Montessori Practical Life for the Primary Ages (3-6)
They are taught to brush their teeth and rinse their mouths carefully. In all of this, we call their attention to the different parts of the body which they are washing, and to the different means which we use in order to cleanse them: clean water for the eyes, soap and water for the hands, the brush for the teeth, etc. We teach the big ones to help the little ones, and so, encouraging the younger children to learn quickly to take care of themselves.
Dr. Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method
Dr. Montessori’s first “formal” school was the Casa dei Bambini, which consisted of young children who were running around the streets and wreaking havoc in a poor neighborhood in Italy. They were left to fend for themselves because both of their parents worked full-time. Before one can engage the mind, basic needs must first be met. So, Dr. Montessori made sure to address the skills needed to achieve personal hygiene. This became the practical life section of the primary (ages 3-6) classroom.
Today, most of our children do not need such thorough cleansing, but it is the purpose of the practical life activities to develop concentration and care for one’s self. This is still an important task for a young child. It’s a rare two-year-old who’s favorite word isn’t “me.” I think my kids’ favorite expression was, “No, I do it!” which only became more grammatically correct as they got older.
They have a need to assert their independence, and learning how to take care of themselves is a perfect place to start. A new primary student in a Montessori classroom (somewhere between age 2.5 – 3) will spend most of her time in this area of the classroom – especially in the first few weeks of class. There is something comforting in seeing familiar materials and it provides a way to deepen their concentration. Of course, they aren’t going to brush their teeth perfectly or tie their shoes quickly in the beginning. They need to practice and we need to remind them – over and over and over again. Kindly. And with great patience. We also need to forgive ourselves when our patience is low, while reminding ourselves to try again.
A good way to remember these life lessons can be through the use of reality-based children’s books. These are books that have some sort of relevance for taking care of one’s self, or developing character. These books also follow Dr. Montessori’s dictate to help a child (birth to age six) to develop a concrete understanding of the world. Therefore, none of these books have talking animals. This differs from fantasy play between children, which is different than an adult presenting a fantastical element as reality.
Reality-Based Children’s Books — Montessori Practical Life
There are many who hold, as I do, that the most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six.
– Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
I believe that kids need a lot of self-directed play, but that they should also be building a good vocabulary when they are young. Reading books together is an easy way to do this. Most kids love to be read to and even if you “don’t do voices,” your child will be captivated with an age-appropriate story.
True Reading is Understanding
While training for my Montessori credential I was taught that a student wasn’t truly reading unless they were comprehending what they read. In other words, if a student could read the word “peg,” but not understand what a peg is, then they aren’t really reading.**
For example, I could technically read a medical textbook. I know how to sound out unfamiliar words and look for what they mean in context, but I will not truly understand it unless I comprehend what the text is trying to say. At a bare minimum, I would need a background knowledge in anatomy and physiology to comprehend the topics being discussed. Since I don’t have that, I am not truly reading that text. Because I wouldn’t understand it as well as someone who has the vocabulary.
All teachers promote reading, but not just so kids will learn to love books. They also need to learn about the world around them and books do a great job of putting these new words in context. It helps them to build their vocabulary. Plus, reading together is easy and fun. They won’t even realize they are learning!
**Side note: a peg is another term for a clothespin, as well as being a place to hang items.
For books appropriate for the Sensorial area of a Montessori classroom, head over to the page on Reality-Based Books for Montessori Sensorial.