Practical Life. Purposeful Work. A transition from home to school. A child’s introduction to Montessori. A cornerstone of Montessori Primary Education.
Every child begins in the Montessori Primary Classroom with Practical Life. You might hear stories of a child’s first days and weeks being filled with Bead Stringing, Pouring Grains, Sweeping, Scrubbing Tables. What possible use could this be to a child?
“They are passing through that period of life in which they must become masters of their actions.”
There are myriad reasons we extol the benefits of Practical Life. It is the foundation of a strong Montessori classroom.
Purposeful Work. On their very first morning, even on a visit to their future classroom, a child is shown Bead Stringing. This might be familiar from a different setting, such as home or daycare. We use large, wooden beads, and a string like a shoelace with a hard end to assist in the lacing.
You string these appealing, big beads, and return them to the shelf, ready for the next person to use. This helps a child be comfortable with work for the process of work, not in order to create a product. Much of our work stays at school, and doesn’t result in something to take home, and this starts even with returning the beads to the shelf.
Stringing beads is meditative. You struggle to get the string through the bead, and when you go to pull the string through, the bead falls off. Pick it up, try again. Montessori loves repetition. Repetition leads to concentration, mastery, and joy.
You get the hang of putting the beads on the string, and pretty soon there are no more beads to string. Take them all off, start again. String beads one hundred times, to your heart’s content. It’s rhythmic, soothing, satisfying.
Children love to contribute. It’s nice to be picked up after, it’s kind of fun to make a mess and have it magically disappear, but it’s incredibly satisfying to sigh, sleeves rolled up, and look at the big pile of debris you’ve just swept up from the whole classroom, to see the bucket beside you full of water that used to be all over the floor, to not have any more space left in the dish rack because you’ve washed all the plates.
Practical Life provides opportunities for children to help take care of themselves. It’s okay to miss the bucket when you’re pouring water; you know how to clean up a spill. How much confidence will you gain, how many more mistakes will you happily make, when you know you are capable of helping yourself?
Children want to be just like us. The whole world is off-limits to children. The sink is too high. The washing machine is a safety hazard. The broom is gigantic. You need a step stool just to brush your teeth.
The Montessori Classroom is a specially Prepared Environment, designed for each group of children who come tend to it each day, who learn within its walls, who grow until this is no longer just the right space for them.
You’ve never seen a table so small as one in the Montessori Toddler environment. There are twenty tiny chairs, short tables, and a sink that comes up to your knees in a Primary Classroom. This is a space designed for young children; adults are the ones out of place here. We feel uncomfortable, out-of-sorts, and we should; this is not our home. The whole world is designed for adults, and in this place, there is a small broom for small hands to help. There is a table just big enough to be scrubbed by three-year-old hands, not too heavy to be moved by those same hands. Buckets, brushes, trays are all the right size, but not for us, for Them. For the small in-formation humans this place was made for.
So, why do we have Practical Life? Is it the calmness that comes in waves as a child methodically unbuttons and buttons five times, or the stuck-out-tongue, a sure sign of struggle and determination (transferrable skills, to be sure, and absolute requirements for reading or for counting to a thousand, though they are not learned in language and math, that is certain), as they work those buttons the first or fifteenth or fiftieth time? Is it the joy as a child breaks the rules, shouting across the room, chair untucked, “I did it!!!” absolutely unbelieving of the magic they have just worked, and we rejoice with them as we walk back, return the Dressing Frame to the table, help the child settle in, saying, “Indeed, you did! You look so proud! Want to do it again??”
Is it the purposeful way a four year old has worked through the whole classroom, sweeping every bit of debris we couldn’t even see? Is it the sigh of the child who returns to Funnel Pouring after an hour of dividing fractions? Is it because confidence and knowing how to ask for help are transferrable, life-long skills? Is it the three-year-old who stands up just a bit taller after washing all the plates her friends used for snack?
“Rolling up a rug, brushing a pair of shoes, washing a wash-basin or floor, laying the table, opening and closing boxes or doors or windows, arranging a room, setting chairs in order, drawing a curtain, carrying furniture, etc. — all these are exercises in which the whole body is engaged, sometimes one, sometimes another movement being perfected. By means of habitual work, the child learns to move its arms and hands and to strengthen its muscles in a better way than by the usual gymnastics. But the exercises of Practical Life cannot be regarded as simple muscular gymnastics — they are part of the work.”
Written by:Charlotte Wood