Gardening together is important work

REAL LIFE, TODAY— Birth to Age Twelve

NEWSLETTER #11, August 2012

The child can only develop fully by means of experience in his environment. We call such experience 'work.' Such Experience is not just play . . . it is work he must do in order to grow up. — Maria Montessori, MD

The plea of young children around the world: Help me to do it myself!

This newsletter is created and shared by Michael Olaf, the provider of practical wisdom, and supportive materials, for families and schools for over a quarter of a century: michael olaf montessori

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sweeping in Bhutan with sister

joining in

Montessori education has succeeded in helping children fulfill their potential for over 100 years now, on all continents. We have learned valuable lessons from each culture. As an example of real Practical Life, we see on the left a child naturally joining her older sister to sweep the courtyard. There was no praise, no coercion, no comment at all from the adults.

Children develop more completely and feel far better about themselves when they can naturally join in the family work, rather than having their days filled with either academics or entertainment, as is all too often the case in modern cultures. Real work in this way prepares one for real life.


Miximum effort


washing dishes


folding lesson


Toys and other materials for age 3-6 that introduce the very young child to Practical Life, the Care of the Self, Others, and the Environment: 0-3 practical life

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. He wants to exercise his maximum effort!

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.

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.

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 that 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, and doing a puzzle.
The Montessori Assistant to Infancy gives lessons that 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.

Selection Toys and Materials
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 on family tasks 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.

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.
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 in learning to "follow the child" comes slowly. 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.

Toys and books and other materials for age 3-6 that teach the child about and help him participate in the real life of the family: 3-6 practical life

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

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, gardening.

The First Six Years
Today the importance of the formative first six years of life is common knowledge. During this time a child becomes fully a member of her particular culture and family group, absorbing language, attitudes, manners, values, of those in which she comes in daily contact. A child who spends the first six years in a loving and supportive environment, learns to love herself and feels safe in the world. A child who has experienced the joy of making a contribution to her family or group, learns to love making an effort, and feels needed.
Every child, by instinct, wants to learn and grow to the limit of his abilities. In the first six years of life he does this by imitating those around him.
To support this need we must carefully prepare the physical and social environment, provide tools that enable the child to work to create himself, watch for those first tentative moments of concentration, and get out of the way, following the child as his path unfolds.

Participating in Family Life
The traditional work of the family is referred to in Montessori as practical life work. It is the single most important area of an education for life. The activities of practical life are generally thought of in three main categories, and looking at the child's life in this way helps to keep a balance in the activities we offer children to master. These areas of practical life depend on the culture in which the child is growing up, and may include, but are not limited to:
(1) Care of the environment—cleaning, sweeping, polishing, hanging up clothing, washing clothes, gardening, putting away toys.
(2) Care of the person—bathing, dressing, brushing teeth, cooking, setting the table.
(3) Grace and courtesy—walking carefully, carrying things, opening and closing a door, tucking in a chair when finishing work, rolling up a floor mat, offering food, saying "please" and "thank you" and so on.

It is in learning to do such seemingly mundane activities as dressing, dusting, sweeping, preparing and serving food, and fixing or building, work that the child sees going on around her all day long, that she learns to use her body and mind for a purpose, to concentrate, to complete cycles of activity, to finish what she started, and most importantly to contribute to the important work of the family, the social group.
Practical life activities provide superior groundwork for physical, mental, and social development, and teach the work habits that lead to success in all later academic work.
Practical life work provides practice in eye-hand coordination, the control of large and small muscles, the ability to walk and to carry objects with control, and to behave with knowledge of good manners. These are the activities that bring the child's attention to his own progress and development, and that open up a world of important work. Learning to look a person in the eye when speaking, to listen patiently, to exhibit thoughtfulness through good manners, enables the child to be welcomed into a social group, to be happy and to make others happy.

Children have for eons shown an interest in daily life through make-believe cooking and cleaning. It was one of the pivotal discoveries of Dr. Montessori that, given the chance, children usually choose real work over imaginary.
Allowing the child to participate in the daily work 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 about the difference in treatment of a stranger, perhaps a dinner guest in our home, who is served and waited upon, compared to that of a good friend who is welcomed in our kitchen to talk and laugh while we prepare the meal together. Children don't want to be the guest, they want us to help them to do it themselves.

