Exercises of Practical Life - Introduction

Introduction to the Exercises of Practical Life

Definition and Description

Emerson wrote, “Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” 

With no one is this truer than with young children, whose language is still developing yet whose visual acuity, particularly with detail, is astounding.

The exercises of practical life are all those works in the casa that can be seen elsewhere in the child’s life, such as home, family and friends’ homes, museums, stores and really everywhere. These include but are not limited to activities such as baking, cleaning, polishing, pouring, caring for plants, manners and civility, washing, and sewing. 

In The Discovery of Childhood, Montessori provides this non-inclusive list of ideas: 
  • locking or unlocking desks or doors, distinguishing the acts of holding a key horizontally, inserting it, turning it, and then drawing out the drawer or opening the door; 
  • opening a book correctly and turning the pages one at a time with a gentle touch; 
  • rising up from a chair and sitting down on it; 
  • carrying various things, stopping, and then putting them down; 
  • avoiding obstacles while walking around, that is, by not bumping into people or furniture…. 
  • the formalities of social life, such as greeting each other, picking up and presenting an object dropped by another, the avoidance of passing in front of another, giving way to others, and so forth.[1]
            On the surface these exercises seem mundane, insignificant, trivial, and some people consider them essentially useless as an area of children’s education. However one discovers something different when looking more in-depth at these exercises. The work in this area is the essential, simple, ordinary tasks that adults do to prepare, maintain, restore and beautify their environment, such as washing, sweeping, cooking, cleaning, flower arranging, grace and courtesy, plant care, and others. 

Children see these tasks on a continual basis, yet are rarely allowed a true opportunity to participate in the maintenance of their environment; toy brooms and vacuums do not really clean, nor do the typical toy spray bottles actually spray; smaller versions of real items are required with appropriate time and example. 

Children have a strong desire, a human tendency even, towards real work: work of value that displays the child’s importance and role in his world.

            The adult does these types of tasks every day whether desiring to or not; these activities serve an outer utilitarian purpose. The child on the other hand is seeking to fulfill an inner purpose: to participate in the world around him. To the child, these activities are not chores, but are tools on the path towards self-perfection and in many ways they are new to him: in the newness of his own life, as well as for others, the opportunity to fully participate. These are development activities based on the natural laws of development. “A child… does not become weary with toil. He grows by working and, as a consequence, his work increases his energy. A child never asks to be relieved of his burdens but simply that he may carry out his mission completely and alone.”[2]
            The familiarity of these tasks, even if from pure observation, is a good transition for new children into the casa dei bambini, serving as a link between home and the casa environment, providing security and comfort. The child will work with these materials, not only for his own tendencies towards exactness, maximum effort and others, but to learn how to care for his environment in the casa as well as at home and elsewhere.
            The child is attracted to these activities not only for their familiarity, but also for their simple, clear and concrete purpose; following a logical progression of movements; ability to observe the sequence with the focus primarily on physical analysis of movement (mental analysis is less readily observed but is also present); the exercises of practical life are demonstrated with actions and few words. These activities become an invitation to the will; they are interesting so the child will repeat them many times regardless of actual need for their completion, leading to the development of focus and concentration, which is important for learning just about anything. Concentration and repetition in this area then leads to coordination of movement, with the integration of the mind and body. The exercises of practical life develop the intellect in the areas of memory, concentration, sequence of events and purposeful work.

            The main purpose of the exercises of practical life is the ultimate integration of mind and body, a point where the child has purposeful control of his movement and can focus his mental energies on a given task independently (utilizing concentration),. The child’s movement, the muscular activity of the body, will be directed by the intelligence. The coordination of his intelligence, knowledge given through the presentations and observation of others, allows the child greater control of his will: once he knows how to do something, the will wants to do what it already knows how to do, but in a more perfect way.  The integration of the mind and body lays the foundation for the intelligence. The adult provides the raw material in the environment, but the child must do the work of building up his own self utilizing the environment; by nature the child strives to be independent and the fundamental goal in life is to have functional independence, the ability to take care of oneself and one’s environment whenever needed.
            Other purposes include the development of the will, as a material is not always available, or a process has not yet been perfected; rather than be discouraged, the child’s will must develop patience and perseverance. The child utilizes these activities, which should be reflective of his culture, to adapt to his world and his culture, aiding in social development. These activities can and will be used elsewhere outside the casa so the building of community in other places increases with the child’s competence and desire to participate. Lastly, as noted earlier, the familiarity of these tasks provides a smoother orientation for the new child into the casa.
HISTORY: The first casa dei bambini had only sensorial materials and toys; the toys were soon left behind for the sensorial materials. The exercises of practical life began with Dr. Montessori’s doctor concern about hygiene. She gave them presentations on washing their hands and blowing their noses, for instance, which generated such strong responses in the children, such as clapping with joy and much repetition, that she found they pointed to a deeper aim or need of the children; thus she developed more practical life activities.
            She had found that for the child, the exercises of practical life are not only developmental (they can and desire to do these tasks), but they are creative, in that the child creates himself, and these exercises fulfill several of the human tendencies used for self-creation (exactness, self-perfection, work, repetition, manipulation, order, orientation). The child organizes his intelligence through purposeful activity; these exercises are called thus because the child repeats them over and over. All of these characteristics lead to concentration of the child on the work involved, which leads to competence and eventually application of the skill elsewhere within and outside of the casa, thereby leading to functional independence.             

[1] 88-89.
[2] Maria Montessori. The Secret of Childhood. Fides/Ballantine. 1966. 197.
[3] Maria Montessori. The Discovery of the Child. Fides/Ballantine. 1967. 86.
[4] Ibid. 87.

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