Is your preschool-aged child interested in the daily activities you do? Have you ever had the experience of setting your child down with some toys to keep him busy while you do the dishes, only to find he’s more interested in helping you than playing? Does your child surprise you with his ability to accomplish tasks you thought were too difficult for him to do?
From the moment they are born, children are striving toward maturity. Everything they do is designed to develop the person they will one day grow up to be. While playing with other children and adults, and interacting with objects in their environment, children discover important aspects about getting along with others and how things work. Given the opportunity, children want to engage in meaningful activities that impact their environment.
Often, as parents, we believe our children just want to play. And yet, on some level, we also know they want to do “grown-up” tasks. So we buy them play kitchen sets with plastic pots and pans, and toy iron boards and pretend irons. We let them “wash” the dishes while they play in the bathtub. We give them plastic hand tools so they can pretend to build like Daddy.
Real Work in the Montessori Classroom
One of the unexpected discoveries Dr. Maria Montessori made when she began working with underprivileged students in the slums of Rome was their interest in “real” activities. She provided materials for the children to use, but their interest was drawn to the daily, routine activities the adults were performing. Eventually, Montessori provided equipment that allowed the children to participate in the day-to-day activities of life.
Children are not only interested in, but also capable of performing these daily tasks. One of the most visible differences between a Montessori preschool and a typical day care or preschool environment is the degree to which children are involved in the practical activities of the day. In a Montessori school, the children participate in the preparation of snacks and lunches, setting the tables, cleaning the dishes, sweeping the floors. Children help with the maintenance of the materials; scrubbing tables, polishing wood and metal, making minor repairs. The children wash the cloths used for cleaning, hang them to dry, iron them with a real iron, and fold them before storing them carefully. Children also crave the responsibility of taking care of themselves. In the Montessori classroom, the children have hooks and hangers for their jackets. They are shown how to dress themselves, comb their hair, brush their teeth, and wash their face and hands.
What makes it possible for the children to be successful at these activities is twofold: the necessary materials, and detailed instruction. In order to do a job properly, one must have the proper tools. In a Montessori classroom, the children use real brooms, but they are sized for smaller hands. A real iron is used: a travel iron; smaller and more easily controlled, but able to heat to the required temperature and adequately perform the job. There are real hammers and screwdrivers, wash tubs, drying racks, hangers, and knives, cutting boards, glass pitchers, brushes and combs. But all sized to fit into the hands and reach of a small child.
Before the student is permitted to use these real, and potentially dangerous, tools, she is given a proper lesson. The child is invited to watch a presentation. The teacher demonstrates the proper use of the material, pointing out those aspects which require particular attention and care to achieve success. The child is then given the opportunity to try what she has just seen, while the teacher closely observes, and helps the child refine his movements as necessary.
The child grows in several ways when he is permitted to participate in these types of daily activities. The Practical Life activities in a Montessori classroom are used not only to develop the child’s sense of order, independence, concentration, and coordination. They are also used to prepare the child for future work in the areas of writing, reading, geometry, and mathematics. When a child sets the table, he is counting, and matching items one-to-one. When she puts small beads on a string, she is strengthening the muscles she will use to hold a pencil, and refining her small motor coordination. When a child builds a square using four smaller triangles, he is recognizing patterns and shapes that prepare him for the principles of geometry. Maria Montessori, through careful observation, realized that the skills we use to hold a pencil, write, read, and perform mathematical computations are developed when the child repeats seemingly unrelated activities.
“Such experience is not just play. It is work he must do in order to grow up.”
A child who can focus on the duty of successfully washing the dishes is developing important skills. We set the work on the counter so that the dirty dishes are on the left, followed by the wash pan, the rinse pan, and finally the drying rack on the far right. The child is internalizing the left to right order used to read and write. He is learning to sequence a myriad of steps, all of which must be performed in proper order. He is attending to the task with focus and concentration for long periods of time. He is using the muscles he will later use to hold a pencil when he squeezes the soap bottle with the tips of his fingers. By perfecting the method of dish washing, he is also developing autonomy, internal order, and self reliance; all critical skills necessary to his future academic success.
Montessori Principles at Work in Your Home
While it is sometimes more expedient for us as parents to do the job ourselves, children not only want to be a part of what we are doing, but it’s good for them, too. There are several things you can do at home to promote your child’s independence and sense of importance as an individual and as a member of the family. At the same time, you will be giving your child the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to be successful both academically, and as part of a social group.
Begin to look at your home from the height of your child. Place a small table and chair in the kitchen area where he can pour his own drinks, and help prepare foods. Two year olds are capable of pouring milk from a small jug, and cutting peeled bananas into slices. Three year olds can spread butter on bread, juice an orange, and make a torn-leaf salad with croutons or pine nuts. Reserve the bottom shelf in the refrigerator for a small jug of milk, and easily opened containers filled with appropriate snacks. Put a few salad plates, bowls, cups, and utensils in a lower cabinet so your child can help himself. Designate a spot for dirty dishes, or show him how to load them directly into the dishwasher.
In the bathroom, place a towel rack within your child’s reach. Provide a storage basket or low mounted cabinet for her tooth brush, hair brush, bathing toys and supplies. Place a step stool in front of the sink so your child can independently wash her hands and face. As soon as your child shows interest in the toilet (shortly after she begins walking) encourage her use of it. In your child’s bedroom, make items accessible. Keep the bed low to the ground. Place clothing (a limited amount) in a low drawer, and lower the rod in the closet so your child can hang her clothes herself on small hangers. Only display a few toys at a time on trays or in baskets organized neatly on shelves. Do not stack items so that some things are hidden or difficult to access. Rotate articles of clothing and toys as needed.
Include your child in daily chores. Designate a place for his lunch box each day, and make it his responsibility to carry it to and from the car. Teach your child how to sort laundry by color, and invite him to help fold the clean clothes. Encourage him to put things away in their proper place before moving on to the next activity. Expect your child to follow through; if he spills the milk, show him how to use a sponge to clean it up.
It is through this type of self-direction that children learn self-reliance self-respect, self-control, and develop positive self-esteem. Given the opportunity to choose for himself, and act on those choices, your child will learn to think for himself, solve his own problems, and take responsibility for his actions. Children who grow up in this type of environment become responsible, resourceful, assertive, respectful members of society.
At Castle Montessori Schools, we provide a learning environment that not only meets the academic needs of our students. We also ensure that each child is given the opportunity to develop the self-determination that allows him to be responsible for his own choices, his own actions and his relationships with others. We create an atmosphere that nurtures each child as he constructs the person he will one day become; developing independence, self-assurance, and respect for the people he shares life with and the world he will one day inherit.
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