Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Polishing silver in the pk/k primary classroom: care for the environment

It is said that practical life activities are reflections of the culture. Why do we do these activities of hand washing dishes and clothes, if they are not reflected in the culture? By performing these activities by hand, we show them the sequence of what is happening in our machines. It also means that they would know how to wash items if the machines broke. It is the difference between hand adding as opposed to using the calculator to derive the answers. We say that history lessons are challenging with children in the primary age, but we can do it with personal narratives and photographs. 

Although this is not a practical activity in most homes, it is still an important activity as an opportunity to use the skills to take care of our things used in Montessori primary classrooms. Look for objects that are not sealed with a coating to keep it from tarnishing. We are doing this with the child's needs in mind. The child needs the opportunity to engage and care for the environment. We are showing the child their own capacity to be stewards of their own environment, deliberately and intentionally. The objective is not to be a great polisher; the objective is the development of the entire human person.

There was a sequence in the preparation, not just in the actual work. This is different from hand washing, because hand washing itself is the sequence of actions. Get the underlay, get the tray, get the apron, set out everything on the mat, lay out the items in sequence. What is the logic in the order that you lay out the items? The order of use. We dampen the cotton ball before setting it in the polish.

The direct aim of polishing is to orient the child with the care of the environment. They are becoming conscious of the needs of the environment and her ability to respond to those needs in specific ways. The child becomes aware, later, of things the child can care for in the environment. The first time, we find the materials and look for something to clean; later, the child sees the dull object and gets to work cleaning it. As her will develops, she is more able to respond to the needs of the environment.

The indirect aim is the coordination of movement, where the movements are working together with the will to create an integrated personality.

After setup, we allow the child to choose an item from the environment which can be polished. It is not in the tray, because we have to orient ourselves in the environment. We find a small and smooth bowl in the environment which is smooth and easy. Let's look at this one. You can go back and polish any of the things in the room when we are done, as much as you want. We also observe other objects in the environment that are metal. As we apply polish, we also find that the cotton ball is getting dirty with tarnish and call attention to that. After applying polish to all sides, show the child how to buff it with the cloth, folded just so over the hand, for the child to observe the vigorous movements of buffing the bowl. Show your excitement at the shine. Show how to reform the mitt for  the other side of the bowl.

Applying the polish is also a point of interest. A criteria of perfection arises when the whole bowl is covered with polish. It becomes dull. The final points of interest are the shine coming across on the material and seeing your face in the bowl. Observe all the tarnish that comes onto the mitt-- it tells the child that they are making the change.

Later, if the child needs help getting into all of the features of the more complex objects, at that point, show the extension activities for the more complex objects.

As a pedagogical note, the age of the child is whatever age the child is when they have achieved the ability to set up and follow through the activity, all the way to appropriate clean-up. Display on the bottom shelf additional polishing cloths and cotton balls, so that the child can replenish them when they are done with the activity.

As an alternative, there could be a water pitcher for the tiny water bowl, but it is an element of motor control to fill up the tiny bowl at the sink.


It appeals to the sensitive period for movement and for order, in the sequence of the activity. These activities transform the objects in our environment from decorative objects to thoughtful objects that we care for, for layers of connection. Our sensitivity and compassion underscores that there is nothing in the environment that is not intentional and prepared for our use and enjoyment.


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

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