Children want to perform the day-to-day activities they see adults perform. A central motif in Montessori thinking is: “Help me do it myself!”
The classroom’s Life Skills learning area is designed to help children develop the skills necessary for life. It is the setting for activities in:
- Early Activities & Ground Rules
- Manual Dexterity
- Care for Self
- Care of the Environment
- Social Skills/Grace & Courtesy
Maria Montessori believed that children have a will to self-sufficiency; they want to perform those day-to-day activities that they see adults perform — to wash their own hands, pour water, cut with scissors, unscrew bottles, lay the table, polish and lace their shoes.
For very young children however such tasks can be difficult, Montessori observed. She therefore devised and introduced into the Casa dei Bambini an interwoven set of activities to help children master these specific tasks and begin to care for themselves and their environment.
The objects used in these activities are specially manufactured household tools — mops, brooms, dustpans, brushes — made lighter, child-sized and of natural materials such as wood. This equipment, Montessori wrote, “satisfied the need [children] have of moving about intelligently.”
Early Activities & Ground Rules
To engage in these and other activities requires a secure and peaceful environment, which is fostered in the Casa Dei Bambini by Ground Rules. As children follow these rules they gain care and respect for themselves, for others and for the environment. In such a harmonious milieu children possess the freedom to choose their activities, to concentrate and to create.
With freedom comes responsibility; children may work with any material as long as they do so respectfully; they may carry out any activity provided they have been given a presentation about it by an adult guide; and upon finishing their work they are responsible for pushing their chairs back under the table, or, if they’ve been working on the floor, for rolling up their own mats and putting them away tidily. They mop up their own spills.
With ground rules set, children focus on developing their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Montessori wrote:
The child’s intelligence can develop to a certain level without the help of his hand. But if it develops with his hand, then the level it reaches is higher, and the child’s character is stronger … The facts are that a child’s character remains rudimentary unless he finds opportunities for applying his powers of movement to his surroundings.
In various activities then, children transfer with spoons, pour from bottles, open and close lids. To learn the important tripod grip — necessary for future writing — they grip with tongs and tweezers, draw into and squeeze out of pipettes, lock and unlock padlocks, and screw and unscrew nuts and bolts. They also learn to fasten and unfasten buttons, buckles and togs by using child-sized dressing frames.
In performing Life Skills activities, children are at work. Montessori biographer E. M. Standing wrote: “It is by a habit of work that children learn how to move their hands and arms and to strengthen their muscles.”
Care for Self
“The child’s first instinct is to carry out his actions by himself, without anyone helping him,” wrote Dr Montessori; indeed, adults often hear children exclaim: “I want to do it!” Children want to wash their hands, clean their teeth, brush their hair, blow their nose, dress and undress, cook, and so on.
When children undertake these activities they learn to take care of themselves, just as adults do. A central motif in Montessori thinking is: “Help me do it myself!”
Care of the Environment
In activities focusing on care of the environment, children interact respectfully and lovingly with their surroundings and with nature so that they may acquire personal responsibility towards where they live — their homes, school and wider community.
Such activities include clearing up — brushing tables, washing dishes, sweeping & mopping floors, raking leaves — and weeding the garden and arranging flowers.
Children may also cultivate flowers and vegetables in a carefully-planned area of land outdoors. They dig, weed, plant and harvest using right-sized tools.
Social Skills / Grace & Courtesy
In a Montessori environment the role of the adult is modeling moving around a space peacefully— even if crowded — and handling materials gently. Children walk slowly and carefully when carrying materials so as to avoid dropping a tray or a chair or colliding with others. They learn patience by waiting for other children to finish using equipment.
Seeing that children enjoy being shown very precisely how to behave socially, Dr Montessori introduced activities involving grace and courtesy. Gentle words are spoken such as “please” and “thank you”, a conversation is interrupted courteously, a chair offered, compliment paid, a person greeted.
These activities help foster children’s self-discipline and not so much competition as cooperation.