Dr Maria Montessori introduced the area of practical life to her education as it is the way to educate the children by real life exercises. These exercises are carried out in real life environment, children are using the real life materials and also the ones who are the exercises done for and with are real people thus these exercises prepare the children for real life. “It is important to notice, in passing, that these are real, not make-believe activities and that they are carried out in a real and not make-believe environment. The child who is washing dusters is washing real dusters because they are dirty; the children who are laying the table are laying a real table with real knives and forks and plates, etc., for real meal – not a doll’s table in doll’s house for doll’s tea party.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 214) Children are getting a feeling of success and achievement when they accomplish the real results of practical life exercises. In practical life area children are learning the everyday skills and getting a foundation for the future learning. Practical life exercises support the whole child – physically, mentally and spiritually.
Already French educationist Edouard Séguin, whose works Dr Maria Montessori studied, noticed that changes in child’s behavior can be accomplished by the use of sensory exercises like gardening, dressing frames, pouring etc. Dr Maria Montessori designed sets of materials for practical life area which were used to assist the children’s development as children come through what she called the ‘sensitive periods’. These specific periods of special sensibility occur in child’s development at certain time between the ages of zero to six. Therefore it is of utmost importance to recognize these ‘sensitive periods’ in child’s life and provide the child with suitable environment and activities to develop his abilities. “If we leave these things to be taught at a later age, the special and spontaneous interest in them will not be there, having vanished to give a way to other interest of a more intellectual nature.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 131) It is important to remember what things to look for when we try to identify whether the child is in a sensitive period. One of the clues is that a child is expressing great passion and commitment when doing particular activity. Activity is irresistible and child can’t stop doing it. Child is concentrated from start to the end of the activity and likes to repeat the activity again and again. Activity doesn’t lead to boredom or fatigue, but instead to persistent energy and interest. After an activity is accomplished child appears restful. When the sensitive period in child’s life had passed it will never regain. The child will still learn, but not with the same passion and ease as it was during the sensitive period.
Dr Montessori recognized six sensitive periods which she observed among children between zero to six years of age (Order, Refinement of the Senses, Language, Movement, Small Objects, Social Awareness).
Practical life exercises help the child to learn how to do living activities in a purposeful way. The purpose and aim of practical life is to help the child gain control in the coordination of his movement and help the child to gain independence and adapt to his society. “The first thing to realize about these exercises of practical life is that their aim is not a practical one. Emphasis should be laid not on the word “practical” but the word life. Their aim (as of all the other occupations presented to the children in the prepared environment) is to assist development.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 213) The real life activities of practical life meet the needs of the child in the respective stage of his growth and lead him to independence. These exercises give the child great joy, skill and the perfection follows with the repetition. Repetition leads to concentration so we can say that practical life activities promote concentration in children. “Repetition is the secret of perfection, and this is why the exercises are connected with the common activities of daily life. If a child does not set a table for a group of people who are really going to eat, if he does not have real brushes for cleaning, and real carpets to sweep whenever they are used, if he does not himself have to wash and dry dishes and glasses he will never attain any real ability.” (The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori, page 92)
The practical life exercises form the relationship between the child and the directress. Directress is a link between the child and prepared environment. She provides the materials for the child, observes the child and notes the level of child’s concentration and spontaneous repetition. Directress doesn’t interrupt or disturbs the child, she just observes his activity. “So we must “teach, teaching, not correcting.” That is, we should not, for instance, brusquely interfere if we see a child carrying out an action imperfectly, correcting him in the middle of it. His natural reaction, then, would be a defensive one; and in most cases we should probably do more harm than good.” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 219) Children may imitate directress as a model so she has to act properly at all times. It is directress’s task to demonstrate the correct way of doing the exercises in a way that allows the child to fully observe the movements.
Practical life exercises are meant to resemble everyday activities children witness. That is why it is important that all the materials be familiar, real, breakable and functional. Activities must be related to child’s time and culture. In order to allow the child to complete the full cycle of activity, materials must be complete.
The practical life exercises can be categorized into four different groups:
- Preliminary Applications – The child learns the basic movements such as pouring, folding and carrying (i.e. how to carry apparatus).
- Care of Environment – The child learns about the care and maintenance that helps everyday life (i.e. how to take care of plants).
- Care of Self – The child learns about the care of the person what helps in everyday life (i.e. how to wash hands).
- Grace and Courtesy – The child learns about the interactions among the people (i.e. how to be polite in various situations).
The direct aim of the practical life exercise is for the child to learn particular practical life activity from the directress and by the repetition go get the ease and confidence in this particular activity.
The indirect aims to develop in practical life exercises are:
- Independence – Children strive for independence from the birth. It is the duty of the directress to show a child the skills he needs to become an independent person. Child is allowed the freedom to choose an exercise when he feels the need to perform it, time to practice and perfect greater peace. An example of the practical life exercise promoting child’s independence is ‘how to carry apparatus’ as once the child learned an exercise, he is free to take the tray with materials and do the exercise again and again when he is ready for it. The indirect aim of independence is part of most of the practical life exercises.
