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The Importance of Practical Life | January 27, 2022

Jan 27, 2022 11:53:29 AM / by Caroline Mellott

Eight Positive Outcomes of Practical Life 

Practical Life is the hallmark of a Montessori primary (3-6) environment, but it is often misunderstood by outside observers. After all, what child in the year 2022 needs to polish their shoes, or wash laundry on an antique washboard? However simple, these utilitarian materials serve a purpose far higher than their worldly functions: to help the child coordinate their movements and prepare for all future intellectual exploration. 

Like many great scientists, Montessori discovered the importance of Practical Life quite by accident. Her first classroom in San Lorenzo was full of forgotten and abandoned children. They were unkempt and posed a hygiene risk to others, so she first and foremost set up a hand-washing station. They were so utterly fascinated by the activity that they repeated it, again and again. She observed their behavior and realized that something internal was propelling them to continue. They loved the process of washing their hands—they didn’t care as much whether they were actually clean. (Perhaps you’ve noticed this in your child.)

Unlike adults, children love this work! To them, washing their dishes or scrubbing a table is not endless drudgery (as it may seem to you or me). Encourage your child to participate in household chores, such as sorting laundry or folding napkins, as much as possible. Practical Life directly supports the child’s capacity for work and activity, which gives them a “lively satisfaction” and brings them joy (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, p. 83). 

If you still aren’t convinced, here are eight outcomes of working in this area: 

  1. Watching a concert pianist (or, in my case, harpist) play should be enough indication that work of the hands is intelligent. However, the term "manual labor" has negative connotations, especially when compared to tasks that involve one's mind. According to Dr. Montessori, the “actions of the muscles should always be at the service of the mind,” which can only be achieved through purposeful work, such as the activities in Practical Life (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, p. 78). By coordinating the body and the mind to work toward a common goal, this area builds the child’s intelligence
  2. Carrying out movement-based tasks challenges the child’s concentration and focus. The activity for table-washing requires that the child empty a large bowl into a bucket. To align the bowl and pour out its contents, the child must be careful not to spill and determine whether any water is left. If the child is distracted, they will not be able to complete the task (or will have a lot of water to clean up!).
  3. Typically, the adult presents an activity once, which also presents a challenge to the child’s memory. Some sequences are so complicated that adults have difficulty recalling them entirely, which speaks to the power of the child’s capacity for retaining information, especially as they get older. 
  4. When a child can complete a difficult activity, such as tying the bow frame, their self-confidence increases. They can serve other children in the community with their newfound knowledge by offering to tie a younger child’s shoes. 
  5. Suddenly, they look out for opportunities to express their abilities and develop a better awareness of their environment. When they develop the skills for shoe polishing, they might be conscious of other children’s shoes in search of one to polish. When they learn the movements for sweeping, they can rescue a child who spilled a pitcher of grain. 
  6. Through Practical Life, the child develops their ability to problem solve and think rationally. Once they become motivated by the activity’s outcome (as opposed to its process), the child also incorporates rational thinking to evaluate their work. For example, if the flowers in the vase are cut too short, they will fall into the water and cannot be arranged. 
  7. As Practical Life exercises increase in difficulty, the child refines their movements. Washing a table develops gross motor skills; the child must carry a pitcher to and from the sink without spilling it or walking into a friend. Sewing a button requires fine motor skills to thread the needle and push it through the small buttonhole. All of these movements will remain with the child throughout their life and help them develop the potential to do even more complicated activities (like playing an instrument or painting).
  8. Finally, Practical Life helps the child develop self-discipline. All of the Practical Life activities are done independently of a teacher, which places responsibility and effort entirely on the child. The teacher is not a source of external motivation; the activity is far more powerful when the child directs themselves to complete a task. If implemented correctly, Practical Life contributes to the child’s positive relationship with work and assists them in becoming functionally independent, ready to take on any challenge.

As a Montessori child myself, I remember the simple yet challenging action of pouring grain from one pitcher to another. This work is so important for children’s development and will support them for the rest of their lives. 

Thank you for reading!

Caroline Mellott


Topics: student support, social emotional

Caroline Mellott

Written by Caroline Mellott

Caroline is a harpist and Montessori Early Childhood teacher.

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