the day, and should be a natural outgrowth and progression from the introductory shelf exercises designed to help the children gain initial mastery and control. For example, every shelf and piece of material in the prepared environment can be regularly dusted, washed or polished, and inspected for damage; books returned to order on the shelf; plants watered; and class pets feed.
In providing opportunities for young children to negotiate across the classroom carrying materials balanced on a tray, children are challenged to become courtesy and self aware of other's needs. Being careful not to step on other children's work or bump into them, walking slowly and carefully, and remaining aware of the tray's position in space are all integrated.
Two critical areas of Practical Life that are often underdeveloped are grace and courtesy (the language of respect) and lessons in control and coordination of movement.
A few grace and courtesy lessons
Saying please and thank you
Using an appropriate indoor voice
Asking for permission observe
Asking for assistance
Asking for permission to join in an activity
Declining a request graciously
Greeting visitors/offering coffee or tea/serving as a tour guide
Expressing complements and appreciation
Expressing one's feelings appropriately
Setting personal boundaries and being appropriately assertive
Experiences in the control and coordination of movement:
Montessori saw a direct correlation between the child's ability to move through the environment gracefully with control. In orienting and reorienting children into your class, take care to emphasize the importance of careful and purposeful movement.
Remember the importance of modeling the process of walking on the line every day. Teach the children to walk along the line that you have made on your classroom floor, walking heel to toe, carefully balancing their bodies while carrying small flags. They can do the same exercise while carrying things on trays or cups on saucers.
The under-utilized and unappreciated Silence Game:
The Silence Game helps children to develop a higher level of self-discipline, along with a greater awareness of the beauty of silence and subtlety of sound.
In this group activity, the teacher will get the children's attention either by ringing a small bell or by hanging up a sign with the command "Silence." The children stop where they are or gather on the line, close their eyes, and try to remain perfectly still. The children sit still with their eyes shut and wait to hear the teacher whisper their name. When they hear it ever so softly spoken, they silently rise and join the teacher. Sometimes the teachers will vary the Silence Game by challenging the children to carry bells across the room with allow them to ring, or they may use the calm atmosphere to introduce the children to guided visualization. At first the younger children may not be able to hold the silence for more than 20 or 30 seconds, but gradually their ability to relax, listen, and appreciate the perfectly calm environment increases. In many classes, the Silence Game is an important daily ritual.
A few examples of elementary and middle school exercises in Practical Life
Project and time management
Setting personal goals
Knowledge and respect for common laws
Care of one's clothing: ironing, using the washing machine, spot removal
Child care & baby-sitting
Mentoring younger children
Craft skills: how to make gifts
Earning your own spending money
First aid and CPR
Group communication skills
Growing flowers in the garden
Growing food in the garden
Growing plants in a greenhouse
Hobby skills: model building
How to resolve conflicts peacefully
How to use a public library
How to use public transportation
How to win and keep friends
How to writing formal letters
Map reading - finding your way about town
Nutrition: menu planning
Operating audio-visual equipment
Outdoor camping and hiking skills
Physical fitness: keeping in shape
Planning a luncheon for guests
Planning your own field trip
Practical politics: How to speak out effectively on public issues
Practical rules of social etiquette
Preparing food for a large group
Preserving food: canning, drying
Raising classroom pets
Raising small farm animals: chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, or sheep
Safety at home and school
Sewing and knitting: making clothes
Simple acts of charity and kindness
Swimming and canoeing skills
Test taking skills: playing the game well
The young citizen and the law
Typing: speed and accuracy
Using hand tools for simple carpentry
Writing and putting together a play
In summary, we recommend that Montessori teachers keep 5 points about Practical Life in mind:
Practical Life exercises have individual developmental objective like calmness, concentration, cooperation, self-discipline, and self-reliance.
Practical Life exercises have social objectives, such asx self-awareness, sensitivity to others, and service to the community.
To have meaning, Practical Life exercises must be applied to real life.
Lessons in Practical Life skills and their application to daily living are as important at age 18 as they are at age 3 and at every age in between.
As montessori teachers we bear the responsibility of setting the tone and serving as daily role models for Practical Life skills. We need to be poised, purposeful, precise, caring, and giving.
"In the special environment prepared for him in our schools, the children themselves found a sentence that expressed their inner need: "Help me to do it by myself!" His work will no longer weigh him down." Montessori
"No one can be free unless he is independent. Little children, from the moment they are weaned, are making their way toward independence." Montessori
"The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one's self." Montessori
"Such experience is not just play. It is work he must do in order to grow up." Montessori
"Just as the little child cries out "help me to do it by myself" through his actions, so does the older child demonstrate the same need at successive levels of sophistication as he grows." Montessori
Reprinted with the permission of the Montessori Foundation. © 2007 The Montessori Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
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