- Concentration – The directress ensures that the activity which is provided to the child is interesting, stimulating and appropriate to make him absorbed in his work, but not over stimulating. Directress must ensure that the particular activity is at the correct level for the child. Activity should be interesting or stimulating enough to instantly absorb the child. The longer the child is absorbed in his work, the longer the concentration will last. It is important not to interrupt child’s chosen activity. An example of the practical life exercise promoting child’s concentration is ‘how to thread large beads’. When the child feeds the lace into the beads hole and to carry the bead until the end of the lace it requires him to concentrate.
- Co-ordination – Through the practical life exercises the child develops his large and small muscle movements and he attains a greater control of his motor skills. Child starts with simple tasks and after mastering them he is given more complex ones to perform. At first the gross motor skills are developed leading on to developing the fine motor movements. Repetition provides the child with opportunities for perfecting these movements. An example of the practical life exercise promoting child’s co-ordination is ‘walking on the line’. This exercise develops child’s co-ordination of movement as they carry various objects as they walk on the line with the whole foot taking average steps.
- Self-esteem – As children succeed with new skills and begin to apply their learning in different context their self-esteem develops. Children share their ideas with each other and become aware of their value to the mix-aged group. An example of the practical life exercise promoting child’s self-esteem is ‘how to change coats and shoes’. When the child learns how to change his shoes independently without the help from an adult, his self esteem grows as he now can fulfil his needs by himself.
- Social Awareness – When a child learns and practices various practical life exercises, he learns to co-operate with the group, he shares, he cares for the prepared environment, he carries out the exercises with grace and courtesy. Child learns that certain activities he performs benefit not just him, but also the others in the nursery. An example of the practical life exercise promoting child’s social awareness is ‘how to carry a chair’. When the child sees there is a chair for some reason not where it is supposed to be, he carries it back to its original place so it is not in a way of others in the room.
- Social Skills – Through the exercises of grace and courtesy children learn appropriate social behaviour: how to share, how to take turns, how to listen politely and so on. Children learn to respect the customs of multicultural environment we live in. An example of the practical life exercise promoting child’s social skills is ‘please and thank you’. Directress explains to the children that it is polite to say please when we ask someone for something and thank you when we receive that thing. It is important to use these words in every appropriate occasion until it becomes a habit for children.
- Self-discipline – The child takes turns, returns the material to the shelf after he used them, child performs the whole cycle of activity and thus becomes self-disciplined. An example of the practical life exercise promoting child’s self-discipline is ‘how to open and close padlocks’. Child puts the materials (padlocks, basket, felt mat) back on the shelf after he is done with the exercise.
- Order – Children need order at specific sensitive period in their development. Children maintain order in the nursery by putting everything back to its original place at the shelf. Also the exercises in practical life are demonstrated by the directress in an ordered way and the child is encouraged to carry out the activity carefully before returning the apparatus to its designated place. An example of the practical life exercise promoting order in children is ‘how to roll a floor mat’. When the child has finished the work with the floor mat he knows how to roll the floor mat and how to return it back to the basket where it is stored.
- Language Skills – When a child is doing various practical life exercises he learns the names of new materials he is working with and names of the actions he is performing. In this way child develops his language and extends its vocabulary. Examples of the new words that child learns in practical life exercises are: ‘pouring’ water, ‘transferring’ lentils, ‘large’ bowl, sharp ‘scissors’, ‘smooth’ movement, yellow ‘funnel’ etc.
- Intelligence – The exercises of practical life provide the child with the intellectual development. Child prepares indirectly for future learning. Also child’s creativity develops. Child learns that objects in the environment have a purposeful function and have a relationship to his life. An example of the development of child’s intelligence via practical life exercise is ‘how to pour water from jug into another’. Here the child learns about different volumes of liquids. Another example is ‘how to sort objects’ where child learns about different shapes and to count.
Each practical life activity involves not just one, but several indirect aims, which are interrelated. Each activity is a complex of component actions. “In every complex action directed towards a single end, such as pouring out a glass of water or opening and shutting a door, there are to be found a number of component actions each directed to a particular and intermediate end. All these subsidiary actions collectively make up the whole. If the whole action is done properly, these subsidiary actions follow one another – as the action proceeds – in a logical sequence” (Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, E. M. Standing, page 222)
Through the practical life exercises which are done during an appropriate sensitive periods in child’s life the child learns not just to take care of himself, but also of the environment and becomes ready to adjust himself in the human society. “A child who has become master of his acts through long and repeated exercises, and who has been encouraged by pleasant and interesting activities in which he has been engaged, it is a child filled with health and joy and remarkable for his calmness and discipline.” (The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori, page 91) Practical life exercises prepare the child for the next main area in the Montessori curriculum – sensorial exercises.