Monday, June 16, 2014

How to Design Practical Life Activities for a Montessori Classroom

Why are a child's Montessori exercises of practical life different in time and place?

The objects are oriented to time and place. Each of the exercises are oriented to the culture of the time and place, to lead toward independence for the children. The Montessori teacher, the "guide", must have a grasp of what is needed for that specific population. Thirty years ago, when my Montessori trainer was receiving her Montessori training in India, spooning was not included the exercise of practical life activity in those Casas (meaning Montessori classrooms), because at that time the use of the spoon in India was very minimal. Now, these lessons are detailed and used there, as the are here. In the the exercise of practical life now, there are sometimes even small vaccum cleaners.

What is the educator's responsibility? What does the guide do in the exercise of practical life?

(1) We must prepare, maintain, and develop for the exercise of practical life, as the tools and the environment. 
  • It is important to remember that these tools serve a different function than they do for the adult. They provide the child a means to consolidate the unity between the intelligence, will, and movements. The tools must be practical and functional. More importantly than beautiful, the tool must be functional. We must develop the discriminating eye for what will be the most functional and purposeful to stimulate the child's maximum effort. It should be a challenge to their equilibrium, big pails, large tubs, large pitchers. It is not necessarily adult-sized, but it must be at least big enough to complete the task and physically proportionate to the child. They should be able to lift and carry it within the limits of strength, exerting themselves to use it, but it must also be sturdy and functional.
  • The use of the tool should also be comprehensible to the child's intelligence. It must be psychologically appropriate. The tools should be part of the child's cultural context. 
  • The items should display local character. It has to reflect that the child finds in her community at home, because the purpose of these tools is cultural competence. We create opportunities to gain competence. The child building these skills needs actual, physical experience with certain items, not just the machines that do the work. So, as an exception, children will still wash clothes and dishes by hand. 
  • The items are to serve the children's need. So, there is the element of improving the tools if necessary.
  • The items must be attractive. This will stimulate the child to use the items and be connected to a purpose. There is a saying in Montessori circles, "The best for the smallest." However, purely aesthetic considerations are second to the functional use of the item. As far as possible, we try to obtain items made of natural materials, out of the materials common in that place. We want to hear the voice of each material and respond to it-- the sound of the metal tray or the crash of the glass object which will break if not handled with care. 
  • The items must be differentiated. If one towel is for the floor, it will be a different color than from the towel for the floor or for the hands. Perhaps the materials will be the way of showing the distinctness of this tool for this job. 
  • Each set for use must be an independent, complete set to form one unit of work in that basket or tray. The child's focus, attention, and concentration are just developing. We do not want them gathering items from different places. While the child's interest is caught, having the set independent and complete will accommodate her age. 
  • There are multiple sets of each of the activities for the exercises of practical life. This is not true for other materials in the room. There must be variety in the type of grains, spoons, and beans. The child exercises the will to select their work. The bowl may be wooden here or glass here. It stimulates their urge toward repetition. Every variation will have slightly different challenges, perhaps moving from a transparent pitcher to the increased challenge of an opaque pitcher.
  • The object must be carefully on display, so that it is readily available to the senses. There must be space, with nothing in front of another item, so that each activity can call to the child. It should be within reach of the child's eyes and hands. The order must be maintained scrupulously in the same, exact place. Related activities should be grouped together. We have to take as much care as possible to put them in a developmental progression on the shelf. Take care with the groupings, that shoe polishing and food preparation not go together. Dustpan and brush and room would not go in the middle of the classroom, since these objects would be in a discreet area. The tools for these objects are separate from the objects in the environment-- separate the shoe within the room from the shoe polish; separate the brass object in the room from the brass polish. Establish the active, living contact with the environment with the practical life tools: "Here is the watering can. I want to water something. Where are the plants?" She will form an attachment to the class when she cares for it and becomes responsible for it. They are growing awareness. We can only observe their awareness grow from wanting to use the tool to seeking a remedy toward a need in the environment if they are kept separate.
  • The materials must be maintained and replenished. No shoe polish can run out. We have to ensure that the objects have been replaced in an orderly way.
  • The materials must be developed. Every time we rotate the objects on the shelf, it must also be purposeful. It keeps in pace with the developing child. The materials cannot be the same in February as they were in September by increasing the complexity, if the children are to keep using the materials. The activity itself may change, or the objects I bring around may change. The brass objects for polishing may increase in complexity.

(2) Then, we also have a responsibility to present the tools as a means of development with the understanding of the way that tool us used, and what the outcome of the tool. Then, we also have follow-up presentations so that the contact with the tool can be deepened and refined.

(3) We must ensure that the child has the freedom to complete the exercise of practical life as often as possible. Never limit the scope of the day when the child can work with them, such as 'the exercise of practical life is for the morning'. 

Jeannot Jonte Boucher is a Montessori educator and parent in Dallas, Texas. 

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