Monday, June 16, 2014

Introduction to Montessori's Exercises of Practical Life

The child needs certain activities to actualize her potential. She is guided toward certain activities to adhere to the innate timetable of development. The correct activity will satisfy a vital need. In order to work at self-formation, the child needs appropriate materials. It is the teacher's role to provide and show the use of the tools. What is the outcome of the activity performed with those materials? When teachers provide the materials and environment at the right time, meeting a developmental need, we will observe innate and spontaneous interest and repetition of the activity. We will see the purposeful use of the material, and with each use, the child complete engagement and increasing skill. The child's whole being will manifest concentration. The developmental activity satisfies a present need, builds on skills already attained, and prepares for the future.

We can think of the Montessori classroom, also called the "children's house", as a workshop with all of the stimulation and developmental activities necessary for the child's own self-construction. One of the first groups of developmental activities we present in the Montessori school are The Exercises of Practical Life.

We form ourselves within the context of a community, and we gain the capacity to relate to others within that community. We follow certain accepted modes of behavior. Our customs and manners should be an expression of the inward feeling of being considerate to others, although social manifestations vary from time to time. They communicate helping others and needing to receive help. We practice the activities of daily life to establish, maintain, and restore conditions of ourselves, our environment, and social relationships with others. We typically complete these activities in a utilitarian manner as adults, but there is a time in our development as children when these activities have a formative function to help the child construct herself as an individual of her time and place. In early childhood, the activities of home and self-maintenance are called The Exercises of Practical Life, to construct her intelligence and will.

How do we know that The Exercises of Practical Life satisfy a developmental need?

What are the origins of The Exercises of Practical Life? The San Lorenzo facility that Maria Montessori established in Rome was a daycare facility for street children, uncared for in the tenements. It was not a school. As a social worker and medical doctor, her concern manifested in showing them, first of all, how to wash their hands and clothes. She writes in The Discovery of the Child that she shows them how to give themselves a partial bath on their hands and feet and faces. The children, once their hands were clean, they repeated it again and again. They displayed intense interest leading to repetition, for example, washing hands again and again until the skill was mastered and perfected. Each of the activities is purposeful and carefully constructed-- it is not the child set free with the bucket to wash her hands. She is fascinated with the order, purposefully constructed and guided by the lesson.

Observing the children's great interest at San Lorenzo in the practical activities of cleaning, repairing, and gardening, she began giving children practical life lessons in using these child-sized work objects. What is involved in washing the table, sweeping the floor, and planting a bulb? The children showed spontaneous, irresistible, and repeated interest. We know now that the practical life activities were satisfying a sensitive period need. It supported their need for functional independence. She made it possible for them to satisfy the need of the sensitive period, rather than tell them to sit and listen and complete the work she selected for them. They increased in confidence taking care of their space, and their motor skills increased as they practiced them.

Because there were 60 children in attendance, she gave them lessons in social behavior. Spontaneously, they children took great pride in their space and began acting with courtesy and grace toward one another. For the children, these Practical Life activities satisfy the developmental need. What started as an interest in hygiene and an orderly environment became the transformation of these children into serene, courteous, proud individuals with a restored sense of dignity.

Although the exercises are called Practical Life, the emphasis is on the element of them being exercises for life; they are not in essence practical activities. They are developmental activities.

What is the child's experiences of the Practical Life activities before coming to the Montessori classroom?

These activities have been done on and around her since her birth. Every child who comes to us has had some contact with the activities, depending on the social conditions. The participation in the environment can only come after the child gains the basic skill of movement, and once the child has the basic skill of movement, the child wants to participate and building a mental orientation toward the people and the environment around her. As her knowledge of her environment increases, she needs to exercise her faculties, or else they cannot be refined further. You will see her trying to help. By age 2 1/2, the urge to do work herself is irresistible, in the form of the unconscious horme urging the child.

All of these Practical Life activities are full of movement. The order and sequence appeals to the sensitive period for order. She perceives through her senses the outcome of the activity. It was dirty and now it is clean. It is accessible to her intelligence. She is now building that sense of self within, in response to the more controlled movements and harmonized movements with the will. Her work now is the task of integrating her personality. The more she exercises her movements in unity with the will and attains more control of personal movements, the more she actualizes herself.

What are the needs satisfied by the activities of Practical Life?

1.  Functional Independence. At each developmental level, the person seeks to be as independent as possible.
2. The newly-developed of motor skills and incipient will seek to be unified. Montessori calls this the coordination of movement. The movements are coming under the rule of the intelligence.

If she does not achieve these kinds of growth by age 2 to 3, her entire development will suffer. Without, her movements will not support her intellect. She will not move purposely. Or, she will not be capable of holding a writing instrument. As human beings, development depends on the coronation of movement. If she doesn't find the help and satisfy the vital internal urge, we will see frustration and conflict. If your development cannot follow the natural path, you will begin to see deviations from what is healthy.

In the Casa, the child will be immediately comfortable with the teacher, because the child is oriented by activities that they see, also, at home and in their community. With freedom to chose activities, within the environment, the child is immediately at ease, as if in a therapeutic setting. They immediately trust their environment. The Practical Life exercises always calm and center children who are feeling out of control.

What are the practical life activities? 

There is a group of movements called the elementary movements. Each of these must be mastered before the general Practical Life activities can be performed. It may not be fascinating to adults to do the pouring and spooning activities, but for the child, they become an end in and of themselves. They love repeating these foundational skills until perfected.

It is important that none of these materials should become teaching materials: but I must not use them as teaching materials. I must set them up so that the child can satisfy their own developmental need for self-construction, not for me to "teach" with the materials.

The other group of Practical Life activities focus on the line in the classroom. All children, in all places, have great fascination with following and balancing along a line on the floor. Every time Maria Montessori came in the Casa, she also challenged them to be very quiet and still, almost as a game. These are the coordination and control of movement activities.

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

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