Practical life – starting point of the Montessori classroom?

Practical life activities are often seen as the starting point of Montessori education because they enable children to focus their attention on a use of objects and, through repetition, perfect the skills of using them. The activities usually relate to objects used in daily life and reflect the culture of the child.  From a very young age, babies and toddlers observe intently our use of these items and often forcefully express the urge to do as we do.  This spontaneous urge to be like the adult is behind many of the activities of daily living which they experience at home, and which we offer on the shelves in the Children’s House.   I have had a powerful reminder of this urge very recently when our one-year-old granddaughter started to use a folk to feed herself.  Initially she was very happy to be given cutlery of her own, however within a week, as she practised the use of her little fork, she insisted on using the same set her older sister has – whilst her four-year-old sister now demands to use the same cutlery as her parents and grandparents use. 

The perfection of movement which leads to skill competence enables the child to be independent of adult help, to grow in concentration, satisfying their sense of order, offering tools for social interactions and boosting their confidence.  Montessori practitioners refer to them as the indirect, yet vital benefits/ aims or objectives of these activities.  Montessori also introduces us to the concept of indirect preparation – one of the hidden gems of her pedagogy.  As children perfect the use of everyday objects, they also refine their manipulative and cognitive skills which serve as emergent skills used later when they are ready to embark on more academic learning.  In this way: the flexibility of the wrist and the tripod grip will be useful as the child begins to form letters, pouring activities will refine not only eye hand co-ordination but will also serve as preparation for: estimation of volume, the capacity to sort objects will lay the foundation of working with sets of objects or numbers in multiplication, whilst learning to tie bows will offer opportunities to help friends and work in a methodical sequence. 

Lillard (1972:62) explains in Montessori A Modern Approach “This principle of indirect preparation enables the child to experience success in his endeavour much more readily and aids the development of self-confidence and initiative”.  In recent years developmental psychologist such a Bruner and before him Vygotsky, have come to refer to this process as scaffolding of the child’s learning.  This term can also be used when we think about the child’s spontaneous learning through small manageable steps, using activities which introduce a new challenge once the child has mastered the previous level of difficulty. This quality of the materials can be observed for example in the sequence of the pouring activities or when using the dressing frames.  Later on, the sequence of literacy and numeracy activities demonstrates this process really well. However, as Lillard (1972:61) reminds us when discussing the lessons we give, “Matching the materials to the child’s inner needs is essential, there can be no rote following of the designed progression in introducing the materials.  The teacher must be flexible in altering the sequence or omitting materials an individual child shows no need for”.  We need to be mindful of this guidance particularly when considering the practical life activities. It is quite likely that the child may have acquired many of the practical life skills at home, particularly today; we need to bear in mind the range of advice and guidance available to parents in support of home learning during Covid isolation.

In this discussion of indirect preparation, the role played by the prepared environment must not be forgotten. It needs to invite the child, it needs to be well organised, and accessible and appealing to the child’s sensitive periods and interest.  In this context there are strong links between Montessori’s view of the indirect approach to learning and Piaget’s theory which places value on the environment experienced by the child. Both agree that the child’s growth of creativity and social and affective characteristics develop spontaneously as the child interacts with a prepared environment.

As we come to introduce Hannah’s Baynham’s reflections of practical life and their meaning in the context of cosmic education in our Montessori Europe webinar this Tuesday at 6 pm (UTC), we should think about Montessori’s principles of the indirect approach to learning.  For so long the notion of Cosmic education has been closely linked with the Cosmic plan as introduced in the elementary curriculum.  However, it is our view that the young child has the capacity to embrace the bigger picture of cosmic education, if the principles are considered in the context of their innate spirituality, as seen in young children’s responses to nature and in their expressions of empathy for each other. As they engage in real activities which contribute to family life, they grow in their sense of belonging and being part of a community; confidence and initiative are enhanced and their sense of interconnectedness reinforced. These are important foundations for the life long learning in respecting our planet, appreciating our interconnectedness and taking responsibility for ourselves, the community and ultimately our planet. As Hannah will remind us, young children need our patience and trust in their capacity to engage with the environment be it at home, at nursery, in the forest, garden, on the beach or by a river.  

Join us this Tuesday, 2 February, at 6 pm (UTC) / 7 pm (CET) to hear more from Hannah, and have an opportunity to explore some of these issues with participants of this Connecting Montessori Europe Webinar, the first of the  2021 series. Register here.

Barbara Isaacs, January 2021


Lillard P.P. (1972) Montessori a Modern Approach New York: Schocken Books

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