Are Practical Life activities a distraction from better work, or valuable in their own right? Discover the 10+ skills your child can gain from Montessori Practical Life lessons, plus actionable strategies to make it work anywhere.
Pouring water. Spooning rice from bowl to bowl. Slicing bananas. These quintessential Montessori activities can’t help but invite a little making fun.
Montessori: the schools where kids pour water and beans into tiny cups all day and otherwise do what they want.
But, these funny little exercises happen to be the foundation of Montessori education. With a strong Practical Life foundation, a child will be able to take advantage of the Sensorial, Language, and Mathematics lessons. Without it, she won’t.
And the beauty of Practical Life goes way beyond just the other Montessori lessons.
Here is what your child can gain from Practical Life activities:
- adaptation to her environment
- control of movement
- gross motor skills
- fine motor skills
- development of the will
- social skills
- respect for her environment
- and more!
But what happens when Practical Life is all your students want to do? All day long?
I’ll give you my two cents in a second/paragraph or so.
First, for those wondering, a quick overview:
What Is Practical Life?
Practical Life activities are activities taken from the daily life of the child, isolated, and presented in an appealing manner that allows the child to work independently and with repetition.
For example, pouring water is an activity of daily life. In a Montessori environment, there are Practical Life activities that involve pouring water. One might be, “Pouring water from a pitcher to several glasses.” In this activity, a child-sized pitcher and a few child-sized glasses are set on a tray. A child is invited to take the tray to the table, and pour the water into the glasses over and over.
Examples of other Practical Life activities include sweeping, squeezing a sponge, washing a table, cutting with scissors, polishing metal, tying a bow, watering plants, and spooning dried beans from bowl to bowl.
Each activity isolates a practical skill and presents it to the child for practice.
These Practical Life exercises are particularly foundational when they take place in the Primary classroom, by children aged 2.5-6.
Back to the Practical Life Lovers
So you have a student, nearly 4 years old, who looooves Practical Life. It’s all she wants to do! One day you give her a super engaging Language lesson. She pays attention. Then, when invited to repeat the lesson or not, she shakes her head. You put the work away. She goes and chooses a Practical Life activity. The next day you give her a super engaging Math lesson. She pays attention. Then goes back to Practical Life. You are scratching your head wondering how on earth you can get her to choose anything other than Practical Life! How will she learn to read and write? To build that mathematical foundation?
What are you supposed to do?
Well, ask yourself this:
- Is she focused on her work?
- Is she using it intentionally rather than playing with it?
- Is she working more or less silently, rather than chatting with her friends?
- Is she repeating the activity, rather than moving quickly from one activity to the next?
If the answers to the above are YES, then here is what you’re supposed to do:
Nothing! Or at least, nothing differently. If your student can choose an activity, work on it independently with concentration for as long as she wishes, and is receiving the necessary language and math lessons on the side, then she is set up for success, baby.
- She can choose her own work: this means she is exercising and strengthening her free will and using it for good. A strong will is necessary for self-discipline. (Read more about the will here) Self-discipline will carry her through her later years of education, when she may not have the same choice of work and will have to complete language and math homework whether she likes it or not.
- She can work independently: Maria Montessori believed that education is the gaining of successive levels of independence. Any sign of independence is a good thing!
- She can concentrate: this is an invaluable skill, especially in our distraction-saturated world.
- She is learning motor skills through repetition of movements: the hand is the tool of the mind, it needs to be educated also! Plus, repetition leads to deeper concentration.
- She’s receiving exposure to language and math concepts through the lessons you are giving her: She has an absorbent mind. She is learning more than you realize.
- She enjoys her work: who knows where this love of learning will take her in life? Instead of learning to resent school, she is learning to choose and engage in meaningful activity.
“The child whose attention has once been held by a chosen object, while he concentrates his whole self on the repetition of the exercise, is a delivered soul in the sense of the spiritual safety of which we speak. From this moment there is no need to worry about him – except to prepare an environment, which satisfies his needs, and to remove obstacles, which may bar his way to perfection.”
And if the answers to those questions are NO? Then read on for actionable strategies that will help your students get the most out of Practical Life.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Practical Life
“These lessons, exact and fascinating, given in an intimate way to each child separately, are the teacher’s offering to the depths of the child’s soul.”
- Prepare beautiful but simple materials: If the lessons are enticing, the children will be drawn to work with them. However, if they are too cute, the children will just want to play with them. A good rule of thumb is to go beautiful for the vessels (e.g. porcelain pitchers, wooden bowls, etc.) and simple for the material inside the vessels, (e.g. water, dried mung beans, etc.)
- Provide many one-person tables: This will minimize distractions and encourage the child to focus.
- Practice your presentations beforehand to make sure they are exact: Your goal is to present the lesson in a way that allows the child to repeat it, if not exactly how you did it, then at least with intention. If you use a different order of steps each time you present the lesson, or fumble through it, the child has a harder time absorbing clear, logical steps to follow, and will be more likely to play with the lesson.
- Go slowly: During the presentation, move slowly, gracefully, and deliberately, for the same reasons as above.
- Use few words: The child will absorb your motions better if you’re not talking at the same time.
- Highlight points of interest and difficulties: To make the lessons “fascinating,” pause, to notice the delightful sound of mung beans hitting porcelain, or to bring attention to the complex steps of the bow tying lesson. This will help capture the attention of the child, and entice him to give it a try.
- Always let the child know he can work for as long as he likes: If you’re not seeing repetition in your classroom, gently encourage it. You can say with a smile, “You can work at this for as looong as you like,” to make it seem kind of exciting. If other children complain about that kid who’s been using the clay all morning, tell them, “When it’s your turn, you can use it as long as you like, too!”
- Observe, and re-present if necessary: Watch to see how the child uses the activity. If he is obviously playing with it, (e.g. sound effects, making soup for the family, throwing, crazy giggles, etc.) then put a hand on his shoulder and tell him, “It looks like you forgot how to use this lesson. You can try again tomorrow.” If he is doing everything wrong, but seems focused and intentional, wait. The next day, give him the lesson again, saying something like, “I want to show you something.” Don’t tell him he was doing it wrong, just show him more carefully the right way to do it.
- DON’T INTERRUPT: The only time you can interrupt is if the child is obviously playing with or mis-using the materials or hurting himself or others. If he is spilling water all over the floor, don’t interrupt. If he is forgetting to use the funnel, don’t interrupt. If he is doing it the way harder way and there is a way easier way, don’t interrupt. If he is completely missing the point, but trying, don’t interrupt. You can always re-present later. (👉🏼 discover why this is so important here.)
- Switch things up to keep it interesting: If it seems that interest in certain Practical Life activities is waning, try switching out a bowl, or put out a different spoon, etc. You can tell a child in the morning, “Did you see what’s new in the Practical Life area?” or just wait for someone to discover the surprise.
Let’s slow down
If Practical Life is so magical, and also so possible, why rush it?
What do you think? Share stories, questions, and thoughts in the comments!