An Introduction to Practical Life

By Heidi Philipart

Practical Life activities are the activities of everyday life and they are involved in all aspects of life. The child observes these activities in the environment and gains knowledge through the real experience of how to accomplish life skills in a purposeful way. These activities are cultural and specific to the child's time and place. Practical life activities help give the child a sense of being and belonging, established through participation in daily life with us. Through practical life the child learns about his culture and all about what it is to be human. Generally the activities of practical life revolve around four areas: Caring for the Self, Caring for the Environment, Grace & Courtesy and Movement of Objects. There is another area which encompasses all four areas and which is a very important part of practical life, namely food. Practical Life activities are an integral part of any Montessori environment.

“When we speak about the behaviour of men and animals, we refer to their purposeful movements. This behaviour is the centre of their practical life. It is not just the practical life in a house, cleaning rooms, watering plants, etc., that is important, but the fact that everyone in the world must move with a purpose and must work, not only for himself but also for others. It is strange that man's work must also be work in service of others; if this were not so, his work would have no more meaning than gymnastic exercises. All work is done not only for ourselves but also for others. Even something as frivolous as dancing would be pointless without an audience. The dancers, who perfect their movements with so much trouble and fatigue, dance for others. Tailors who spend their lives sewing could not wear all the clothes they make themselves. Yet tailoring, like gymnastics, requires lots of movements.

If you have a vision of the cosmic purpose, that every life in the world is based on this movement with a purpose, you will be able to understand and better direct the children's work. In the beginning, children are urged by nature to be active. They are happy when they are active. They begin to develop the behaviour of humanity with its limits and its possibilities. Movement is closely connected to psychic life; we must move with intelligence, will, character, etc.”

Montessori, Maria. The 1946 London Lectures.

Remembering the capacities of the absorbent mind, it should be noted that the way adults perform their everyday activities impacts the child and his eventual performance of these tasks. Initially these activities are done to the child and around the child.  By doing these activities to the child and around the child, the child feels important and gains self esteem, because someone cares about him enough to do these activities to him and around him. He learns to trust that he and his environment will be cared for and his needs satisfied.

In the beginning these activities are done to the child but very soon the child will start to collaborate with the adult. For example, holding his leg out for the opening in his underpants but still requiring the adult to assist him in pulling up the underpants. This is seen very early on in the child's development and it is a gradual process, reliant on the adult’s observation skills to only give the amount of assistance needed. The amount of assistance needed varies from child to child, some children only need us to be nearby. Even so, the child will eventually do these activities independently.

When the child is walking and the hands are free we see a child that wants to actively participate in his environment. Before this time he has observed and absorbed the concepts of practical life, learning the specific activities such as washing dishes and also who performs these activities. Therefore the child comes to the Infant Community with past experiences in these activities. Some will have had a lot of experience and for some children it may be the first time they are allowed to actively participate in the practical life activities. In the Infant Community we offer real experiences to allow purposeful work. Through this participation the child comes to be a member of the community by taking care of himself and providing service to the community and others.

Characteristics of Practical Life Exercises

  •  Reality-Based: The activities need to be based in reality. We wash dirty dishes with real soapy water, we clean shoes with real polish and cut fruit with a real knife. There is safety in reality.

  • Not Limited: It is a big mistake to think practical life activities are limited by what you have learnt in your training. They are limitless as they will depend on the cultural and environmental needs which will vary so much from environment to environment and country to country. You can create your own by following the theoretical guidelines of what a practical life activity is.

  •  One of Each: While there is no limit to the amount of practical life activities you can have in the environment, there should only be one of each activity. This helps the child to learn that he has to wait and life is not always about immediate gratification. As a result of this the materials become more valued. You can always have spare activities in storage to swap out if one gets broken, but there should only be one on the shelf at a time.

  • Self Contained: The materials are contained in a basket, tray or set out on a stand in a particular space. All materials should be complete, prepared and ready for use. The adult in the environment is responsible to make sure the activity is prepared with everything the child will need for successful completion of the activity. This helps the child's human tendency and sensitive period for order and it is this external order that helps the child to internalise order.

  • Complete: The activity needs to be complete. If something needs to be replaced at the end of the activity we show the child how to re-stock the activity. If the activity is incomplete for whatever reason, broken or missing component, the adult needs to complete it or remove it from the shelf.

