Montessori practical life


The ultimate aim of practical life is to lead the child to physical and intellectual independence; this is specifically where we give the child what he needs to prepare himself for life—to answer his unconscious drives. By so doing, we aid the child in developing synthetic movement. Synthetic movement is movement directed by the mind to an intelligent purpose. The ability to intentionally direct the movements of the body is necessary for all future academic work. Thus, all practical life activities indirectly prepare the child not only for the requirements of daily living but also for all future learning.

Remember that the child’s nature is non-utilitarian at this age. This means they do things just for the sake of doing them; they do not necessarily work towards a larger goal. For example, many young children love the challenge of carrying a bowlful of water across the room without spilling a drop. They don’t need to deliver the bowl to anyone. They are just happy to carry it back and forth across the room! It is this unique nature of the young child that we must take advantage of by offering preliminary exercises that prepare them for the larger tasks ahead.

Preliminary Exercises

Preliminary exercises isolate individual tasks that will later be combined into a larger task. For example, before a child can be expected to wear a smock while painting, they are first taught how to put on, take-off, and store a smock. This is done without any connection to painting. It is just a preliminary exercise involving only the child and the smock. Examples include:

  • How to use the sink
  • How to wet and wring out a sponge
  • How to get the right amount of toilet paper
  • How to carry a book
  • How to turn a page in a book
  • How to tuck in a chair
  • How to carry a pitcher/jug
  • How to fill a pitcher/jug in the sink
  • How to empty/dry a pail
  • How to use clothespins
Care of the Person

These activities prepare the child to meet the requirements of tending to his own bodily needs each day. They are critical for the development of self-confidence (which develops as a natural consequence of the child seeing himself succeed repeatedly at the tasks before him). Examples include:

  • Buttoning, zipping, tying, lacing
  • Washing hands/face
  • Taking socks/shoes on and off
  • Preparing food
  • How to use a knife/cutting sequence:
    • Spreading jam
    • Cutting/spreading butter
    • Cutting bananas/tofu/watermelon
    • Cutting banana bread
    • Cutting pickles
    • Cutting apples
    • Cutting carrots
    • Cutting loaf bread
  • Sewing
Care of the Environment

These activities connect the child with her surroundings and allow her to assume responsibility for her environment. Care of environment activities create a sense of joy, pride, and delight in not only cleanliness but the artistic and wholesome elements (e.g., plants, pets) of our human spaces. Examples include:

  • Dusting
  • Sweeping
  • Folding
  • Washing a table
  • Washing cloths
  • Ironing
  • Setting a table
  • Polishing
  • Caring for pets
  • Caring for plants
  • Flower arranging
Control of Movement

It is through movement that the child is able to organize and build his intelligence. Movement cannot be set apart from higher cognitive skills—they are intrinsically related (as are the mind and body). These include activities that isolate the quality of bodily movement for its own purpose. Examples include:

  • Walking on a line heel-to-toe
  • Marching on a line
  • Carrying a bowlful of water across the room
  • Wearing a blindfold and finding someone who is ringing a bell
Grace & Courtesy

The grace and courtesy exercises allow children to adapt in a beautiful fashion to the culture around them. These exercises help the children acquire self-confidence and independence because they prepare them to behave well in all likely social situations. These are taught by playing let’s pretend/ role-plays. Examples include:

  • How to offer help
  • How to politely get someone’s attention
  • How to say excuse me, please, thank you, and you’re welcome
  • How to ask for a turn
  • How to wait for your turn
  • How to invite someone to play with you
  • How to politely decline an invitation
  • How to respond if someone says they don’t want you to come to their birthday party
  • What to do if someone grabs your toy

When setting up the child’s environment, Montessori Guides may choose to place pictures of children behaving well (e.g., shaking hands, sitting politely at a restaurant, holding a door for another) in sequence on the practical life shelves. This is her reminder to give these lessons to the children and it reminds the children that they have learned these behaviors and may practice them by repeating the let’s pretend role plays they were taught.

All of the above exercises are dynamic—they must be changed by the guide throughout the year to keep up with the abilities of the class. For example, if everyone can use a spoon well, you don't need spooning on the shelf. While maintaining the child’s sense of order is critical, minor adjustments of the shelves when an old activity is removed and a new one is introduced is acceptable; this in fact must occur to maintain the logical sequence and progression of difficulty of the shelves.

Here is an example of a practical life presentation on using the buckling frame.

Creating Practical Life Activities

So far you have seen many examples of possible practical life activities but not one concise list. There is a reason for this. Practical life exercises vary based on culture. In some Latin cultures, children are taught to always look down when speaking with an elder. In the US, we are taught to look people in the eye. In some cultures, people are taught to remove their shoes before entering a room. In Kazakhstan, if you complement your host, your host is obligated to give you whatever you say you like…to keep forever! Thus, Kazakh children are never taught to offer complements while children in London become skilled at this.

So, a trained Montessori Guide must be prepared to create her own practical life curriculum based on the situations children will encounter in their contemporary culture. To help, we have the general guidelines set forth by Dr. Montessori—the prerequisites for practical life exercises. When the trained guide creates a practical life exercise, the activity must:

  1. Aid the child to mastery of self—developing his movements to an intelligent end
  2. Be relevant for what happens in the child’s world today—current/contemporary
  3. Have a purposeful, intelligent reason (not just busy work)
  4. Be presented at the child’s level using real items that he will find in his own environment for their actual use (e.g., using a melon baller only to ball melons; using a strawberry huller only to hull strawberries)
  5. Require purposeful movement
  6. Lead to the refinement of gross and fine motor skills
  7. Be ordered and sequenced
  8. Allow for independence (the order will free them)
  9. Allow for both physical and mental functioning
  10. Correspond to the abilities of the group (ranging from easy to difficult to meet the needs of all children)
  11. Allow for repetition
  12. Encourage silence (which encourages concentration)
  13. Have points of interest (to maintain the child’s interest and allow them to stay with the work so they can develop their attention span); there are generally 2, 3 or 4 points of interest for each work

Here's an example of a polishing activity.

Additional Resources

Be sure to practice your presentation alone or with a friend many times before presenting any materials to a child... you want your presentation to be flawless, precise, consistent/repeatable, and completely free from distractions so that the child can focus on, connect with, and learn from the materials.  Each lesson is like a choreographed dance that you memorize the movements for. Your performance of the movements must be precise but your interactions with an individual child will of course vary somewhat as you adapt to meet the needs of the moment. This flexibility amidst precision is the true art of guiding children.