In traditional Montessori classrooms, young children (toddlers – age 6) spend a great deal of time working on what are termed “practical life” exercises. These exercises, which are considered some of the most important for this age group, enable children to actively participate in the tasks of daily life. This work affords the children the opportunity to contribute to their family and social groups. It also makes the child feel needed and ignites the love of making the effort.
Montessori students are given lessons on a wide variety of practical life exercises (comprehensive list here) aimed at enabling them to care for themselves, for their environment, and to extend grace and courtesy to others.
These tasks are real and tangible. They are not pretend or fantastical. Each exercise benefits the child and/or their environment directly, reinforcing that the work of each child is valued within the context of the larger group.
Keep in mind that the environment in which the children are performing these tasks is carefully prepared to accommodate them (equipment, supplies, materials, etc), and that they are guided methodically in each task, in a particular sequence based on their readiness and developmental stage. The children are not let loose to do as they please.
Maria Montessori observed that given the choice, most children choose to engage in a real life activities, such as cooking and cleaning, over make-believe play of the same kind.
Michael Olaf writes:
“Practical life activities may well be the most important work in the Montessori 3-6 class. By means of these activities the child learns to make intelligent choices, to become physically and then mentally independent and responsible. She learns to concentrate, to control muscles, to move and act with care, to focus, to analyze logical steps and complete a cycle of activity. This lays the groundwork for mental and physical work in all other areas of work, not just in early childhood, but throughout life.”
This next video, a tribute to Montessorian Silvana Montanaro, M.D. by AMI , contains a wealth of photos and videos of infants and young children in various Montessori settings. The first few minutes focus on infants, but if you stick around you’ll get to see children engaging in practical life exercises. You can even listen with the sound off, just look at the imagery. It just might convince you that your small child should be doing the dishes, because she can.