What's the deal with Practical Life?


Table Scrubbing

Do you ever wonder why Montessori classrooms have children scrubbing tables all day and what that could possibly have to do with your child’s education?


Well, fortunately for you, this has been on my mind quite a bit lately!


I have been putting up blog posts and Instagram posts recently featuring Practical Life activities that can be replicated easily at home. While I am putting together these activities, the greatest thing I wish to convey to parents is that the purpose is the opposite of what they think it is. So, I thought an in-depth look at the reasons behind the Practical Life activities would be a great exploration!


What is Practical Life?


So, let’s start at the very beginning, just in case we need a bit of clarification. The Practical Life area relates back to all the activities we do to care for ourselves and our surroundings. These may be things that are a part of creating, maintaining, and enriching our surroundings, such as flower arranging, sweeping, or food preparation.


Many of the activities presented to the children in the Practical Life area may seem boring or tedious to the adult. This is because as we become adults, they are responsibilities that we must complete, and often we have a time limitation set for them. The purpose of these activities is different for the adult compared to the child.


So, what are the purposes of the Practical Life activities?


Each Practical Life activity has two purposes: the direct purpose and the indirect purpose. The direct purpose the child may be more aware of, however, the indirect purpose they will certainly be unaware of. Interestingly, the indirect purposes set the foundation for future activities and learning, but they are not the reason why we offer these activities for the child, they are more like the icing on the cake!


Let’s take a deeper look


The direct purposes - there are three main direct purposes to Practical Life activities: Concentration, Control and Coordination of Movement, and Independence.


Concentration is the main purpose of these activities. This concentration can only be achieved when a child is doing something they are deeply interested in. You will know your child is deeply concentrated because they won’t hear any noises around them, much less their name being called! A child in this state is experiencing joy and when they connect that joy with the activity they are participating in, they will love that activity and want to repeat that activity. This skill will be greatly important as they grow older and are introduced to abstract concepts they will later study when they transition to elementary classrooms.


Control and coordination of movement is the next direct purpose of these activities. Through the repetition the child desires of a loved activity, they will begin to perfect their movements. For them, the activity is much less about what they are accomplishing, but how they are accomplishing it. With a variety of Practical Life activities available, a child will have many opportunities for different movements. Many of these movements lead up to the skill of writing, a very important skill we have!


Food Preparation

Children have an incredible drive for independence, and creating a Practical Life activity that provides all the necessary tools needed for the child to be successful will encourage them to repeat an activity. This ability to be successfully independent will also allow the child to build their self-confidence, gaining the knowledge internally that “Yes! I can do this!” And who wouldn’t want to have that be their internal voice! And how wonderful to have this voice when they are later presented with challenges such as algebra!


The indirect purposes - these are more of what we see as an adult as the main point of any given Practical Life activity: adapting to one’s culture (place setting for example) and gaining a skill.


The adaptation to the child’s culture is more subtle and even we as adults may be slightly unaware of it. This is best illustrated through an activity such as a place setting activity. Different cultures may have different pieces that are prioritized in setting the table and may have different tools used (forks, chopsticks, or no utensils at all!)


Finally, there is gaining a skill. I think this is what adults most likely think of as the main purpose of any Practical Life activity. Take any of the cleaning activities for example (sweeping, polishing, scrubbing, etc.) To adults, we can easily view the purpose of sweeping to be to get all the crumbs cleaned up and placed into the garbage as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, this is really a secondary purpose of the activity to the young child. The child will be picking up that skill, but they will likely be much more interested in how their hand moves to brush the surface of the floor while collecting crumbs, or how the crumbs bounce or don’t even make it near the dustpan.


Sweeping

It is not until the child is older, around 4.5-ish, and having had plenty of experience working with a practical life activity, that they start to become aware of the skills they have gained. It is later, after having the experience of many opportunities to explore the activity and the freedom to come back to that activity many times and take their time with it, they will start to use the skill to have a positive impact on their environment. They may one day say “Oh! There are some crumbs on the floor! I will get the sweeper and clean it up!”


So the next time you put together that Practical Life activity, remind yourself, your child will view this activity very differently from the way you view it. With time, repetition, and freedom of use, your child will transition to the skill, and along the way gain incredibly valuable abilities and a strong sense of self!


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