Posts Tagged ‘practical life’

Introduction to Practical Life

April 14, 2010

For each section that we do in the course, we have to write a short introduction that we research from class notes and other sources.  I’m not posting anything directly from our notes,  only from the writing that I have personally done.  I will also be posting some of the exercises, extensions and materials that I design, write or produce for the course as those remain my property. Here is the introduction that I put together for Practical Life.


The area of practical life is the first area that children are introduced to in the Montessori classroom. This area contains an orderly arrangement of exercises involving familiar objects and the activities of daily life. These will be things that the children have already seen and wished to imitate, including pouring, spooning, various cleaning exercises and others. The practical life exercises are designed to encourage independence and assist in the development of concentration and inner discipline. They introduce children to the idea of a full cycle of activity, and help the child to develop the mental and muscular control necessary to succeed in other areas (both in the classroom and in the wider social environment). The exercises are ordered and graded, with earlier exercises providing all the skills needed for the more advanced ones. The orderliness of the area helps children feel secure, orient themselves in the classroom, and develop the inner order necessary for clear and rational thought. The grading of the exercises ensures that children frequently experience success when attempting new exercises, thus fostering self-confidence and self-esteem, both necessary qualities for fulfilled and successful living.

All materials used are real, and often breakable. This acts as a built in control of error, puts children in contact with the realities of their environment and teaches responsibility. Every exercise involves voluntary movement, not just to perform the exercise, but to fetch it, find a workspace, and pack it away afterwards. This satisfies the young child’s innate need for movement. As the children develop increasing control over their movements, these movements come under the conscious direction of their will, aiding the development of the will, which in turns leads to increased independence and self-esteem. All the exercises in the practical life area are purposeful activities, engaging both the mind and the hand, allowing them to work together, as is necessary for integrated development. Because the children’s hands are busy, their minds focus, allowing them to develop concentration and spontaneously repeat exercises. This repetition indicates that they are engaged in inner work, growing and developing both mentally and physically.

The practical life exercises fall into four broad areas: Preliminary exercises and elementary movements allow the child to practise the movements and skills necessary for the more advanced areas, as well as ensuring their awareness of safety in the environment. For example, carrying scissors and rolling a mat would be preliminary exercises, and spooning or tweezing exercises would give practise in elementary movements. The care of the environment activities allow the child to practise the skills needed to manage daily chores in their home environment. This includes both indoor activities such as scrubbing or sweeping, as well as outdoor skills, again fostering independence, responsibility and respect. Care of the person exercises allow the child to become independent in caring for themselves, practising dressing and personal hygiene skills and nurturing the child’s sense of personal dignity. The final component of the practical life area is the development of grace and courtesy. This is often addressed by the directress(es) with a group of children, using role-playing and group discussion, allowing them to absorb societal expectations, appropriately express emotions and behave with dignity and respect towards others.

Maria Montessori said “A man builds himself through working”, (The Secret of Childhood). This illustrates the extreme importance of children’s active participation in purposeful activity (i.e. work) on their environment. Only through this type of work can children build and develop their characters, skills and personalities. The area of practical life is uniquely suited to introducing children to purposeful work, and continues to fulfil an important role in their development throughout the preschool years.


Montessori and Occupational Therapy

April 14, 2010

While reading up on Practical Life information, and trying to summarize the book “The Secret of Childhood” for my course, I was also reading “The Out-of-Sync Child“, and was struck by the strong correlation between many of the ideas presented in Maria Montessori’s philosophy and the goals of both modern SI Occupational Therapy and child-directed play therapy for children. I explored this a little in one of the essays I had to hand in in the first term, and am reproducing it here because I thought it was really interesting.

One of the main ideas behind the Montessori Method is that children have a deep instinct to “work”. Work in this sense is defined as purposeful activity on the environment. In other words, intelligent, goal-directed activities.  Children work in order to develop and grow as they carry out their instinctive drive to gain independence, and to develop themselves physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

According to Maria Montessori, children who do not feel an attraction for their environment, or for whom the environment appears hostile and threatening, will not develop independence as they should. They will withdraw from interacting with the environment, and seek others to wait on them. These children must be helped by providing them with the best possible environment, in order to reawaken their natural interest (in it). Engaging activities that encourage the child to become actively involved in exploring the environment can assist the child.

That this is still a valid approach to helping children who perceive their surroundings as threatening can be seen in the modern example of Occupational Therapy for sensory defensive children, or children with certain types of Sensory Processing Dysfunction. Such children struggle to make sense of the sensory impressions they receive in daily life, and must use much of their energy defending themselves from a sensory onslaught that can, on occasion, feel life-threatening. They may resort to very rigid behaviour, and often avoid new experiences. In order to experience less fear and more independence, such children must develop the ability to respond actively and purposefully to new circumstances (a skill known as adaptive behaviour). One description of the effects of occupational therapy is as follows:
“When the child actively engages in meaningful activities that provide the intensity, duration, and quality of sensation his central nervous system craves, his adaptive behaviour improves. Adaptive behaviour leads to better sensory integration. As a result, perceptions, learning, competence and self-confidence improve.” (The Out-of-Sync Child, pg 34).

This description of occupation therapy tallies with the Montessori practise of allowing children (within certain limits) to choose a meaningful, or purposeful task to work on, and then respecting their need to carry out that task for as long as is necessary for that particular child. Maria Montessori speaks of the power of such exercises in facilitating the child’s development when she says that “activity concentrated on some task that requires movement of the hands guided by the intellect” is like a “magic wand for opening the gate to the normal expression of a child’s natural gifts.” (The Secret of Childhood). With regards to the power of purposeful activity to improve behaviour and functioning, she says: “From inertia to work! This is the path of cure”. (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind).

The link to some of the goals of child-directed play therapy comes from the Montessori practise of “following the child”. In other words,  while children are guided towards the work that the teacher (directress) feels that they are ready for, children are basically free to choose the activities that they want to work on. The idea (in Montessori), is that children have an inner guide that allows them to choose the activities best suited to their level and area of development, and that they will naturally choose work that enhances their development.  When my daughter was in play therapy, I did a course on providing filial therapy at home, and one of the points that was emphasized to us was that we have to trust that the child will choose to play in a way that allows them to overcome their emotional difficulties and to regain their natural balance.

I find it fascinating that we are “rediscovering” these principles in the modern context of helping children with physical, sensory or emotional problems, and yet they were elucidated (perhaps with not as much rigid science and controlled experiment) at the beginning of the 20th Century. It fascinates me that the Montessori Philosophy seems to have so many points of contact with modern child development theory, and yet seems to still be ensconced in this little box labelled “alternative”.