What are “Practical Life activities”? and what’s their purpose?
Based on Montessori’s observations, at this age toys do not satisfy the child. What she needs are things that require her maximum efforts. In the previous months, the child’s goal was to exercise her hands and master her body movement. Now, she needs to “conquer the environment”. For this purpose, she wants to do “what she can do as soon as she can” to master the world. She begins to watch and imitate what her parents do. Montessori introduced the term “cycle of activity” and defined it as “exercises which are complete in themselves, even if they have no direct outer purpose… but are preparation for the activity which is to come… children do these things that seem useless, with great care and interest. They seem useless to us but the child is preparing himself and learning to coordinate his movement” (take pouring water as an example which prepares her for later activity of cooking/baking). The purpose of cycles of activity is not only to assist in coordination of movement but also to indirectly prepare her for later actions, to deepen her concentration, and to develop “constancy and patience” in her. Each sequence in a cycle of activity has a specific learning purpose and repeating it over and over again helps the child to get engaged at a deeper level. Montessori believed what the child needs now is to work with “structured materials” that allow her to imitate the adults in the environment and to follow her natural interest in completing cycles of activities. For this, Montessori introduced “practical life activities”, activities that are real and relate directly to adults’ everyday life (e.g. food preparation, dusting, washing dishes, baking, etc). Such activities are selected based on what adults do in their everyday lives. Their purpose is “to respect the possibilities of human life as found in the small child”. This means the adult is no longer a servant to the child but he/she is an educator that is using practical life activities as means for developing collaboration between the both of them.
(Please refer to chapter six of Montessori From The Start book by Paula Polk Lillard to explore this concept in more depth).
When are practical life activities introduced?
Montessori suggested around 15 months of age when the child can independently walk. This is only a guide. S took her first steps around 15 months of age. It means for her it has to be when she is confident to walk steadily on her own.
How should we set up a practical life activity?
When preparing/setting up practical life activities we must use materials that are real, child size, suitable for the job, durable and safe, and allow independence and repeated practice. Once we gather them we must think every step of the practice through from the child’s point of view. When we break down a simple activity to a number of small steps we realise how complicated our every day actions are and how much concentration and effort the child needs to carry out the task.
Once we gather the materials we put them on a tray in order from left to right and invite the child to watch us carry out the activity. We perform the activity slowly exaggerating and emphasising on each and every step. We position ourselves next to the child (not in the front) on the side that she can see better (usually to her left). Once we finished demonstrating we invite her to have a turn. It is important to follow the same sequence every time we demonstrate the same activity so she can remember but as she practices over and over she will develop her own system and explore it in her own way. Remember, the end product is not the purpose and the child is not interested in the finished job, the process is important (e.g. when wiping a table she enjoys the actions, she is not looking for a dry table). As she practices she becomes more proficient and she will get there in her own time. At this point, we must step back and do not interfere. We allow her to become deeply engaged. Praise and comments takes away her concentration and distracts her to get back to where she was, a simple smile is enough to show her we are happy with her effort.
Through repetition the child learns to correct herself because of the feedback loop between the brain and the hands. We must be patient and allow the child to take all the time she needs in her self-formation.
I will be sharing some practical life activities that I have set up for S in a separate post. I will break down each activity into small steps that makes it clear how important it is to demonstrate clearly each and every step to the child.