Practical Life

I began my journey as a Montessorian when my 17 year old was a little one in primary.  It was amazing to me, an experienced teacher, to see a classroom of thirty 3-6 year-olds choosing work independently, working with great concentration, and cleaning up their works on their own.  At his school, I was allowed to observe a complete morning work cycle as well as lunch.  It delighted me to see this hyper little son of mine beg his teacher to mop the floor.  It amazed me to see him take such delight in cleaning tables and polishing furniture at school, but puzzled me as to why he did not clean up so readily at home.  So I asked his teacher. My question was answered with a question of her own. "What sort of prepared environment are you creating at home?"

I realized then, that I did not expect my son to do any cleaning at home, nor did I invite him to work alongside me. Soon after, I found ways to incorporate his help with meal preparation, including packing his lunch, as well as basic chores such as emptying the dishwasher or setting the table.  By third grade, he was happy to scrub the toilets, wash and fold his clothes on his own, and follow recipes with little assistance.   Being a Montessori teacher helped me realize how much my children could do when I created an environment where their help was needed and wanted.  It did take more time in the beginning, but I was grateful that I kept stepping back and let my sons do their work, however imperfectly, because I knew he was going to eventually master those tasks and become enabled and empowered to master bigger challenges in the future.

Practical life in the Elementary Montessori classroom looks very different than in the primary environment. The foundation for practical life is laid at home and in the Children's House.  While in the 3-6 classroom, children learn practical life skills by working with individual works on the shelf, in the 6-9 or 9-12 classroom, these skills are integrated with all subject areas.  Because of the careful preparation laid in earlier years, children in the elementary are expected to be able to clean up after themselves in the classroom, manage their time and task completion on a daily basis, take care of plants and animals, and when they are ready, plan their own excursions outside the classroom.

Sometimes developing these skills needs extra guidance at home, particularly for those who may not have attended Montessori programs at that young age. Sometimes this means stepping back to let a child gain the practice of doing his work on his own, even if it is not as perfect as it could be.  Sometimes it means giving a needed lesson on a specific task, such as cleaning the bathroom, or using the washing machine.  Maria Montessori did not believe in doing everything for the child, but helping the child to do for themselves.

I usually begin the year in upper or lower elementary by asking children to complete practical life homework because often children do not realize how responsible they can be.  I ask students to pack their own lunches because I have noticed that children who pack their own lunches, not only eat all the food they bring, but they also gain a greater sense of responsibility. (In my own case, my second son, the picky eater, expanded his repertoire as he packed his lunch and planned and prepared meals.) Additionally, I sometimes ask students to get extra sleep for homework, when I notice they complain of fatigue or aches and pains during the work cycle.  Many do not realize what a big difference adequate sleep makes.  

When students tell me that it is their parent's fault that they did not return a permission slip, or slept in late, or didn't eat their lunch, I help them remember what they are capable of doing.  Even as a traditional kindergarten teacher, I was trained by a highly gifted master teacher to never tie shoes, button clothing, read the clock when asked, or spell out words they were trying to write because they were capable of learning ways to do it themselves. Unless there was a special need, they usually learned more quickly with time and opportunity for gaining these adaptive life skills, but even those with special needs are capable with strategic instruction.  Often I could encourage independence by asking them to ask a friend, or reminding them of a strategy that was previously taught.

This year, I have noticed that many members of our learning community lack a a great deal of these practical life skills.  I have seen 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who do not know how to tell time, write or count quantities of money, memorize their address or phone number, or even tie their own shoes.  While these things may seem like little things, in  a classroom of 30, lack of these skills makes a big difference in the amount that is learned and the free time that is available for enrichment.  Many students are quite capable, but would rather ask an adult to spell a word for them, than make the effort to sound it out for themselves, ask a friend, or look in a spelling dictionary.  Some students have told me they would rather take work home because their mom or dad will do a better job for them. Without gaining these valuable adaptive life skills through personal experience, learning is stunted.

Some parents have expected that school to provide all the instruction in these valuable life skills, and while we do cover them in class, the lessons can fall flat when those expectations are not present at home.  Often parents (and this even includes me!) don't realize that their child is being helped too much at home for their developmental level.  I remember being approached by my sons' teachers and being just as guilty of impeding my children's development without even being aware that it was happening.  Maria Montessori spoke of the importance of not doing too much for a child because of the learned helplessness it can create.  She said, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” 


Here are some tips to help you create greater independence in your child:

  • Create a home environment with expectations of independent work and participation.  This can include daily chores and opportunities to earn and spend money, and practice practical life and grace and courtesy skills on a smaller scale.

  • Give practical life lessons as needed, such as telling time, counting money, understanding how to double a recipe, interest rates, etc.  At the same time, it is important to also ask leading questions to help your child construct their own meaning and learn and practice on their own, rather than just providing all the answers.

  • Talk with your child about their work at school, and your work in the real world.  Help them take responsibility for confronting any challenges they may have with friends, homework, or other situation.  Ask them what they can do to help find a solution.

  • Help children organize for themselves by allowing them to carry their backpack, unpack and organize its contents with a minimal amount of guidance.  While some parents may feel they are doing their child a favor by organizing their backpack or cleaning their child's room, too many students have told me things such as, my mom didn't put my work plan, permission slip, etc, in my backpack and it is lost.  These same students often lose things in the classroom and because they lack practice in organizing.

  • Please remember the importance of natural consequences.  Maria Montessori also knew the importance of learning through the experience of natural consequences.  For example, she wanted most items to be breakable in the classroom so that the children would realize the need to be careful.  If plants were not watered by the children, they would die.  If a child does not complete the minimal required work, they may have to wait to get to do extra enrichment activities in the classroom.  When adults create a world for the child without natural consequences, it does the child no favors for his or her independence. 

  • When children bring work home, please allow them to complete it with the greatest independence possible.  It is a sad experience for a child to bring completed work to school that was done by a parent more interested in perfection than experience.  Imagine the message that is being sent to the child who is not allowed to do it for him or her self!  Self esteem is not built by shielding children from challenges, but by enabling them to conquer them at their own level.

  • When children make mistakes, respond in as neutral a way as possible, without excessive criticism or blame.  Constructive questions mixed with empathy help build problem solving skills.


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