The Child's Purpose
The child's reason for, and way of, working is different from ours. Adults will usually choose to do things the most efficient and quickest way and to rush through or avoid anything labeled work. A child, on the other hand, is working to master the activity and to practice and perfect her abilities. She may scrub a table each day for weeks, then turn her attention to some other activity to master. We must not look upon this method as inconsistency or laziness but rather cumulative mastery of abilities. The child's purpose is not to complete the task as much as to construct the self.
Practical life activities may well be the most important work in the Montessori 3-6 class. By means of these activities the child learns to make intelligent choices, to become physically and mentally independent and responsible. She learns to concentrate, to control muscles, to act with care, to focus, to analyze logical steps and complete a cycle of activity.
This lays the groundwork for sound mental and physical work throughout life.

Child of the World: Montessori, Global Education for Age 3-12+, 170 page book with 40 black and white pictures of children from the author's work around the world

From Michael Olaf: 3-12+
From Amazon, 3-12+ (3-12 years)
From NAMTA: 3-12+

List of All Michael Olaf Newsletters:

#2 Montessori Art, January 2010
#3 Montessori Cultural Geography, May 2010
#4 Montessori Parenting/Teaching, August 2010
#5 Montessori Home Environment, November 2010
#6 Montessori in Sikkim, January 2011
#7 Montessori Math, April 2011
#8 All 2009-2011 Newsletters, May 2011
#9 Montessori Grace and Courtesy, August 2011
#10 Montessori Biology, May 2012
#11 Practical Life, Real Life, Aug 2012
#12 Happy Children for the Holidays, Dec 2012
#13 New Book, Child of the World, Mar 2013

MONTESSORI INFORMATION, for more information on Montessori in general, see the main page


Feel free to link this site to any educational website providing the following information and link: "This link is provided by Michael Olaf Montessori")

This newsletter was written by Susan Mayclin Stephenson,bio

Mama and Baby

0-3 Overviews: The Montessori birth to three is being translated into several languages and being spread around the world, helping many families. To see the overview in English and the translations so far (Chinese, Polish, Arabic, Russian, and Japanese, and soon Portuguese and Spanish) go to the bottom of this page: translations

Video clips following the developmental stages of the child from birth to three years: video clips


toys, books, games for homes or schools

Aside from some of the things in the 3-6 section, children from age 6-12 should use all of the real tools of the adults in their life.

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

Practical Life is Vital from Age 6-12
In the picture above you will see an elementary child (age 6-12) helping a child under the age of 3 years learn to fold cloths. It is quite common for Montessori schools to provide this opportunity. However it is an error to think that the child from 6-12 does not need to do real work of the society in which he lives every day!

It is true that this is the age when a child is mentally, physically, and emotionally stable. And so this is a good time for academic work. The parent often says, "You concentrate on your homework and I will do the dishes (or mow the lawn or carry in the groceries, or weed the garden or . . . . )." Even the teacher thinks, "Academics is the most valuable use of your time. Other people can wash the windows, shovel the snow, shop for food and prepare meals, do the school laundry, etc. " How then is this child going to practice the skills of taking care of himself, taking care of others, taking care of the environment? What could be more important at this very social and moral age?

How is he, in our modern world, expected to spend his non-academic time? Usually it is in entertainment—play dates, TV, shopping, texting, "hanging out." How valuable to his family and friends does this make him feel?

This is not a balanced life. Not a meaningful life. Not a useful life. What message does this give to the child? It tells him that, for 6 years he is expected to study and play. Yes of course study is important, but when a child's self-image is completely dependent on how he does academically, and when all of his non-academic time is spent on himself, what kind of preparation for real life is that?

In societies where children are able to participate in real life there are no terms such as "pre-teen" or "teenager" because children are continually, from the time they can walk to the time they graduate from school, contributing and useful members of the family, of the community. They feel useful and valued, and they develop the skills that will help them become mature and responsible adults, husband, wives, fathers, professionals.

West Meets East—Real Life
As West meets East, TV and compulsory education are taking their toll in these countries, and a balance must be found. Let us hope that as Montessori continues to spread around the world children from the age of 6-12 can benefit from learning about the experiences of their peers in other countries and we can help them find a path through these years.

