Why is My Child Scrubbing Tables – Again? The Montessori Practical-Life Curriculum

By: Carol S. Woods, Educational Director, Montessori Center Room, Xavier University

When I first visited a Montessori school 24 years ago, I was intrigued by a young boy washing dishes. I watched as he scrubbed each item with intense concentration, then rinsed and dried. He was oblivious to the activities occurring around him. His intensity and concentration were appealing, especially in such a small child.

The practical-life area can be a con-fusing one for parents. The three-year-old child who washes dishes is often seen as adorable; however, the cuteness fades and is replaced with concern when the five-year-old is still performing the same activity. Examining the relationship between the goals of the child and the value of these tasks can provide new understanding of the importance of the “daily-living” area.

Montessori observed that children are driven by an inner desire to perfect themselves. Often, they repeat an activity over and over, for the pleasure of the movement itself. In the process, they develop skills that are important and necessary for their growth and development as human beings.

One important and necessary skill is control of the body, and movement is the key to control and coordination. Young bodies are changing rapidly, and children need many opportunities to move in order to keep pace with these changes. In particular, the hand requires much practice in performing a variety of movements in order to develop coordination. The pouring, squeezing, folding, twisting, and scrubbing activities of practical life provide the kinds of stimulation needed to support development of the eye-hand coordination, as well as body control.

One of the most important abilities that Montessori embraced was concentration. She saw the ability to focus attention as the key element in the child’s quest to perfect himself. Repeatedly, she observed children concentrating on a selected activity as they worked to perfect the control of their movements. She noted that often such focus first occurred when a child engaged in an activity in the practical-life area.

The same appeal that Montessori observed can be seen in classrooms around the world today. Children love the movement, the various utensils, and the frequent contact with water provided by these tasks, as well as the possibility of imitating the work of adults. Often, they repeat the activities again and again, enjoying the process itself rather than seeking a specific result. Through their involvement in this area, children develop their ability to concentrate in preparation for other areas of work. Furthermore, as Montessori noted, after doing this work, the children appear refreshed and peaceful and ready to select other tasks.

Another important contribution of these materials is the development of independence. Montessori believed that no one could be free without first achieving independence. The practical-life area offers children the opportunity to learn self-help skills, such as dressing and caring for themselves, as well as caring for their environment. With independence comes personal dignity and self-respect, qualities Montessori emphasized for building a peaceful world.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the activities in this area is the amount of order required. Each activity has a beginning, the preparation, when the child sets up the various parts. The next part, the middle, is the actual performance of the task. The child must finish by cleaning to have everything ready for the next person. Often, completion of the whole process involves many steps, offering a challenge to the child’s emerging abilities to organize and sequence.

Over time, children develop enormous competence through repeated involvement in the activities of practical life. With increased coordination and independence, as well as the ability to think and act in an orderly manner, they become increasingly confident and willing to seek and attempt challenging work. The ability to concentrate also becomes increasingly refined, resulting in many successes in all areas of the environment.

For the oldest children, work in the practical-life area offers a greater challenge than successful completion: they strive for perfection in all parts. They arrange the various materials with efficient organization; they perform the task with competence; and they prepare for the next person perfectly. Their pride is evident as they view the completed task. They see themselves as successful in their work, which certainly contributes to their confidence and self-esteem.

So we can observe with pleasure the deep concentration of the three-year-old’s as they scrub tables, wash clothes, and polish silver, but we can also observe with pride the perfection of the five-year-old’s as they select these same activities. We can celebrate the solid foundation that the children have constructed as they were perfecting themselves.

Carol S Woods is the Educational Director at the Montessori Center Room and a part-time faculty member at Xavier University, as well as an AMS Consultant.