When she created an education system for children, Maria Montessori started with an area called “Practical Life.” She seemed to think that children might benefit from learning skills necessary for daily living. These tasks help children develop their concentration, coordination, independence, and sense of order. Not only that, they love them. Children tend to watch our every move and find great joy and pride in household work. Our jaded adult brains like to tell us that chores are boring but necessary. A child reminds us how nice it is to lose ourselves in the rhythmic scrubbing of a dish, watching bubbles form and pop and drip down fingers in the process.
Herein lies a truth I’ve been working to reteach myself for years: All work is enjoyable.
Our culture tends to treat work as a necessary evil. A means to an end. But what end exactly? We’ve heard it a million times: go to work to make the money to survive and get the stuff that isn’t actually satisfying so what exactly am I doing here anyway. There seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with working for the weekend. Maybe if we can all remember how to work like children, we can help the children never forget how to do that in the first place.
It seems to me that a tendency to look towards an end goal or some sort of outside validation for our work begins early on. As parents, we are amazed with our children’s every move and want to support their ever growing curiosities by encouraging all of their endeavors. So we often end up praising their efforts with continual “good job”s, unthinkingly placing our own value judgment onto every task. We want our children to know that we appreciate what they are doing. But this very well-meaning habit can actually diminish internal motivation and confidence. Praise might increase a behavior in the short-term, but a child quickly learns to complete a task for an external reward rather than following her own internal drive.
I’ve been working to rewire this tendency in myself for years now. While I certainly find enjoyment in my own work, I still have a desire to seek outside approval rather than just be content with my own efforts. It’s why I post things on Facebook and judge my worthiness as a human being by the number of likes it receives.
Where were we? Practical life. Yes. Young children enjoy chores. I might balk at a pile of dishes because there’s nobody around to cheer me through the process or grade my efforts at the end of the day. But Micah reminds me to delicately pop the bubbles, let the water slowly trickle over my fingertips and enjoy that lovely scrubbing sensation. Montessori would call these sensory experiences the “points of interest” in an activity. Points of interest are excellent building blocks for future materials. Bubbles have been capturing Micah’s attention lately, so after a trip to the pumpkin patch we decided to do a little pumpkin scrubbing.
Those pursed lips are a sure sign that Micah is engaged with his work. Or sleeping. Or practicing his Blue Steel.
Also, when a child is particularly drawn to a certain point of interest it can be a clue that he is working to master a specific skill. Micah is currently fascinated with the zipper on his jacket so once I find a moment, I plan to craft him up one of these:
The zipper frame isolates that point of interest so he can practice the skill until he masters it. This is the general framework I plan to use for all of Micah’s education: observe his work and support his natural interests.
As Montessori says: Follow the child, they will show you what they need to do, what they need to develop in themselves and what area they need to be challenged in. The aim of the children who persevere in their work with an object is certainly not to “learn”; they are drawn to it by the needs of their inner life, which must be recognized and developed by its means.
Micah loves watching grown-ups work these days. He’ll often haul the big broom over, place it in my hands, then sit on the floor and stare at me until I start sweeping. If Mike [husband] pulled that stunt, I might find another use for that broom.
Most mornings, Micah wakes me up as though he’s putting an end to my sleep scene in a movie. “Cut! Cut!” he says.
He’s telling me he’s ready for his favorite part of breakfast: cutting whatever fruit we have on tap. Next he’ll be helping me chop veggies for dinner.
And one more for now: dog food filling. This has been very helpful in directing his fascination with dog food towards something more productive than his mouth.
Here’s a few helpful practical life items (or similar versions) pictured above:
(Click and it’ll take you to the goods)