What is Practical Life and Why Does It Matter?

Parents at Sonnet Montessori recently participated in an educational evening where they learned all about practical life, which is one of the most familiar and well-loved components of the Montessori classroom.

Practical life is a purposeful activity, meaning not only is it enjoyable for children to do, but that every activity and every step within the activity serves a purpose within early childhood development, as we will discover shortly.

What are “practical life” activities?

The practical life exercises include care of self, care of the environment, and grace and courtesy (etiquette and social awareness).  They also include many very simple tasks that help the classroom work together, and work in the environment, respectfully.

These basic tasks include such things as:

  • rolling up a work rug
  • moving a chair
  • walking the line
  • cleaning up a spill
  • carrying a tray
  • grasping and transferring
  • opening and closing containers
  • spooning
  • pouring activities, etc.

 

Care of self includes:

  • hand washing
  • dressing frames
  • folding
  • toileting
  • putting on shoes or coats
  • weaving
  • sewing
  • preparing food – peeling, chopping, juicing, spreading, whisking, baking, cooking, sifting
  • setting a table, etc.
A student in the Toddler Community is learning to carefully carry a tray with a teapot while walking on the “line”.
A student in the Toddler Community is learning to carefully carry a tray with a teapot while walking on the “line”.

Care of the environment includes:

  • sweeping
  • washing dishes
  • arranging flowers
  • watering plants
  • dusting
  • hammering
  • keys & locks
  • nuts & bolts
  • washing windows
  • mirror polishing
  • metal or wood polishing
  • leaf polishing
  • sorting activities
  • scrubbing floors
  • scrubbing tables, etc.

 

Grace and courtesy focuses on cultivating respectful habits and social interactions, and ultimately, “global citizenship,” and includes lessons on:

  • greeting someone
  • conflict resolution and peace making
  • opening doors
  • serving oneself food (lunch, snack)
  • excusing oneself
  • waiting for help
  • excusing one’s self
  • observing others
  • accepting help
  • giving help
  • asking for permission
  • asking someone to move
  • working with a friend on a task
  • blowing one’s nose
  • waiting for a turn
  • saying hello, goodbye, please, thank you
  • table manners
  • not interrupting
  • making eye contact
  • apologizing
  • tone of voice
A Children’s House student is caring for a plant by polishing its leaves.
A Children’s House student is caring for a plant by polishing its leaves.
A student in the Toddler Community enjoys hammering golf tees into a pumpkin.
A student in the Toddler Community enjoys hammering golf tees into a pumpkin.

What is the purpose of “practical life” activities?

Some parents may wonder why their child is “wasting time” doing practical life exercises.  They may ask, “Shouldn’t my child be doing math worksheets or language work?”

Practical life exercises are not just about gaining the skill itself. There is always a direct and indirect purpose. For example, juicing an orange. The direct purpose? To make a delicious glass of juice for the child to enjoy!  But the indirect purpose could be any of the following:

  • building a child’s sense of order and concentration
  • developing coordination of movement
  • developing control over their body
  • aiding the child in their journey towards independence
  • developing a sense of responsibility
  • developing a pattern of working left to right, as a preparation for language and writing (practical life exercises are set up and displayed on a tray in a way that children work through the materials left to right)
  • sequential thinking (as the child learns to follow more and more complex motor sequences, it prepares their mind for future academic studies which will require a sequence of steps)
  • building skill and mastery through resilience (persisting through mistakes and learning from them) as well as confidence (“I can do this, I am capable!”)
A student polishing rocks.
A student polishing rocks.

The “academic” studies of math and language require a child to be able to concentrate, follow a sequence, be resilient and independent.

The skills needed for academic success are begun and mastered in activities like those that are performed in the practical life area of the classroom.  Never underestimate the value of practical life exercises!

When is my child old enough to learn “practical life” activities?

The practical life journey begins in the Infant Community where they first learn to wipe up little spills or wipe their own noses! In the Toddler Community, the children enjoy spooning and pouring work. Table scrubbing is also an activity that they love doing, as it meets their need for gross motor movement! They also enjoy peeling clementines and other beginning food work. In the Children’s House community, the practical life exercises expand to include activities with multiple steps and that require greater concentration.

Why and how to incorporate practical life activities at home?

The practical life exercises are rewarding ones to incorporate into the daily life of your child at home! Young children love to contribute to the life of their family, and it gives them a sense of belonging and significance when we entrust them with tasks! The same skills developed in the classroom can be supported at home through intentionality in giving your child opportunities to exercise their practical life skills.

If you’re interested in supporting these parts of your child’s development at home, the good news is that you don’t have to set up the coordinated practical life activity trays and present them to your child! It can be as simple as slowing down and inviting your child into the care and keeping of the home and by modeling and encouraging care of self, environment and that of grace and courtesy.

  • Inviting your child to work beside you on household chores, in the garden, or care for the family pets, etc.
  • Give your child independence in the care of the home environment: it can become their responsibility to dust the shelves on Saturday; it can become their responsibility to put the clean silverware from the dishwasher into the drawer.
  • Invite your child to be a helper in the kitchen. As you prepare dinner, can your child wash the vegetables? Can they grate the cheese? Can they chop the carrots using an age-appropriate chopper?
  • Give your child independence in the kitchen. Recipe cards using simple instructions or photos can help your child feel capable and enable them to prepare a snack from start to finish!
  • Set up your home in a way that supports your child’s independence. Can you move their cups, plates and silverware to a lower shelf? Can you designate a low drawer in the refrigerator or a basket in the pantry for their (parent-approved) snacks? Can you create an accessible “wardrobe” where you can set out a few outfits and other items needed for dressing themselves, offering them limited choice? (Limited choices are the best at this phase of development!)
A student juicing an orange.
A student juicing an orange.

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