Montessori Philosophy & Practice

AGE 1-3 YEARS— Family Life: Care of Self, Others,
and the Environment

The following is the text from this section of the 2009-2010 edition of The Joyful Child, Montessori from Birth to Three
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All the activities connected with looking after yourself and your surroundings, such as getting dressed, preparing food, laying the table, wiping the floor, clearing dishes, doing the dusting, etc., are activities belonging to what Dr. Montessori called ‘Practical Life,’ and are precisely the tasks that adults like least. But between the ages of one and four years, children love these jobs and are delighted to be called on to participate in them.
—Dr. Silvana Montanaro, MD, and Montessori Teacher Trainer

Participating in Family Life

Human beings of all ages want to be able to communicate with others, to challenge themselves, to do important work, and to contribute to society. This is human nature at its best.

This desire is especially strong during the time when the child who has been observing all kinds of important activity going on around her has finally mastered the mental and physical skills to stand up, walk, use her hands, and participate in real work.

A child learns self-control, and develops a healthy self-image if the work is real—washing fruits and vegetables, setting or clearing a table, washing dishes, watering plants, watering the garden, sorting, folding, and putting away laundry, sweeping, dusting, helping in the garden, any of the daily work of her family.

Family work, known as Practical Life in Montessori schools, is the single most important area of a Montessori education at any age. Allowing the child to participate in the life he sees going on around him is an act of great respect for, and confidence in, the child. It helps him to feel important to himself and to those around him. He is needed. We can empathize if we think of the difference in our feelings for a dinner guest in our home who is completely served and waited on, or for one who is welcomed in our kitchen to talk and to laugh while we prepare the meal together. In the first instance the guest is separate, the relationship formal. In the second we share our life and the relationship is intimate—a true friendship.

Three Areas of Family Life

The main areas of practical life activities are:

1. The care of the self: dressing, brushing teeth, cooking, and so on.

2. Grace and courtesy and concern for others: moving gracefully, using good manners, offering food, saying "please" and "thank you," etc.

3. Care of the environment: dusting, sweeping, washing clothes, gardening.

Children have always shown us their interest in practical life by pretending to cook and clean, taking care of a doll, carrying out adult conversations, etc. But when given the chance, they would much rather be doing the real work of the family and community, instead of pretending. A child would prefer to remove real dust from a dusty shelf with a real child-sized duster, to help collect the dirty laundry, or to fold it, to take part in preparing real meals, rather than to pretend to do these things with toys.

. . . but I know happiness does not come with things.
It can come from work and pride in what you do
. —Gandhi

The Work Environment and Concentration

One of the most calming activities for a child is concentration. This does not include passive, non-participatory concentration such as watching television or videos. The action must be something which is controlled by the child so she can repeat it as often as necessary, and it must challenge her body as well as her mind.

The choice of activities is not as important as the level of concentration brought forth. Deep concentration can occur while digging in the sand, washing carrots, stringing beads, coloring, doing a puzzle. The Montessori Assistant to Infancy gives lessons which are well thought out, logical and clear; she creates an environment which fosters work, and she is always on the lookout for a child beginning to concentrate. When this happens she protects the child from interruption because she understands the place of this experience in creating balance and happiness in
the child.

The availability of a special little table kept cleared off and ready for work can help the child focus on her work and stick to it until she is finished. It is a natural consequence that, if the work is not put away, the space will not be available for the next activity.

An apron, used for cooking, cleaning, woodworking, gardening, etc., sometimes helps the child concentrate by marking the beginning and the end of a task. It also elevates the importance of work in the child's eyes. When a child's work is seen as important to the family, so is the child.
An apron should be made so that the child can put it on and fasten it by himself; then he can work whenever he wants to. A hook for hanging it on the wall keeps it always ready.

The purpose of the apron, at least at this age, is not protection of clothing as much as it is to mark the beginning and end of a task, to help the child focus on the work, and to lend a feeling of respect to this "real" work. This is what counts.


Whenever it is possible and safe, we give beautiful, breakable materials to the child, respectfully sharing with him what the rest of the family uses—pottery, glass, metal, real tools. There is a great increase in the self-respect of the child when she is allowed to use our things, instead of being given plastic substitutes. There is also a corresponding respect for, and caring for, the materials when they are beautiful and breakable.

