If we would but think of it, the carrying out of a practical life affords an abundance of exercise, and the gymnasium for perfecting one’s actions is the very environment in which he lives.
Let’s take a look at “Practical Life” so that you can get a better understanding of how these subject areas can be implemented to best enhance learning through self-direction. Historically, this area is broken into two sections, the care of the child’s own person and the care of the environment. Under such a curriculum’s guidance, children are able to take an everyday task, such as putting on a jacket, and gain more from the experience than an adult ever would. This is because an adult may put on a jacket for a purpose that has an end, such as going outside to get the mail on a snowy day. However, a child fulfills a strong desire within to copy the adult doing the task for the sake of doing it. Children are natural mimics, and this is because they have a biological need to learn new things through experience.
Maria Montessori once said, “The first thing to realize about these exercises of practical life is that their aim is not a practical one. Emphasis should be laid not on the word ‘practical’ but the word life. Their aim… is to assist development”. Once the child has put on the jacket (often over and over again!), it may be time to zip up the jacket. Here, a practical life lesson called the “zipper frame” was developed for the Montessori classroom to practice this common step. It is a small wooden frame with two panels of fabric fastened in the middle by a zipper. What the child does not know is that by doing this practical life lesson he is not only learning how to dress himself, but is also developing hand/eye coordination, order, and independence. When the child completes the task, then he is rewarded with self-esteem. This confidence aids in the building of concentration, which in turn lengthens the attention span of the individual. Finally, the pincer grasp is developed, which indirectly strengthens the muscles of the hand in preparation for holding a pencil. Just the one seemingly simple exercise has many purposes, all of which build upon one another.
Montessori goes on to say, “…no other occupations which could be undertaken by the children at this stage (3-5) could be more important for their whole development—physical, mental, and moral—than these ‘exercises of practical life’ as they are called.” This occupation should not contain any type of pretend tools or stand-ins. Under the Montessori philosophy, you must always show the student the “real” object and work your way to the abstract. For example, when introducing language, you would show a student a real apple, and then a fake apple, and then a picture of an apple. This allows him or her to connect the word with the item and helps develop abstract thinking. As a further example, in the kitchen one can find a knife that is appropriate in size for a child and not blunt. Instead it would function and allow the child to grow in experience as a picture would not.
While activities such as the zipper frame or washing hands go toward care of themselves as a person, the children are also encouraged to care for the environment. They engage in such activities such as washing a chalkboard, sweeping, or dusting. The child will eventually come to recognize when such activities need to be done and will engage in them independently, developing not only a sensitivity to the environment around them but also working on their motor skills and coordination.