If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting a Montessori classroom, you’ve probably noticed the Practical Life area. Small wooden trays with pitchers filled with beans, baskets containing miniature spoons and bowls line the shelves. Young children walk with such concentration from table to shelf and shelf to table over and over again. They fill glass pitchers at the sink and walk without spilling one drop on the floor. You might even see children using real knives to slice bread or cheese.
As beautiful as it is to watch, you still might wonder WHY you would send your child to a school to learn how to pour beans and tong pom-poms. But for a child, Practical Life is developmental paradise. Maria Montessori wrote that “the skill of man’s hands is bound up with the development of the mind”. When children train their hands, they train their minds. Practical Life works are meant to hone fine motor skills, foster an awareness of the surrounding world, and even train a child to function independently at home.
At its most basic level, Practical Life is designed for a child to develop life skills. There are works to help children dressing themselves, like buttoning and zipping. Children who master pouring can give themselves a drink of water. Children who know how to use a butter knife can prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich anytime they get hungry. Children who can take care of themselves have confidence to face the world.
Carefully curated Practical Life shelves are sequenced from simple to complex. As the level of difficulty increases, children move from introduction of a skill to mastery of it. Additionally, each work is self contained and meticulously prepared in its tray, which allows for undisturbed concentration. Once children have settled into an activity, there is no need to stop for missing or broken items.
But what makes each work uniquely Montessori is that they are designed in such a way to prevent misuse or mistakes without an adult’s direct interference. Montessori guides call this the “control of error”. If a peg board has 9 holes, the tray will contain 9 corresponding pegs. This means that a child may ascertain the purpose of a work even without a lesson. The control of error is a personal discovery in the work that awaits the child. Through the control of error, the child learns to look for motivations and guidance within himself.
Not only do personal discoveries await children in Practical Life works, but also more direct, tangible skills are learned, preparing children for reading and writing. Fine motor skills are preparation for writing. Tonging promotes proper pencil grip. Sequencing left to right is pre-reading practice.
Going further, not every Practical Life skill is exercised on a tray at a table, so some parents may not have seen them in use. Other works maintain the shared environment of the classroom. Sweeping, watering plants, mopping and scrubbing teach children to function in a community. After mastering sweeping as an isolated work, a child will begin to sweep up dirt from around the classroom. In that way, a classroom is an environment that fosters responsibility.
After coming to understand the importance of Practical Life works in the classroom, you might consider bringing some Practical Life works into your home. A small shelf in the living room or den is plenty of room for a few trays. Think about your child and what tools would work best for them: fingers, strawberry huller, tongs, or tweezers are all appropriate ways to transfer small items from bowl to bowl (with varying degrees of difficulty). Water works work best in our kitchen, but do they work for your home at all? The benefits of Practical Life will meet your family where you are, and will fit your needs.
What do you do at home?
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