Children and parents can work together to make these things such as cutting out and hemming aprons and dust cloths. In days past the aprons, cloth napkins, polishing cloths, were decorated with embroidery by teachers and members of the children's family. In the Montessori Assistants to Infancy training, students still do this—adding special touches to the items they make for infants and young children.

Often in the home we need to think carefully about how to arrange the children's practical life supplies. If the parent is a woodworker, or a gardener, a few good-quality but child-size tools can be kept in a special place near the parent's tools, easily within reach. He can be shown how to use them along with the parent, and how to clean them and put them away when the work is finished.

We can do the same with tools for cleaning, preparing food, cooking, setting the table, any activity. We can either adapt our tools, cutting off the handles of good brooms and mops, or make or buy suitable ones—a small apron, smaller metal buckets, watering cans, kitchen tools, and so forth. For a child, just a few minutes a day working with parents on important "adult" activities can have a great benefit and begin a new way of communicating and living together.

A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place
Ideally, whenever a toy or tool is brought into a home the family decides exactly where it will be kept. Any great artist, or car mechanic, knows the value of being able to find his tools ready for use exactly when he needs them. Children are the same, and their sense of order is far more intense at this age because they are constructing themselves through work.

In our home for many years we had to show guests where the dishes were kept because they were all in the low cupboards, within reach of the children. Dangerous cleaning supplies of course were kept out of reach, but everything else in the house was kept within reach of the children and their friends.

The Child's Purpose

The child's reasons for, and methods of, working are different from ours. We adults will usually choose to carry out a task in the most efficient and quickest way. A child, on the other hand, is working to master the activity and to practice and perfect her abilities. She may scrub a table for hours, but only when she feels the urge. She may sweep the floor every morning for two weeks and not again for a month—because she will be occupied with mastering something else. If we expected her to keep carrying out every new activity every day, there would be no time for sleep.

There are many physical, emotional and mental values in work. Through these activities the child learns to be independent. There can be no intelligent choice or responsibility at any age without independence in thought and action. She learns to concentrate, to control muscles, to focus, to analyze logical steps and complete a cycle of activity.

It is precisely because of the valuable work in practical life that children in Montessori homes and schools are able to concentrate, make intelligent decisions and master the beginnings of other areas of study such as math, language, the arts and the sciences. But the purpose of this work is the inner satisfaction, and the support of the optimum development of the child. Following a successful, complete cycle of family work, a child becomes calm and satisfied and, because of this inner peace, full of love for the environment and for others.

Undressing, Dressing
Undressing is easier than dressing and is learned first—sometimes much to the consternation of the parents. Clothing that is easy to remove and to put on oneself enables the child to practice these skills. These are things to consider when picking out any clothing, from shoes to pajamas, to coats, for young children.

A child's efforts at picking out her own clothes and dressing herself are satisfied if the parents hang up, within the child's reach, just two outfits, letting the child decide between them when she dresses in the morning. This is enough of a decision in the beginning. Eventually she will be able to select everything from drawers, hangers, and shelves.

Expressing Emotions
Children also read the adult's mind and emotion and will carry out research to find out exactly what the parent is trying to communicate when they give double messages—for example when an angry parent is trying to appear cheerful.

A child needs to know that it is all right to feel and express anger and frustration. He needs models to learn how—walking, scrubbing a floor, hitting a pillow or pounding clay—and not hitting another person (spanking included). If an adult goes for a walk or pounds clay, so will the child. If the adult hits the child, the child learns that it is okay to hit to express emotion.

The Needs Of The Parents
The working parent does not always have the time to include the child in everything and should not feel bad about this. We must be easy on ourselves in the home and plan a time when we will really enjoy working together.

Success may come slowly in the beginning, as we learn how to "follow the child." It is helpful to begin with one thing, perhaps putting the napkins on the table for a meal, and gradually add to the tasks in which the child can participate, and little by little take over.

Soon we will begin to learn from the child how to bring our whole selves, mental, physical, and spiritual, to the task of the moment, to focus on each thing we do, and to enjoy each moment of life. Thus the child becomes the teacher of the adult. The needs of the adult are met at the same time as the needs of the child.

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© Susan Mayclin Stephenson, 2010 (
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