  •  Location of Materials: The materials should be placed out in their groupings, such as, food activities in the food prep area, the button frame in the care of self  area and so on. Water activities should be near a water source to aid the child in performing the activity successfully.

  • Sequential: Each activity has a beginning, middle and end. One of the cues for beginning an activity, can be putting on an apron. If the child has an apron on, so should the adult wear an apron.

  • Colour – Coded: Each item in the activity should be colour coordinated or expressed on each item so that the child can identify which items belong together and able to replace pieces successfully. You can use neutral materials and colour code with paint, electric tape, ribbon, etc if coordination is difficult.

  •  Manageable Container: The containers must not be too small or too big for the child to handle. Trays and baskets need to be deep enough to hold contents and thereby prevent items falling out when being carried.

  •  Functional: All materials should have a clear purpose and function in the appropriate manner. There is nothing worse than a utensil that does not do the intended task. The knife really needs to cut. If the utensil does not do its intended task then the child will look for something else to do with it (inappropriate use) or will think that he is unable to do the task that he has seen so many others do. The adult needs to be mindful of the child's abilities when testing the materials.

  •  Child-Sized: Materials must be proportional to the child. Even the size of a sponge or brush must fit the child's hand so the child can use it successfully.

  •  Proportional Items: The materials of an activity must be proportional to each other and functional in terms of size. For example, the bucket must be small enough for the child to handle but big enough to hold all the water necessary for the exercise.

  •  Natural Materials: Natural materials offer more opportunities for multi-sensorial experiences are more aesthetically pleasing and nicer to the touch.

  •  Easily Cleaned: The materials must be cleaned regularly and be hygienic to use. Natural materials are easier to clean and harbor less bacteria.

  •  Safety: While materials need to be functional the priority is to safety. The use of non-toxic materials is recommended. Sharp objects need to have rounded ends and corners that are sharp should be sanded or covered.

  •  Orderly: Order must always be in a logical sequence, whether it is how you present the material or lay the activity out on the shelf. Before a presentation we lay out the material in order of use. The activities on the shelf should be ordered from simple to more complex from left to right.

  • Cultural: Practical life activities should reflect the culture of the child's environment, here and now. Choose activities which are prevalent in the culture. There should be no activities that have no relationship to the life the child is living. For example, if there are no windows in the environment there should be no window cleaning exercise.

Role of the Adult

For many children it is like living in the land of the giants. As adults working and caring for children it is our duty to provide an environment in which the child can fully, happily and actively participate in daily life.  Some children will enter the Infant Community having had very little experience of assisting or being part of their daily life on a practical level. Whereas some will enter having had a lot of experience and sometimes a child will already know how to do part of an activity. We must honour each child's varying experiences. We must realise that the child will not do the activity as well as we do it and we must accept the child's abilities.

At the 0-3 level we develop the skills needed for Practical Life, through modeling and collaborative presentations. On the 3-6 level we refine these skills giving formal presentations, working towards increased concentration, exactness and precision. On both levels, the Practical Life exercises teach the child sequencing, develop concentration and aid in language development. The Practical Life exercises prepare the child for the Sensorial Exercises of the 3-6 environment and the everyday activities of his life, producing a contributing independent member to his world.

“The adult must acquire the sensitivity to recognize all the child's needs; only thus can he give the child all the help that is necessary. If we were to establish a principle, it would be that what is necessary is the child's participation in our lives, for in that period in which he must learn to act, he cannot learn well if he does not see how, just as he could not learn language if he were deaf. To extend to the child this hospitality, that is, to allow him to participate in our lives, is difficult, but costs nothing; it depends solely on the emotional preparation of the adult………… Dust cloths ought to be multi-coloured, brushes brightly coloured and soap interestingly shaped. Attractive objects invite the child to touch them and then to learn to use them; he will be attracted to a brightly coloured cloth and learn that it is used to dust tables, or to the brush for his clothes, or to the soap with which he must wash his hands. In this fashion, beautiful things will attract him from every corner and instruct him practically by themselves. Now it is no longer the teacher who says to the child entrusted to her, "Carl, brush yourself off", or, "John, wash your hands". Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence.”

Dr. Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family.