Practical Life relates to all other areas of the classroom because it provides a foundation for all other prepared activities in the classroom. Each job in the Practical Life area has an isolation of difficulty – one focus all others removed. All of the activities in the Practical Life area focus on building order, coordination, concentration and independence. The prepared environment applies to every activity in the classroom in a right to left; top to bottom; simple to complex fashion. Order sequencing is important later for reading and math thinking processes. In order for a child to move forward in the classroom they master preliminary activities allowing them to perform to their full potential.
There are four major areas in the Practical Life area of the classroom. These include but are not limited to: Care of Person, Care of Environment, Control of Movement and Grace and Courtesy. Practical Life prepares the child for life experiences by emphasizing cleanliness (care of self), order (care of the environment), poise (control of self), grace and courtesy. Its aim is to always help the child help themselves, enabling them to act autonomously of adults. They become experts of their environment and mindful of their influence over it. The activities in the Practical Life area are very familiar to the child. There are no make-believe materials or activities. The children use dust pans and other genuine life articles to restore order in their real environment. The possible tasks are plentiful and depend on the school.
“All the exercises in Practical Life [including the] lessons of grace and courtesy…each have a well-understood purpose [and should] be carried out as a part of a real social life in a real world”
The purpose for Practical Life is to help the child develop and master order, concentration, coordination and independence. It is through the mastering of these skills that the child builds a positive – self image for himself and can be successful in all other areas of the classroom. When one walks into a Montessori classroom they find the children busy at work in the Practical Life area bustling about sweeping, pouring and washing dishes. This is called synthetic movement - movement ordered and directed by the mind to an intelligible purpose. The children are naturally inclined to make these movements habitual.
It is very characteristic of children of these periods of time in their lives to find much enjoyment in using their movements to perform familiar tasks in the Practical Life. These periods are also known as sensitive periods during which a child is particularly sensitive, passionate and committed to a specific stimulus, (for example, walking or talking, drawing or writing) in practical life it is a sensitivity to order and manners are addressed. If ignored, a sensitive period cannot be relived or regained.
“Our help consists of placing within the prepared environment motives of activity designed specially to answer the needs of this ‘sensitive period’ through which he is passing”.
The prepared environment is an atmosphere created to enable the child to be free to learn through his own movement in peaceful and tidy surroundings adapted to his size and interests. The aim of the prepared environment is to develop the personality and character of the child by allowing him to pursue his own interests and help him satisfy his innate need to learn. To satisfy a child’s innate need to learn would be to provide him with a reason to be mobile and work. The Practical Life area is very attractive to the child because many of the activities in this area are familiar. The points of interest such as the availability of the brooms and mops are not as easily accessible to them at home because they are much too big to handle. The sound of grains, the sound of water pouring, the texture of cloth for a running stitch, or sorting of seeds are practical soothing activities. Through this familiarity and attraction, the child becomes absorbed, mastering this area and developing a foundation that will assist them in every other area of the classroom and for success in their adult life. Only by participating does the child realize he is doing anything at all or going in any direction for that matter. This is referred to as the logical analysis of movement - everything that is done is done in a logical sequence of actions.
The aim of the directress in this particular area is to once again have in place the prepared environment but more so, by modeling all the correct motions without neglecting precautions. This brings us to isolation of difficulty which is one focus all others removed - the absorption of one meticulous task or exercise in order to better understand the one to proceed it.
“The educational value of a movement depends on the finality (or end) of the movement; and it must be such that it helps the child to perfect something in himself; either it perfects the voluntary muscular system (‘the flesh’); or some mental capacity; or both. Educational movement must always be an activity which builds up and fortifies the personality, giving him a new power and not leaving him where he was…”
While observing a practical life shelf, one will notice that exercises are available for every level of ability, ranging from concrete to abstract. A child learns to hold a pencil by first mastering his whole hand grasp and then his three finger pincer grip. These are separate elements of the classroom (language and practical life); however, the child does not see it so. There are always new points of interest popping up also known as motives of perfection and it is the directress’ job to make sure that the children do not lose interest in the most complex and essential exercises of practical life. The directress has already shown the children the job, having mastered it they crave something that makes it more interesting or that satisfies an innate need to do. There is a control of error in every job in the classroom. Control of error is a built in feedback mechanism that allows the child to concentrate independently and realize if he/she has made an error – solving the riddle with enthusiasm and joy of mastery. A great interest is aroused when a new control of error is added. If a child learns something like pushing in their chair without making a sound at the right time in their development it may become automatic for the rest of their lives. For, it is a time “during which the child has a sensitive period for perfecting muscular coordination – that the best and most permanent results will be obtained with the exercises of practical life and the lessons of grace and courtesy” (Montessori)
We want our children to isolate the motions and create their own graceful way of functioning in society. Practical Life prepares the child for success in all areas of the classroom. It imparts self help skills like hand-eye coordination, sequencing, neatness, concentration and right to left brain function. These skills empower the child catapulting them into independence. The self discipline encourages a lifetime of good work habits and a sense of responsibility to one’s self and society.