Discuss the principle underlying the Practical Life exercises and how it fosters independence in children. What is Practical Life exercise?
Practical life exercise means the basic everyday life, all the things we need to for daily living. Dr Maria Montessori felt that children need to be shown and given opportunities so that they learn how to do everyday living activities in a purposeful way.
“The child can only develop by means of experience in his environment. We call such experience work.” – Maria Montessori
Children prefer to work than to play and they can only be in their natural self, when their natural self is satisfied through work. It’s also through work they acquire concentration, co-ordination, control, independence and order. Purpose of Practical Life exercise
Dr Montessori observed that children need order at a specific sensitive period in their development. If not provided during this period the opportunity is foregone. A routine is important as well as a place for everything and everything in its place. This offers the child for orderly self-construction. Co-ordination refers to co-ordinating large and small muscle movements as well as eye-hand co-ordination that reflect the respective development of child’s mental life.
For example, a child who is pouring beans from one jug to another. As they pour, they become transfixed by the look of the beans emptying as well as the sound of the beans hitting the glass jar. It is a satisfying, almost calming sound that they strive to repeat over and over again. They focus intently on the task at hand, developing those concentration skills that are necessary to observe the world around them and to focus on later learning.
A degree of co-ordination is required to successfully pour those beans without spilling them. Balancing beads on a spoon, sewing a button, picking up rice with chopsticks, all require great dexterity and strong fine motor skills. All activities in the Montessori Practical Life exercise those finger muscles and develop fine motor skills. Co-ordination is necessary when learning writing and art skills, balancing while walking and performing everyday tasks like tying shoes.
An element of control is necessary in co-ordination skills. Control also encompasses the ability to manage the amount of force used when driving a nail into a piece of wood, tightening a screw, stopping when pouring liquid or shutting a door quietly. The child also needs control over their muscles as they walk across a room or around a mat, as they carry materials or a tray from a shelf, and as they roll up a mat.
“Man achieves his independence by making efforts. To be able to do a thing without any help from others: this is independence. If it exists, the child can progress rapidly; if it does not, his progress will be slow.” (The Absorbent Mind, 1967, p155)
It is very important that the child is given freedom to do these exercises at a time the child pleases; he should be allowed to try, make mistakes and correct his mistakes by himself without any help. The satisfaction of completing an activity drives the child towards independence.
Young children’s main goal in life is to develop independence. How often does one hear the cry of a young child, “I can do it myself!” Practical Life exercise teaches children how to perform everyday living skills that enhance their independence. They learn how to pour and use different utensils, prepare and serve food to themselves and others. Care of self-skills such as dressing frames, allow them to get themselves dressed. Care of the environment skills allow them to look after their own room and or toys.
Children crave order in their environment and lives. The Practical Life area is set up with a definite order. Activities are placed on the shelf from left to right and top to bottom. This is because one reads left to right and top to bottom. Activities themselves have a definite order in which steps are performed. Categories of Practical Life Exercises
Practical Life exercises are grouped into four different categories, development of motor skills, care of environment, care of self and social grace and courtesy. Exercises in each of these categories provide the opportunity to do purposeful work and are designed to teach the child life skills, so that they may became confident to do their daily chores at home.
Activities grouped under “Development of Motor Skills”, such as carrying, pouring, squeezing and twisting give the opportunity to exercise and co-ordinate body movements of the child. Movement is very important to the child because it contributes and spiritual development of the child.
“Through movement, he acts upon his external environment and thus carries out his personal mission in the world. Movement is not only an impression of the ego but it is an indispensable factor in the development of consciousness, since it is the only real means which places the ego in a clearly defined relationship with external reality.” (The Secret of childhood, 1966)
The child learns to ‘Care of the Environment’ from exercises like cutting, cleaning, washing, polishing, sewing and more. They learn that they are a part of the environment and learn to respect and develop a sense of responsibility towards the environment. Also the child will gradually learn how to gain greater control of his motor movements so that he would be able to perform more complex tasks later on. Some of the activities such as washing of table can be carried out as a group task, which helps the child to be socialized.
The exercises in ‘Care of Self’ category are designed to provide the child skills need for his sole independence. In order to gain independence, the child needs to establish will and discipline in order. Some of the activities in this category are on how to dress himself and stay clean by washing himself, hands, face, feet as well as his belongings, shoes, napkins and etc.
Between the age of 2½ to 6 years old, the child is in a sensitive period for the learning of good manners. The exercises of ‘Social Grace and Courtesy’ are focused on developing will power, establish a proper posture, greet people, excuse one and interrupt when necessary. Maria Montessori considers the social grace and courtesy activities as the most important exercises in the practical life curriculum. She felt that when children are first brought into a Montessori classroom, emphasis must be placed on social grace exercise.
Role of a Directress
The first stage of Practical Life exercise is the role of a Directress. The directress introduces the exercise by telling the child its name and purpose and showing the child where to find the materials, how to carry them to a workspace and how to lay them out ready to start.
