To Help Life

Margot Waltuch outlines philosophy and practice of the “Practical Life Exercises,” their categories of operation, and set up. Parents who often equate sandpaper letters in the home with implementing Montessori at home. can see perhaps a more natural kind of collaboration through the practical life exercises which spontaneously occur in a home setting as well as the classroom.

“A child’s work,” Dr. Montessori wrote, “is to create the man he will become. An adult works to perfect the environment but a child works to perfect himself.” This distinction can be illustrated by looking closely at two people who are shoveling sand on a beach on a hot day. One is a man who is trying to fill a large barrel with sand’ the other, a little boy who is filling a pail with sand, dumping it out, and then filling it again. If anyone offers to help the man, he readily hands over the shovel. But any efforts to help the little boy are resisted. He clings to his shovel because the work he is doing can be done only by himself. By constant repetition of motions, he is strengthening his muscles, perfecting his coordination, and gaining confidence in a particular skill. No one tells him that he has to shovel the sand; he is guided by a direction deep within his own nature.

Using the child’s natural inclination as a point of departure, Dr. Montessori structured exercises for the classroom to help the child satisfy this need for meaningful activity. We call “Exercises of Practical Life” those daily performed activities which the adult carries out in order to maintain and restore proper conditions or relations. This, for the adult, is purely conservative and utilitarian. These exercises, for the adult, have an “outer aim.” The very young child shows a strong urge to associate himself with these activities. He tries to take part spontaneously. He offers his help.

“A child’s work is to create the man he will become.”
– Dr. Montessori

Why is he so strongly attracted to them? For the young child these activities have an important, personal function. They are truly constructive to himself. They are developmental, even creative, activities. When the child carries them out, he is totally engaged. Why?

The “Practical Life” helps the child to develop himself by teaching him to perform independent daily tasks that develop his thought, will, and action.

  1. These activities are easily understood from start to finish.
  2. They have visible movements.
  3. They give direction to his movements.
  4. They have an attractive invitation to the child’s will.
  5. They lead to greater skill and perfection.
  6. They lead to self-accepted discipline.
  7. They create unity between thought, will, and action.

There are 4 distinct groups of Practical Life exercises:

  1. Care of the Person (dressing, undressing, bathing, combing, etc.) The young child of 2 1/2 or 3 has one thing to do, and that is, to build himself. First he has to take care of his person, of himself, and then reach out to the environment. In the beginning, he has to construct himself. Now we, to help the child become independent, can provide so that the child is not dependent on mother or someone else for dressing, undressing, taking care of his body, washing, bathing, or combing his hair – for all these things that concern his own person.I know that preparations for all these different activities are not easy. They are involved, and take thought and time. looking for tiny materials suitable in size and shape for his tiny hand, or for his tiny body.
  2. The second point is Care of the Environment – cleaning. washing. ironing. polishing, gardening, etc.
  3. The third point is the Development of Social Relations.. greeting, offering, accepting, apologizing. thanking – the “graces and courtesies.”
  4. The fourth – and very important part of this group of exercises – is Movement: analysis and control of movement. Now all exercises involve this. We said earlier that exercises are attractive to a child because he moves, and moves perhaps more than he does with sensorial material. But here we have exercises that are essentially designed for this purpose: walking on the line, and the silence game.

Additional Reading

The analysis of movement is bound up with economy of movement; i.e., to perform only movement necessary for the purpose. This is really the highest degree of perfection. Greek dance movements and those in the Japanese dance are none other than a selection of the movements absolutely necessary in the analytical succession of actions. But all this is not confined to ART. It is a general principle which concerns every act of life.

There is an age when movements possess a fascinating interest, when the muscular and nervous apparatus responds to exercise – it is the age of infancy and early childhood.

We want to help the child to perform useful acts. We do not want to serve the child, we want to give help. Especially for parents of privileged classes who wait on their children, or in former times had servants to wait on their children (now the mother takes the place of the servant), they should be made clear of the danger of this servility, which puts obstacles in the way of the life that is unfolding. It leads to helplessness and lack of strength.

