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characteristics of practical life activities

Removing kernels of corn
Here's a good example of a practical life activity that is culturally relevant here in rural Mexico. Sandra is removing the corn kernels, one by one. Later, she or another child will mill the corn outside. To complete the process, an older child who has had a lesson can make tortillas to share with the class as part of the day's snack:
Making tortillas - practical life
What is practical life? My short answer - everything the child does to care for herself and to help maintain the community in which she lives. Practical life is the basis of any Montessori community or any home. Without it, living in community, be it in a family or in a classroom, would be impossible. Here are just a few examples of practical life activities:
Wiping your nose Setting the table Washing your face Preparing food Washing dishes Feeding the animals Cleaning the house Cleaning your shoes Zipping your coat Buckling your shoe Doing the laundry Caring for your garden

Some of these things we (adults) enjoy - some of them we come to abhor, and some of them we do without even thinking about it! Young children, on the other hand, truly enjoy the activities of practical life. They help them to develop coordination, concentration, and independence. In addition, they are gaining new skills, developing helpful and selfless habits, and learning to adapt to their culture.

Here are the basic characteristics of practical life activities:

Practical life exercises are things the child has already seen regularly in his family life. She might
have witnessed an older sibling, a parent, or a grandparent perform these tasks on a daily basis. Perhaps she has even done certain exercises before coming into the Montessori environment. This familiarity helps the child orient to her new classroom.

Culturally Specific
The exercises should be relevant in the child’s day-to-day life. For example, if the child lives in
Southeast Asia, the practical life exercises offered by the directress will differ from those offered in France. If the culture eats their meals with chopsticks, it would be useless to have an exercise dealing with setting the table with a spoon, fork and knife. Practical life activities should help the child adapt to her environment.

Providing the child with real, functional tools and activities conveys to the child that her work is
valued. (Another key point here is that the activities themselves should be purposeful. We must ask ourselves - is tweezing beads from one tray to another really a purposeful activity? Not really. While there are MANY activities that we could come up with that "help the child develop her pincer grip," these don't really have a place on the Montessori practical life shelf. Before putting an activity on the shelf, ask yourself: "Would I do this in my day-to-day life? Is this necessary to maintain my classroom (or home) environment? Or is this simply busy work?" Such busy work that the child enjoys and which helps her concentrate would, however, be very appropriate to place on a toy shelf.

Physically Proportioned
Well-proportioned tools help the child to fine-tune his motor skills and perfect precise movements. The size, weight and design of the material should be taken into account before offering it to the child. It should be heavy enough to provide tactile feedback to the child about the success of his movements, but should not be unwieldy or awkward in his small hands. Michael Olaf and Montessori Services provide wonderful child-sized items.

Breakable a.k.a. "Get rid of that sippy cup!
The value of glass in the environment extends beyond its aesthetic qualities; if the child recognizes that a piece of material is breakable, she will show care in her movements. In addition, a glass pitcher weights more than its plastic counterpart, giving the child feedback on her actions. In the event of a breakage, the teacher acts very detached and impartial about the accident. She does not lecture: she simply states that it should be swept up. The teacher removes the broken material and its corresponding exercise from the shelf and waits for several days before replacing it. This gives the children an appreciation of and respect for the material, knowing that it cannot be immediately replaced.

The material should be aesthetically pleasing, clean, and functional. Children are attracted to
beauty and order, and the teacher recognizes this and assures that all of the exercises and materials are ready for the children before the start of the day. (A word about plastic, here. Instead of filling your home or classroom with plastic trays, take a visit to your local thrift stores! Thrift stores, in fact, are the BEST place to look for trays. On one trip a while back, I was able to fill a large box with the most beautiful silver trays - each one original. The advantage of silver trays? You can now put out a silver polishing activity!)

Color-coding the exercises to indicate level of difficulty helps the child to choose work independently. It also adds to the beauty and order of the environment. Do not sacrifice beauty for color, however. Like I said, a silver or brass tray is much more desirable than an orange plastic one.

Order is found throughout the practical life exercises. The exercises are presented in order of
difficulty and then displayed on the shelves in order of difficulty. The teacher places the more elementary exercises on the left of the shelf; the more challenging exercises are toward the right. The presentation of the exercises themselves remains consistent. The steps are clearly
demonstrated in sequential order. In an activity such as table washing, the teacher displays the necessary tools in the order in which they are needed, from left to right. This attention to order helps the child integrate and form connections between things in his environment.

The children are presented with enough activities so that their interest remains peaked. This
does not necessitate an exceedingly large number of exercises - even less if you are homeschooling! First, the environment should only contain exercises that are pertinent to classroom life. The child would be overwhelmed if presented with too many choices. Giving them a tenable number of choices helps them become decisive and come to understand their own preferences. In addition, the child’s natural tendency is toward repetition; therefore it is beneficial to have a limited number of activities on the shelves. If given the opportunity to repeat an exercise, the child will acquire a level of mastery, and the consequent independence. Instead of placing everything out at once, consider rotating activities to maintain interest.
Only one type of each exercise is on the shelf. If a classmate has already chosen the shoe polishing exercise, the child will have to choose an alternative piece of work. It is an important and constructive lesson to learn that one’s first choice is not always available. The child begins to understand that the classroom
community shares its resources.

Phew! Did you make it this far? Then you must really be interested in Montessori! If you want to learn more, join the Montessori By Hand Yahoo group in the side bar. Sign up for a nice little Montessori-style surprise! (Hint: read my most recently posted message to the Yahoo group.)

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