The following is the text from this section of the 2009-2010 edition of The Joyful Child, Montessori from Birth to Three
To see other sections of this publication return to: http://www.michaelolaf.com/JCcontents.html
AGE 1-3 YEARS, FAMILY LIFE - CARE OF SELF, OTHERS, THE
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
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 realwashing 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 intimatea
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
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
. . . 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 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
usespottery, 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
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 thisadding 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 onesa 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 monthbecause 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
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 is easier than dressing and is learned firstsometimes
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.
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 messagesfor example when an angry parent is trying to
A child needs to know that it is all right to feel and express anger and
frustration. He needs models to learn howwalking, scrubbing a floor,
hitting a pillow or pounding clayand 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 (www.susanart.net)
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