What is Practical Life?

When you visit a Montessori school, you’ll likely hear the phrase “practical life.” We thought it might be helpful to provide a little more context so we can share why practical life is so important to what we do.

First, let’s break apart the phrase. “Practical” can mean the actual doing or use of something. The term “life" can be described as living things and their activity. So, when we combine the two terms, we can think of “practical life” as activity that is focused on doing something useful.

In Montessori, we offer young children useful activities that serve a real purpose. Children have beautiful child-sized materials that allow them to wash tables, dust shelves, polish silver, prepare food, and so much more. Although most traditional early childhood programs have a play area that includes cleaning items or kitchen toys, these items are for pretend, imitation, and play rather than for actually cleaning or cooking.

But why does a toddler need to polish their shoes or do laundry with a scrub board? Are the tasks drudgery? Isn’t childhood an age for play? To answer these questions, we need to look at what is happening during childhood, which is what Dr. Maria Montessori did over 100 years ago.

Origins of Practical Life Exercises

The exercises of practical life began in order to serve a very practical need. Dr. Montessori had responsibility for children who were being destructive in a building in the slums of Rome. The proprietors needed to take care of the building, yet the children were rather wild and unkempt. As a physician, Dr. Montessori knew the importance of hygiene in preventing illness. Thus, one of the first things she did was to offer basins of water and cakes of soap. Then Dr. Montessori showed the children how to wash their hands and faces.

What happened was unexpected. Once the children washed their hands and faces, they didn’t stop. They kept washing. They did it again and again. Dr. Montessori said the children repeated the activity as if driven by some kind of imperceptible force. Instead of stopping them, like adults are apt to do, Dr. Montessori watched. She wanted to see what would happen. With curiosity, patience, and powers of scientific observation, she observed a need that went way beyond washing hands. From these practical beginnings, came a very significant discovery for Dr. Montessori.

Montessori’s Discovery about Children and Work

Dr. Montessori discovered the fundamental difference between work as adults experience it and work as children experience it. Often, as adults, we think of work as bringing on fatigue. However, Dr. Montessori observed how work for children is energizing.