Practical Life in the Montessori Elementary Room
If you are familiar with preschool Montessori, you are familiar with Practical Life exercises. The idea behind Practical Life is that children need to learn the skills of everyday life. As with many Montessori lessons, there is another pedagogical tool at work - many of these activities also double to help kids develop fine-motor skills. This is essential in a Montessori classroom - and as important a part of the curriculum as reading and mathematics.
In preschool, much of Practical Life looks like adult household activities, adorably kid-sized. Napkin folding, sweeping, table crumbing, polishing, apple-cutting, dressing frames - all of these are staples in preschool classrooms. My younger daughter could NEVER get enough of pumpkin scrubbing in the Fall, and I credit the practical life lessons in preschool for instilling my older daughter’s love of doing dishes. Other preschool Practical Life activities are more obviously geared towards developing coordination - pouring, scooping, and transferring all teach children how to control their movements carefully while also developing focus.
While preschool children are in a sensitive time for developing a love of order, elementary students are more interested in connecting to the world around them. Practical Life for elementary students retains its, well, practical aspect (the cleanliness of the room, for example), but adds emphasis on connections and an end goal or larger purpose.
Cleaning activities will still be an essential part of our day. As our Head Teacher, Heather, and I were chatting this week, she pointed out how wonderful it is to be in a classroom where the students feel a real sense of attachment to the room. If keeping the room in order is part of the students’ responsibility, they come to love the room. They are proud of its appearance. They are connected to their classroom community through their care of the space. Our classroom is already equipped with some great cleaning supplies for our students, thanks to donations to us from Marissa’s wonderful Norwex fundraiser in the Fall. We will have an added element of responsibility for our room, since we are sharing the space with the church preschool. Every Friday, our students will help us store our materials away and get the space ready for the church to use. Every Monday, we will work together to set up our room to be ready for the week.
Cooking and meal preparation is another element of Practical Life that will be central to our school. We will cook a weekly meal to share, taking turns to plan and prepare the food. We will eat lunch together daily and take turns to prepare the table (children especially enjoy getting to be host and decorating the table).
The children will prepare their snacks, whether it is popping popcorn, cutting an apple, or spreading nut butter on a rice cake. In this way, students will not only learn the practical skills of cooking and hosting a meal, but about nutrition.
We also feel strongly about the importance of having living things in our classroom with us. Taking responsibility for another living thing - whether a plant or a lizard - obviously gives students a strong sense of purpose. Since we will be in a shared space to begin our school, we are not quite sure how this will look yet - but we are committed to integrating this in some way, whether it is with a classroom pet and a few houseplants, or with a potted garden outside that we share with the church preschool.
Other Practical Life exercises include handcrafts. Elementary students love to create things to share with their friends or community. Embroidery, quilting, crochet, sewing, woodwork, and weaving could all be integrated into our room. (I love this idea for the first week or so of school). These activities have the added bonus of refining hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills - something that continues to need development beyond preschool. I loved quilting and embroidering in my Montessori elementary room and am extremely excited to pass this on to our students.
Community service becomes an especially appealing form of Practical Life for upper elementary students. Whether it is knitting hats to donate to a needy organization, spreading mulch at a community gardening event, or organizing a recycling drive, all of these activities give the students a sense of connection to their community, teach empathy, and of course teach important life skills.
Finally, Practical Life includes the extremely important element of Grace and Courtesy. Grace and Courtesy lessons again begin in preschool, and include teaching children to say thank you, please, not to interrupt, excuse themselves when they burp, etc. Basically, these lessons teach the children how to be polite. Grace and Courtesy clearly continues to be important in elementary school. Some children may need refreshers on these early lessons, of course, and new areas might need to be added. But new lessons are introduced dealing with how to work together to solve a problem or find consensus. Children work together, in a full-class meeting or in smaller meetings, to identify and solve the problems of the classroom. Many elementary rooms I have observed have posted classroom rules, created by the students in the first few weeks of class. With elementary Grace and Courtesy, we are still talking about being polite - but we are talking more broadly about peace-keeping and problem-solving.
Practical Life is one of my absolute favorite Montessori areas of instruction. Not only do I have very fond memories of this part of my education, but this really gets to the core of Montessori. It is here more than anywhere else in the classroom that children learn empathy, independence, community involvement, peace-keeping, and all those other characteristics that turn our students into the leaders of tomorrow.
Until next time,