Practical Life in the Elementary Classroom
In the Children’s House, Practical Life is considered an important curriculum area and is typically set up in a specific area in the classroom in the same manner as sensorial, language, or mathematics. An Elementary classroom, however, typically no longer offers a practical life area or shelves containing practical life lessons. As a result, many overlook the importance of having practical life skills integrated into an Elementary curriculum and some fail to recognize that it is already there. At this point, children have managed simple tasks such as pouring, scooping, and washing, but there are many life skills left to learn during the second plane of development.
At the elementary level, students are beginning to think more deeply and more abstractly about their academics. Maria Montessori spoke of elementary children, stating, “Now we must appeal to his soul. To speak to him is not enough for this; what he learns must be interesting, fascinating. We must give him grandeur. To begin with, let us present him with the world” (Montessori, 2007, p. 20). In order for us to present the children with the world, we must continue to present them with skills needed to function in it. Students should continue practicing and advance their skills such as cooking, sewing, and gardening. As students become older they can start manipulating more tools, making it possible for them to explore subjects such as carpentry, mechanics and engineering. Students continue to care for their environment and are now able to take an even more active role in supporting it and promoting growth within their community. With their increased physical strength, size, and coordination, elementary students begin taking on tasks independently that they have been unable to accomplish up until this point.
One of the main areas of practical life that is extremely important during the elementary years, and increasingly important during the three years of Upper Elementary, is the process of Going Out. Trusted Montessorian and author Paula Polk Lillard wrote in Montessori Today, “The exploration of community outside the classroom necessarily leads the children to an authentic discovery of the specific continuations that others are making to society” (1996, p. 104). Extending their skills outside their classroom is a large part of the practical life curriculum during the second plane of development. Children are becoming more social and are approaching the age that they will begin a middle or high school program, many of which start gearing children toward specific courses of study that they may continue in their continued education experiences. In order to be prepared for the real world that is fast approaching at this age, students need to get out into their communities. They need to gain “real world” experiences and interactions with peers and adults that they may or may not know.
If a child has had experience in the Children’s House, they have been acquiring the skills necessary to tackle these “real world” experiences since the age of three. Peace education mixed with sensorial and practical life lessons have prepared them well for the tasks that are now before them. “But 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” (Montessori, 2007, p.7). Grace and courtesy lessons come into play not only when interacting with adults, but as students begin to become involved in community service projects. They will need guidance initially, but if the child’s spirit has been nurtured in the way that Montessori has instructed, this should not be a difficult task. As their comfortability with their classroom community builds, the guide will encourage student engagement to broaden, working with schoolwide and community based projects.
Although first years may not enter the elementary classroom ready to take on big projects from start to finish, they can still continue working on their skills. The first year in the elementary classroom is a transition year and students may cling to simple practical life skills they acquired in their 3-6 classroom. Sewing pillows, preparing snack, and cleaning are still appropriate skills to continue working on. As students master these skills, the guide can begin adding new steps and expanding on the existing lessons. Instead of just allowing students to prepare snack, they can become involved in the whole process including planning, shopping, preparing, cooking, and serving. If gardening is an option, they could also go from seed to table. Students can expand their classroom cleaning tasks to more in-depth jobs and school-wide maintenance such as yard work, recycling, or composting. Simple sewing tasks can become more complex if the student shows interest and could lead into the use of a machine instead of stitching by hand. Just as with any lesson in the Montessori classroom, the key for retention and interest is found within the extensions.
In addition to these explicit lessons that we put under the umbrella of practical life, students are gaining practical life skills simply by following the elementary academic curriculum. Elementary students perform a number of experiments and complete work from command cards. Follow up work usually requires students to integrate areas of the curriculum and to think outside of the box. Materials for lessons are no longer all gathered together on a tray ready to use every time; students must read instructions, gather materials, follow procedures, record observations and conclusions and then clean everything up, returning materials to their proper places. This is a pretty big step from having everything prepared on a tray and it requires students to think deeper and focus on their tasks for longer periods of time. These implicit “lessons” that are naturally built into the curriculum is the second level of practical life that is most often overlooked and although sewing, cooking and carpentry are valuable skills, I believe that developing and improving mental processes that allow students to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and finish tasks successfully is invaluable.
Besides the fact that practical life no longer has a shelf and may not ever even be referenced as a “lesson” in the elementary classroom, it still very much exists. The same concepts of practical life skills apply as children progress in age, but just as their understanding becomes deeper, so must the experience. Montessori guides must remain cognizant of the need and importance of maintaining an age-appropriate practical life curriculum. As there are no official lessons or required curriculum for practical life during the second plane of development, this is an area in which the guide and students can be as creative as they desire and find meaningful ways to connect their studies with real life experiences.
Lillard, P.P. (1996). Montessori today. New York: Schocken Books.
Montessori, M. (2007). From childhood to adolescence. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.