Purpose in Practical Life

Isn’t it interesting how children imitate the grown-ups in their lives?  We can’t deny that our kids pick up words and phrases that we say (keep it clean, folks!). When cracking pecans in the front yard some years ago, my two-and-a-half year old hit his thumb and dropped an f-bomb. The phrase sounded a lot like something from Papa’s work buddies. I asked him to repeat what he had just said, and so he did. Yep. That’s what I thought….

Our babies smile when we do, laugh when we do, and copy us all the time. And they do it with such purpose.

Young children are drawn to do the chores and activities that their parents do around the house.  We’re told that we should read and also
write in front of children so that they will understand the value of these skills. Entire marketing campaigns monopolize on the fact that children desire to imitate their parents.  

Like when mowing the lawn … as a toddler, my son H had a bubble-blowing toy lawnmower that we were constantly filling with bubble solution so that he could help his Papa mow the lawn.

And in maintaining a home … H and his toddler buddy spent hours “fixing things”with a set of plastic construction tools. They hammered and twisted and sanded, even if there was nothing but air beneath their little fingers.

And while cooking … When my younger son, A, was three, he had an extensive collection of dishes and pots and pans with which he would make me imaginary gourmet toddler meals, including blueberry pizza, whipped cream sandwiches,  and peanut butter salad.

One area of the Montessori foundation is called “practical life.”


It relates to a child’s natural desire to imitate adults and fit into this world with purpose. Initially,
Dr. Maria Montessori and her assistant taught the children in her first classroom to take care themselves and their environment out of necessity.  There were simply too many students for the two adults to attend to. The children had to learn to tie their aprons and wash their own dishes, among other things.

What Dr. Montessori discovered from this was  interesting. She discovered that many chores used in everyday life helped the children to “normalize.”  These  life skills, such as sweeping up a spill, sorting forks and spoons, and folding laundry, all allow the child’s mind and body to align.  

Life skills that Dr. Montessori included in the “practical life” curriculum are lessons in:

  • grace and courtesy (making eye contact, saying thank you, waiting for a turn to speak, etc.)
  • care of self (toileting, blowing nose, zipping a jacket, etc.)
  • care of the environment (watering the plants, sweeping the leaves off the back porch, clearing the lunch dishes, feeding the pets, etc.)
  • control of movement (control and strength of the hand, fine  and gross motor skills, impulse control, etc.).

The Montessori philosophy of Practical Life is really simple when you break it down.  

First, the number one way to create successful behavior in children (or if you’re more of a glass half empty type: the number one deterrent of undesirable behavior in children) is: Purpose. When a child has purposeful work, when a child feels helpful, when a child is proud of his accomplishments, he is his best self (That’s what Dr. Montessori called a normalized child.).

In a Montessori classroom, we prepare activities that allow children to practice a specific skill.  The children practice scooping beans from one bowl to the next, for example.  They practice buttoning and unbuttoning fabric on a frame.  They practice pouring water from one container to another. The skill is isolated so that it’s simply one skill. There are only one or two steps. At home, the skills your kid needs to practice will not be isolated.  The skills he will need to learn and to practice will come up naturally and might contain many steps.

So many parents are scared of messes. I love messes! Messes are an opportunity for your child to practice body control, hand/eye coordination, attention to detail, and  concentration. Last week, my student, “Tommy” chose to do a science work with which the child explores how water moves and flows. There’s a big container and some foam shapes that float and stack.  The child basically builds a waterslide, and then scoops water and pours it to see how it flows on the structure.
“Tommy” used this work for a very long time, using it as it was designed to be used, and when he was done, he experimented by pouring the water back into the narrow pitcher rather than the larger, easier bucket provided for the work.

Naturally the majority of the water spilled onto the floor.

I just watched.  I even protected him from friends (and adults, too) who were ready to correct him and to point out his large spill.  Next, “Tommy” sat on the floor with one of the foam shapes in his hand, carefully dunking it in and out of the half-filled pitcher, watching as the water level rose and fell. When he was done with that, he stood up and started to walk away.  

This is when I spoke to him, saying,”That’s quite a lot of water on the floor.  Are you going to get another towel or do you want to get the mop?”

I didn’t hear his response, although he returned in a few minutes with the mop. “Tommy’s” whole experience, including the cleaning up, took 50 minutes.  This four-year-old boy was deep in concentration for a very long time and he was experiencing many important things including order, sequence, gravity, water displacement, flotation, surface tension, volume, to name a few. If I had interrupted him to prevent a mess, he would have missed the whole  opportunity!

Have a whisk broom and dust pan available for your child for when he makes a little mess (or a BIG mess!) Here’s a whisk broom my boys use at home. Get down with him and talk him through the process of cleaning up step-by- step together. He’s seen you use the broom. Now let him do it while you watch. As his body becomes more coordinated, you will help less and less.  

When your child has a sniffly nose, show her, standing side by side in front of a mirror, how you blow you your nose and let her blow her own nose.

When your child has a shirt with buttons in front, show her how to button it and let her practice.  If you see that your child really tries to fasten the buttons, and she cannot, only supply her with knit shirts she can don by herself. Try again a few months later with buttons. The same goes for blue jeans or overalls.  You should not have a button frame like we do in the classroom that isolates the skill of buttoning.  You can offer your child a real shirt of her very own to practice buttoning (while it is OFF her body, is easier at first).

An important side note here.  A child may show an interest in something that he is not yet ready to do. Children often show an interest in reading and writing before they are ready to tackle those skills. My Montessori colleague Beth Phillips, at Academy Montessori Preschool in Albuquerque, NM wrote, “In Montessori, I am trained to observe the child for indications of both needs and readiness.” In her blog, Montessori Publications, which you can read here, she talks about how a child can only understand academic material once they have normalized. Observing your child without engaging is important.  See what he is interested in and at the same time, see what he is capable of.

Watch your child.  Show him how…then get out of the way and let him try. Let him struggle a bit. Let him persevere.

I hope you found my explanation of Practical Life helpful.  I welcome your questions and comments. Next time I plan to post about Grace and Courtesy.

Author: Natalie

I am a mom. I am a film wife. I am an "Army brat". I knit, I sew, I garden. I keep a bullet journal. I teach in a 3-6 classroom at Hawthorne Montessori School in Austin, TX.

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