Practical life exercises go from easy to more complicated, from shorter to longer, and the longer ones are really very successive processes. Think of washing and ironing: this is a lengthy, complicated procedure. Sometimes it goes over two days. One day is for washing, not only those dirty little clothes, but other more attractive things – napkins, handkerchiefs, some with color, some with a flower, some with lace edges, washable grosgrain ribbon or linen or silk. These can be sprinkled with a little shaker, rolled up and stored overnight in a plastic bag on a windowsill or in the refrigerator. The next morning they are ready to be ironed, and folded, and put to use.

One morning when I was visiting a school, a little boy said, “Would you like some coffee?” I said yes, and he disappeared. It was about ten. I forgot all about him. When it was almost time to go home, he came from another room with a little tray. He had made coffee for me – from scratch. He had a little coffee grinder, a jar of beans, everything. It had taken almost an hour, but he made coffee.

Vegetable and fruit snacks are not more expensive than cookies. You can make celery slices, stuffed with filling, or a banana sliced and decorated with a raisin on top. You can crack eggs, boil water, boil eggs. You have a timer. Measuring and time both enter into cooking. Hard-boiled eggs can be peeled. sliced. and put on a tiny cracker.

Gardening depends on the weather. But newspapers have regular features, and there are special magazines only for indoor gardening. We can have indoor gardens, animals and plants, calendars and weather charts. The children take care of these things as part of practical life. but they lead into other areas, such as numbers. Practical life is not a set of separate activities; it must be incorporated into the life of the class.

In Europe we had aprons for each activity. I think this came down from the Middle Ages, when each trade had its own costume: the baker, the shoemaker, the tailor, and so on. As you know, children like to dress up. At the moment a child puts on an apron, the activity has a beginning; when he takes it off, the activity ends. It has a special duration, with a preparation to do something well.

For shoe polishing, a child put on the apron and took a turn being “shoe shine man.” By extension, he found out that shoes are different; leather, patent leather, suede, cloth, and different materials need different treatment. We made samples of the materials and the children learned different materials and how to treat them. It was a process, rather than just an exercise.
How can a parent follow through at home?

Parents come to understand that the children are trying to build themselves to become independent. Independent from the person who feeds them, who clothes them. We should give them the chance to do it by themselves. Parents should encourage the child. The child as young as 4 can make his own bed, and loves to do it. But if the mother comes and says, “Oh. this is all crooked!” then it’s finished. There should not be criticism. The effort alone, the will to do it is enough. It can be repeated another day. “Let’s change the linen. let’s do it together.” And through the repetition, the child sees, perfects.

We are speaking of universal principles guiding the development of man. We must understand that it is these tendencies of man which govern his development, and that these tendencies must be realized and catered to.

The “aid to life” has to be related to the tendencies of man. These tendencies (just to name a few) of exploration, order, exactness, orientation, manipulation, repetition, work, govern the formation of man. And nowhere is there such a satisfactory outlet as practical life exercises, touching on all these necessary tendencies. So, the environment must be prepared for an exploration of the life of the child, who has a need of self control and coordinated movement.

The child, entering an environment which he has to explore should find modes of activity, modes that are familiar to him, those he sees around him in the home. The prepared environment for the child from 3-6 needs those exercises of practical life, because they help the child to adapt to his environment. They allow him a continual possibility of repeated steps, which eventually will perfect his performance.

Children need help from parents in tidying their things. They have too many things and toys, and we have to be sure that there are not too many to manage. They need their place to sleep, to eat, to be active, and all this relates to the child’s striving for independence. the wise parent lets his child feed himself even if it is messy, dress himself even if he is slow. Parents must respond to the child’s own rhythm with as little direction as possible.

Let me end with a quotation from Maria Montessori which she stated in general, but which can be certainly applied to this part of “Practical Life”: “Childhood constructs with what it finds. If the material is poor, the construction is also poor. In order to build himself, the child has taken by chance whatever he finds in the environment.”

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