When I visualize the areas of the Montessori classroom, I see a tree in my mind’s eye. A tall and beautiful tree with many branches, perhaps an oak or baobab tree. A tree that has a strong root system beneath the grass at the base, many roots like thick and sturdy fingers to support the girth of the trunk and the weight of the branches. The roots and base of the tree is the area of Practical Life.
The exercises in Practical Life are the foundation of Montessori education. When the children come into the classroom, they take off their shoes, place them under the bench, put on their slippers and enter the familiar world of Everyday Living. Through purposeful work, such as, pouring themselves a glass of water to quench their own thirst, washing clean a table they used for manipulating playdough, sweeping up slivers of cut paper, the child is nurturing within themselves the aims of the Practical Life area. The child is developing an inner sense of order, coordination, their ability to concentrate, gaining a greater sense of independence, as well as nurturing the development of their self esteem. It is through the process of meeting their own needs, caring for others, the classroom environment and materials, that children begin to learn how to learn.
The object of Montessori education is to nurture a love for learning. It is through the exercises of Practical Life that children are given the foundation, or the roots, which they need to grow and blossom on this journey. The exercises of Practical Life, such as preparing food for the enjoyment and nourishment of one’s self and others, taking care of spilled liquids, or polishing tarnished metal until it shines and you can see your face reflected in it. These exercises are opportunities for self discovery, self mastery, and self esteem. It is through care of one’s self that the children learn not only to recognize their own needs, but also the needs of others around them. Montessori said, “It is interesting to see how little by little, the children become aware of forming a community which behaves as such. . . Once they have reached this level, the children no longer act thoughtlessly, but put the group first and try to succeed for its benefit.”
Because children absorb unconsciously from their surroundings the importance of the prepared environment becomes paramount in the Montessori classroom. The prepared environment of the practical life area is uncluttered, inviting, home like, clean and orderly. The furniture is appropriately sized to meet the needs of the children, and the materials are beautiful and call to the child to be held, explored and mastered.
The most important aspect of the prepared environment is the emotional climate; “a fearful child can not learn” and so the classroom should be both prepared with appropriate materials and also with clearly defined ground rules, understanding, consistency and love.
Just as a tree can not grow without rain and sunlight our children will not feel the freedom to grow without a nurturing environment. It is magical to watch the young child, who has a clear and confident grasp on the classroom ground rules, begin to risk take and explore works and activities he would before only admire from a far.
Montessori said, “In our schools we give everything needed so that the child can imitate the actions he sees in his own home. But we have implements specially made for him, of the right size to suit his diminutive proportions and strength.”
A child should not string beads, pound nails into clay, or wash a table top clean because he is awaiting a gold star or words of praise from his teacher. Within the Montessori classroom it is intrinsic motivation that we encourage; it is the process rather than the product that we support and promote as teachers. It is a goal of the practical life area for children to discover that mistakes are not something to be feared, but rather opportunities to learn from experience. When the child is confident in their ability to clean up a spill they are more likely to attempt to pour.
When Dr. Montessori began her Casa Dei Bambini in 1907 she designed the classroom materials to meet the developmental needs of the children ranging in age from three to six years old. Based on her many hours of observation, Dr. Montessori created exercises and activities she called “work”. A child’s play is their work within the Montessori classroom. The exercises are arranged in a sequence designed by Dr. Montessori with the above mentioned aims in mind. Materials are always presented from left to right and from the top to the bottom, large items before small, gross motor to fine motor development, with the use of dry materials before introducing liquid ones, few materials to many, simple to complex, skills in isolation to skills in combination, and with the use of hand before the addition of tools.
Within the Practical Life area there are five physical skills found in everyday living, and they are: pouring, scooping and spooning, twisting, lacing and stringing and squeezing. The basic elements of these activities are purposeful yet simple, arranged in an orderly manner, with allowance for the child to control his/her own error, and to repeat if desired.
In closing, in my mind’s eye the beautiful strong tree from the roots on up, nurtures the children as they grow and learn. The Montessori classroom, is this wonderful climbing tree, it holds such treasures for our children. Within the strong branches of this tree the child is set free to create, imagine, and ultimately master the very process of learning.