Practical Life is the most important part of the Primary environment. It is. There, I said it. It is from this area that children develop skills that aid in their learning process throughout the rest of the classroom. At first glance, Practical Life might appear mindless or even purposeless to the adult. However, once the lessons are examined and children are observed completing material in Practical Life, anyone can see — and I mean SEE — the importance of this focus in the Montessori Method.
To define Practical Life, the words “practical” and “life” need to be separated. These activities are practical, meaning they are simple, ordinary tasks that help prepare and maintain order and hygiene. They are also practical in that they establish and maintain relationships, not just in the Casa (Italian for “house” and shortened from Casa dei Bambini or “children’s house”) but also for rest of one’s life. The second part of Practical Life is just that: life. These activities inform children about the world by teaching them to care for their environment and for inanimate objects that are part of daily routines. These activities are to be real, purposeful activities, as they are the basis of the intellect. Practical Life materials provide movement that is also purposeful and directed by the mind with an intelligent purpose. Adaption is another key element of Practical Life. Adaptation occurs as the mind and body are working in harmony. Other scientists beside Maria Montessori noted this. The whole body movement in the space of Practical Life activities, plus the work of the hands, builds intellect in children. The physical growth relates to the mental growth. Each child does this in the Casa by zipping, opening, buttoning, pouring, scrubbing and many other activities that promote movement.
For an adult, Practical Life activities amount to utilitarian tasks for cleanliness or safety. For children, they are helping to build their personality. Practical Life materials aid in their self-construction, independence and self-control. This, in turn, aids in developing their will through the movements that the activities require. Children are attracted to these materials through their movements and through the order in each activity. An example of this is when a child might wash a table that is not dirty or may have already been cleaned. The child is attracted to the movement and order of the activity, not the principle of a clean table. This is also an example of a material that includes many prerequisites for other materials and aids the child in forming logical order. Maria Montessori noted that children put forth maximum effort which fills an inner need. This work ultimately leads to satisfaction.
Independence is another essential quality of Practical Life that permits children to function in their environment. Independence leads to self-sufficiency and capability, which build confidence in children. The physical independence provided in Practical Life lessons equates with a psychological independence in children. The freedom of choice that exists in Casa and in Practical Life helps children solve problems and build social skills and challenges them to finish the task. It also allows them to learn to ask for help, which aids in their independence from adults. Practical Life also aids children in the control and coordination of movement. Many of the materials assist with hand and eye coordination as children must focus on small objects, such as spooning grains to ensure the grains are getting into the bowls. This also helps with dexterity because children at age 3 are building their hand strength for many tasks, especially in preparation for handwriting. Practical Life works with both the gross and fine motor skills, helping to also build strength in children’s wrists, arms and legs. This aids in their equilibrium, making activities easier with practice. Practical Life activities also help children cross their mid-line both horizontally and vertically. This helps their brain continue to integrate across both hemispheres.
One of the last and main goals of Practical Life is concentration. Over time, children are not aware of what is going on around them because their attention is riveted to an activity. Many of the materials in Practical Life give children opportunities for this to occur, as there are many steps associated with the activity that especially pique a child’s interest. Major change in personality will come through concentration. It is the point in which deviation begins to go away. Maria Montessori wrote that children are peaceful and normalized when this [concentration] occurs. This is one of the best observations in the Practical Life area. It is as if they are in their own place and time, and it also tells the adults in the community that is time for more work.
These are all smaller reasons why Practical Life is THE most important part of the Casa. The long-term goals of Practical Life include the completion of tasks, demonstrating the ability to organize, how to create order, how to sequence tasks and the importance of doing the essential. There is also a larger purpose and maybe WHY many of us do this work. Adults might ask, “Why does a child need Practical Life?” An answer is that we, as humans, are stewards of the planet, who strive to do right in the world. We want our children to also be this way, so we begin the process by giving them Practical Life lessons to teach them how their actions can change the world. It creates relationships with others and the environment that aid children as they grow. Practical Life creates a spirit of work that makes it purposeful and not a chore. The most important long-term goal or result is fulfillment. And, this adds to the cosmic harmony of the world.