The directress demonstrates how to do the activity, step by step. The sequence of steps is choreographed and rehearsed by the teacher beforehand. Each movement is well defined, very slow and clearly distinguishable from the next so the child can see exactly how it is executed.
While presenting the exercise, the directress’s attention focuses, not on the child, but on the activity, in this way modelling to the child where attention needs to be directed for the exercise to be successful. As the presentation unfolds, the teacher draws the child’s attention to points of interest, moments of challenge in the sequence that are critical to achieving the goal of the exercise.
In a Montessori classroom the directress plays a major role. She need to be properly trained, be a good role model and she should be able to develop and maintain a happy and rewarding teacher-child relationship.
“The first essential is that the teacher should go thru an inner, spiritual preparation –cultivate certain aptitudes in the moral order.” (Her Life and work, 1998, p298)
The teacher’s prime objectives are to maintain order in the prepared environment, facilitate the development of the child, encourage independence and self-sufficiency.
The second stage of Practical Life exercise occurs when the child chooses the activity and independently imitates and repeats the steps presented by the teacher. This is the stage in which, Montessori educators believe, learning takes place. The practical purpose of the exercise may spark a child’s initial interest but the interest is sustained by the sequence of exact and precise movements. During independent work, many children talk to themselves as they concentrate on performing each step in the sequence.
The child’s desire to choose the exercise is a reflection of how well the teacher has matched the activity to the child’s interests. If a child shows no interest in following up a presentation with independence work, the teacher continues to observe the child’s spontaneous activity and presents other exercises that might be better matched to child’s current interests. How well an exercise had been pre-analysed, prepared and presented contributes to the child’s ability to complete it successfully.
The teacher observes each child’s independent work and might give a follow-up presentation at a later time to show how to refine some element of the exercise. If children are not successful at all, the teacher will redirect their attention to an activity they can complete successfully. The teacher might repeat the lesson at a later time, but always in a way that ensures the child has no sense of ever having been successful.
Montessori educators believe that the everyday know-how children gain through the exercises of practical life is a solid foundation for self-confidence. Because children become genuinely competent and accomplished in the tasks of daily life, their self-confidence is built on a reality they can verify for themselves every day.
It is important to provide the child an environment to work on activities of their own choice at their own pace experiencing freedom and self-discipline while developing towards independence. Even though materials in Practical Life area are the least standardized, exercises needs to be carefully though and designed. A prepared environment should consist of purposeful and meaningful materials and properly trained instructors.
When preparing materials the teacher needs to consider few principles of the Montessori Practical Life materials which satisfy Child’s development needs. Firstly she needs to make sure that each material given to the child should have a definite purpose, for example the mat is laid to mark the area of his workstation, handling the spoon develops child’s skill of spooning which leads to independence. Secondly materials should progress from simple to more complex design and usage. As a preliminary exercise for transferring solid objects we could give the child a spoon and later, it could progress to tweezers, chopsticks and etc.
Also it should be designed to prepare the child indirectly for future learning’s such as writing, mathematics and scientific concepts. We prepare the child for wiring by teaching them the pincer grip, using thumb, index and middle fingers to hold objects and by left to right and top to bottom concepts, so that these orders naturally incarnates in the child’s mind. The mathematical concepts such as judgement of capacity and volume, division, calculation and exactness includes in activities of spooning, pouring and sweeping. The activity, transferring water using a sponge gives the child the specific concept of weight. The child could feel the weight of the sponge defers when the water is absorbed and when the water is released.
Dr Maria Montessori said, “Each individual should become aware of his own errors. Each should have a means of checking, so that he can tell if he is right or not.” (Absorbent Mind, 1967, p247)
So she included the path to perfection, which she called “the control of error” within the materials itself so the child would be able to observe the activity he completes and understand his own mistakes. If a child has finished working on the dressing frame with large buttons, and he can see that buttons had gone through wrong buttonholes or buttoning halfway or seeing only half of the button come up the flap, these would be his control of errors. He has the opportunity to guide himself to correct his mistakes.
When preparing the activity in the Montessori classroom the directress need to make sure that all materials are kept together in a basket or a tray and grouped accordingly to the level of development. The activity should have its unique location and be reachable to the child so that the child could use the materials of their own choice and return the exercise, leading to independence and self-discipline. Also it is important to be providing attractive and clean child friendly and child size materials. Each activity should be limited in quantity.
In conclusion it is apparent that Practical Life Exercises refines movement, providing a foundation in the early learning, attitudes and dispositions. Practical Life exercises also provide children a sense of accomplishment as they engage in real, meaningful work with tangible results. The familiar home-like environment of the practical life corner allows children to gain independence, order, concentration and confidence as they carry out thoughtfully prepared activities. This lead to normalization.
1) Maria Montessori, 1867, The Absorbent Mind, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston 2) Maria Montessori, 1966, The Secret of Childhood, New York, The Random House Publishing Group 3) Susan Feez, 2010, Montessori and Early Childhood, London, Sage Publication 4) E.M. Standing, 1998, Maria Montessori – Her Life and work, New York, the Penguin Group 5) David Gettman, 1987, Basic Montessori, New York, St. Martin’s Press