How to take Practical Life to the next level

There was a period of time when I wondered why my children weren’t doing practical life, then I realised I was the obstacle! I was too concerned about spillage, mess and water wastage, and they caught on to my reluctance. My husband and I learnt these tips when we attended AMI’s Montessori in the Home in-person course targeted at parents.

The heart of any Montessori home, practical life is broadly defined as the exercises of daily living, providing a pathway to independence while folding the child into the natural rhythms of family life. Some benefits of helping the child help himself:

  • He feels like a respected and valued member of the family 
  • His appreciation of the comforts of home is deepened through household chores (chores for us but pleasures for them)
  • Assisting in meal preparation enriches mealtimes 
  • Dressing and grooming himself builds healthy self-image and confidence
  • Advanced practical life (scrubbing table, baking bread, making coffee for guests etc) consists of multi-step sequences, which prepares one indirectly for mathematical problem-solving and logical thinking

    1. What makes a good practical life task?

    Something that invites repetition. Repetition cultivates concentration as the child is drawn deeper and deeper into the work.

    Grating is a good example. We bought a child-size grater with a rubber base and rubber handle but still didn’t find it stable enough, so we laid it down while Emmy grated.

    Anything involving water invites flow (pun intended). The tap is turned on to just a dribble, which is enough for scrubbing a chopping board.

    An oilcloth tabard (apron) keeps clothes dry

    In Singapore, I had a nifty container with a plug that Emmy could wash her dishes in without running water. Best part was it cost SGD$2.90.

    Mopping is a great practical life and gross motor task. To ensure that they didn’t miss any spots, we added a point of interest by asking the children to mop along the lines of the parquet flooring. 

    And folding clothes (video here). I have recently been Kon Mari-ing our house (a decluttering method by Marie Kondo) and she too recommends that children start not by packing their toys, but by folding their clothes, as the repetition drives them to master that skill, which motivates them to fold more clothes.

    Dylan folded the three stacks of clothes on the right

    2. When cooking, break down each recipe to find tasks that the child can manage.

    Our trainers asked us to send in recipes and had us parent-participants discuss in groups which parts children could do. To our collective surprise, after our brainstorm, we realised our children could do almost all parts of the recipe if we broke the steps down, and this applied to dishes from various cultures that we normally consider quite complex: Singaporean, Indian, Eastern European!

    Three examples:

    Pull-apart cheesy garlic bread

    Pre-portion the ingredients for a younger toddler but let the older preschooler measure it himself

    Japanese-style Croquettes

    Bored of the hammering bench toy? Use it to smash breadcrumbs
    Who needs sensory bins when you have all these textures/ consistencies in cooking

    Asian/ Chinese fried rice… also known as how we use up our leftovers

    Emmy cooks chicken. It is magical for her seeing the raw chicken change color
    And Dylan fries up our other ingredients. The pan is full so he must be careful not to spill a grain. And his technique! He makes a shallow crater in the rice and pours the egg in

    3. Seize these opportunities to give your child a concrete, lived experience of language.

    Even the best Montessori classroom cannot provide the array of sensorial experience that a home can.

    Children learn and retain vocabulary when it is attached to a memory or hands-on experience (and a Visual Dictionary supports the sensitive period for language brilliantly). If you look at the activities in my previous point, cooking alone has so many verbs they can experience

    pour, peel, stir, scoop, whisk, mash, marinate, tenderise, grate, slice, julienne, dice, cube, steam, boil, simmer, bake, baste, fry, sear, sauté, caramelise

    Imagine the amount of language you can give them at the supermarket.

    Read this highly inspiring post by Stephanie, Montessori teacher and mum of twins: “What children can learn in a grocery store is endless: new vocabulary (Can you pick out the ‘turmeric,’ ‘chanterelle mushrooms’ and ‘fennel’?), counting and simple addition (“I need 8 mushrooms”), food culture (Is it local or organic?), sensorial exercise (How do you pick the juiciest grapefruit and the firmest onion?), grace and courtesy (What do you say when you bump into someone?) and so much more. But I think my favorite is self-control. How do you explain to children why we can’t buy down the whole chocolate aisle?”

    Selecting their breakfast on holiday in Munich

    4. When prepping dinner, set up the task as early as possible. Maybe even morning.

    Our trainer used this analogy: imagine you are the head chef and your child is the sous chef. The head chef comes in before dinner and puts on the final touches. But the sous chef is there from morning, prepping everything. 

    The points above focus on child space e.g. preparing the environment and having child-sized tools ready, but this point is about that oft-neglected dimension of child time. Children don’t have the same sense of urgency that we do. Getting dinner ready by 6pm is not their concern, being in the moment is. Process. Not product.

    By setting out a practical life task in the morning, they have all day to choose it and work on it. It does take abit of planning on your part, but you could also save the chopped food for the next day’s meal.

    He had chopped enough mushrooms for two meals. But he was so engrossed, it would have been a shame to interrupt him.

    Being human, we often can’t fork out that time beforehand.

    Deconstructed maki roll at a sushi bar. Dylan loved making his own roll!

    But we can plate things differently so children still have autonomy and choice over their meals (our lunch buffet station and Satter’s theory of division of responsibility here).

    And of course, an easy task with zero setup time is to make the children work for their desserts.

    This pic illustrates the refined nylon knife skills of a 4yo vis-a-vis the 2.5yo who chunks hers with a wavy chopper

    It’s a good problem when you only have one tool for two kids. The children took turns to use the watermelon baller while the other held the watermelon steady.

    5. Above all, remember that the aim is to get children into a state of “flow” .
    Popularised by Dr Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, the “flow state”  is when time melts away because one is concentrating on something and enjoying it. Flow happens when athletes, dancers, musicians are “in the zone”. Flow happens in the Montessori classroom because children have three hours to choose their work and work without interruption. Yet too easy and one becomes disinterested, too hard and one becomes discouraged; one needs to be sufficiently skilled to meet the challenge, and then doing it becomes satisfying.

    Scrubbing his scooter
    You may also like

    Session 1: Home is the child’s first learning space
    Session 2: Independence in your child’s morning routine
    Our Practical Life album and a video tour of our kitchen, snack station and low table
    Ending with a lovely page from this booklet, where the author distinguishes the differences between the Montessori in the classroom and Montessori at home (click image to enlarge).

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