Cosmic Task
The culmination of the Montessori 6-12 class is the child's search for his or her Cosmic Task. This is a potential role in life whereby one's own needs are met while at the same time one contributes the whole of society. This is even more important today when children are so very aware of what is going on in the world, politically and environmentally.

Physical Health, Exercise
It is important that the child continues to use her body, to get exercise, to begin to learn and take responsibility for nutrition and health, and to continue to use the body as well as the mind for practical work such as cooking, gardening, working with tools. Well-grounded healthy habits begun now will go a long way to help the child through the tumultuous years of adolescence.

Academic, Moral, and Social Work
At six, there is a great transformation in the child, like a new birth. The child wants to explore society and the world, to learn what is right and wrong, to think about meaningful roles in society. She wants to know how everything came to be, the history of the universe, the world, humans and why they behave the way they do. He asks the BIG questions and wants answers. This is the time to explore manners and what they mean, to learn about religion and what it means to people in different cultures. It is the time to use the mind to explore all of the areas of knowledge, to learn how to carry out research, and to develop creative ways of processing, exploring, and expressing this knowledge.

A Montessori elementary teacher has spent many months learning to give individual lessons in all academic areas, and to guide the child in direction and methods of their own research. Although groups form occasionally, with the teacher or among the children, the main work is still done by the individual—the protected period of concentration and focus, uninterrupted by scheduled required groups, being the hallmark of Montessori education. This is what heals and fulfills the child, and reveals the true human who naturally exhibits the desire to help others and to make a difference in the world.

Teachers who have taught the full 6-12 age span see the definite benefit of this age span, rather than breaking children up into groups of children closer in age. There are six years worth of wonderful possibilities to which every child is exposed—it is not just what the child does that results in learning, but what is casually taken in from the work around him. A 6-12 span helps the teacher avoid group lessons and teacher-centered work, helping the children reach a much higher level of independence and education. It facilitates children teaching children, a vital element in Montessori education. When group lessons are kept at a minimum, periods of concentration protected, and children exposed to the amazing amount of work in the 6-12 class, not only are the state curriculum requirements easily met, but children work at a level one would not have thought possible. As I heard many times during my elementary teacher training: The teacher is in charge of the minimum, the child the maximum.

Required Academic Work
The state or national curriculum is hung on the wall for each child to see what she must accomplish at each grade level, 1st grade through 6th. The teacher meets with the individual student periodically to plan how this should be done. One child will want to do the required work on Mondays, another for the first hour or so each morning. Together they make a list for the week, or the month, and the child is in charge. This teaches time-management skills, and leaves the child free from interruption.

If a child is having trouble getting down to work it might be suggested that for a short period of time, she keep a time journal, marking the clock time throughout a few days to see just how her time is spent. As soon as she discovers the problem and gets busy again, such a record ceases as it would be in impediment to the creative flow that is so evident in the Montessori elementary class.

The Montessori curriculum is built around the five great lessons given at the beginning of each year for the new students to introduce: creation of earth, coming of plants and animals, the arrival of humans, language, math and invention.
These lessons are designed by the teacher and include stories, pictures, and activities. The older children come if they like, to revisit them from a new perspective, or they hear them from afar, experiencing them differently each time depending upon their own growth in understanding.

Timelines are made with long strips of fabric or paper on which the child lays out fossils, pictures of dinosaurs, composer and musician pictures, etc., to get a visual picture of history in each subject.

Cooperation & Peace & Work
What good is knowledge if not combined with consideration for others. Peace is not studied as an independent subject, but with the study of examples from the past, and practice in serving food and helping each other.

Peace is the natural outcome of a method of education where children experience work with their hands and long periods of individual concentration and contemplation. In this way they are able to process and recover from all the input of our modern world. They learn that peace is not just the absence of war, but the way we treat each other in our daily lives, the way we communicate, and the way we solve problems. Peace begins inside us, at home, at school.

The acts of courtesy which he has been taught with a view to his making contacts with others must now be brought to a new level. The question of aid to the weak, to the aged, to the sick, for example, now arises. If, up to the present, it was important not to bump someone in passing, it is now considered more important not to offend that person.
While the younger child seeks comforts, the older child is now eager to encounter challenges. But these challenges must have an aim.

The passage to the second level of education (age 6-12) is the passage from the sensorial, material level to the abstract. A turning toward the intellectual and moral sides of life occurs at the age of seven.
— Maria Montessori, MD