About young children’s preference for the “real thing”: a research study, and Montessori practical life activity

Put aside those toys research study findings 

<< ūüĎÜūüŹĹclick the link above to read all about it ! >>

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The study above, produced by Angeline Lillard and team, is provocative and important. ¬†It’s safe to say that the examples provided within this study, ¬†(you can see more pictures from the link to the study) ¬†also happen to be wonderful examples of “practical life” activities from a Montessori educational approach.


For those who have no clue about practical life, “Practical life” activities are any real activity that a person would do to take care of themselves, take care of others, or take care of the environment in which they live or participate on a recurrent basis. ¬†They are activities most humans “just know” how to do, because we need to. ¬†Adults take these skills for granted because we’ve been alive so long.

The modern medical world refers to these kinds of activities as “activities of daily living”, or “ADLs”. ¬†They become highly salient whenever we lose the capacity to function. ¬†So for example, if someone has a medical condition that impacts their health or daily functionality in a significant way, a doctor and teams of professionals will be looking at their ability to engage in functional activities– ¬†what us Montessori professionals would call “practical life”. ¬†Can you dress yourself? Can you comb your hair? ¬†Can you cook a meal and chop the veggies? ¬†Can you use the toilet? Can you bathe yourself? Can you do the laundry or feed the baby, functionally, safely, and independently? ¬† ¬†These are all examples of “practical life” activity.

Since young children start from zero independence whatsoever, and zero skills, by the time they start to realize they can walk and move more like an adult, they desperately want to know how to do practical life activities too, just like they’ve watched us do. ¬†They’re curious, and basically dying to join us in these mundane, laborious tasks we adults consider chores and drudgery.¬†¬†By allowing them to participate in real activities safely, and perhaps scaled down to an appropriate level of challenge and responsibility,¬†¬†we can help the young child learn practical life skills alongside of us. ¬†Contrary to popular practice, we don’t need to relegate young children exclusively to the world of toys, pretend, artificiality, and dysfunctional ¬†misunderstandings about how to do real things just because they’re so young. ¬†They can actually do many things successfully starting at very young ages.


What can be considered practical life is wide in scope. ¬†The “default” practical life activities generally fall under “chores”, and the formal write ups produced in an album from a Montessori training center. ¬†In my opinion though, practical life is by no means limited just to the common sense chores, or to the formal write ups from AMI training. ¬†To me, if¬†someone needs to do it in order to keep themselves or their reality functional on a daily basis, and it improves the person or the environment, it can fall within the scope of practical life.

Another clear distinction worth mentioning is that practical life NEVER includes pretend, meaningless, purposeless activity.   Just because an activity keeps a child preoccupied or entertained, and has an end point is NOT what makes it practical life.


Here are the deciding questions I like to ask myself to clarify if it’s legit practical life or not:

  1. What is the purposeful, functional, helpful outcome for this activity? Can you look at the photo/ presentation, and without knowing anything about how it’s supposed to be used discern the outcome, and more importantly, why we’re having someone do it? ¬†Practical life is meant to help maintain, improve, or restore the self, others or the environment. ¬†So if it’s not maintaining, improving, or restoring something or someone, you should be thinking twice about your practical life activity idea.

2.¬†Would an adult willingly spend their time doing this activity? ¬†If the answer is “no”, I won’t let a child waste their time doing it ¬†either. ¬†They could be doing something functional with their time that develops themselves and improves reality. ¬†Since I respect them as one human being to another, and don’t want any child under my guidance wasting this precious developmental time that isn’t ever coming back, if I see that they just want to play and relax, we have other opportunities to redirect them to. ¬† Practical life isn’t designed to be play, even though it can feel absolutely joyful and fun for the young child. It is designed to be educative and develop functional skill. ¬† So if they aren’t truly connected with the task, there’s many other things that can be done.


If parents prefer play-based and pretend play over knowing that your child is engaging in chores and helpful life skills, I think you deserve to save your money, and send your child to a play-based program or other pedagogy, which can be just as wonderful and developmentally rich. ¬†If you’re paying for Montessori though, know that you are paying for practical life. ¬†It’s one of the essential things that sets Montessori apart from other versions of preschool, especially for toddlers. ¬†So if I was a parent, I would feel pretty upset if I was paying for Montessori education for my toddler, which we all know isn’t cheap, and my child wasn’t walking away with functional outcomes that are applicable in real life. ¬† I definitely wouldn’t appreciate it if my kid was doing made-up time wasters like brushing a set of fake teeth, when they could be learning to make a simple snack, put their shoes on, or brush their real teeth. ¬† What toddlers can do independently as a result of practical life is absolutely astonishing. ¬†What it’s doing for their brain capacity is amazing. ¬†I want that for every parent and toddler in a Montessori classroom. Practical life is a jaw dropper.

Don’t get me wrong, children absolutely need relaxed, open-ended, unstructured play. ¬†Montessori children absolutely spend time playing during the day, too. Practical life isn’t the only way to learn, and many varieties of toys can be very educative. ¬†But I just don’t think it’s ethical to short-change children or parents on the financial investment in Montessori education by failing to provide functional practical life, especially in a Montessori toddler classroom. ¬†In the Montessori toddler classroom, practical life is such an instrumental part of developing the child.


Let’s now use one of my favorite idea-generating websites of all time, ¬†pinterest, ¬†and observe a few well-intentioned, but botched, “not actually practical life examples together…

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Now let’s dissect the examples I found..

Why are you training a child to brush a fake set of teeth with eyeballs on it ¬†(LOL) when they can and need to learn how to brush their actual teeth? ¬†Would an adult willingly spend their time brushing a fake set of teeth with eyeballs on it? (laughing harder now) No. ¬†So neither should we waste our child’s time expecting them to learn how to do this useless activity. ¬†I would prefer that the child go to the bathroom to brush their real teeth, or if they are old enough to start being curious about oral hygiene, I might make an entire language set of dentist classified language materials, or fill the stereognostic bag with oral hygiene items. ¬†Most children 3 and under are terrified of the dentist anyway, to be honest, and are still learning how to brush their own teeth.

For the folding cloths example, this would be practical life if the child is folding legitimate laundry that needs to get folded and perhaps sorted and put away. ¬†It would be considered a “preparatory activity” if it was the formal “linens with lines sewn on to them” material that teaches different kinds of folds in the primary classroom. ¬†But a random basket full of random cloths you expect a child to fold “just because” is a waste of time. ¬†Doing this is just keeping a child preoccupied. ¬†They might as well be folding the real laundry and walking away with an applicable skill they can use for the rest of their life.

The example of the fake clothes on a mini clothes rack– this is a toy, people. ¬†The clothes are miniaturized, the clothes pins are miniaturized, the rack is miniaturized, therefore it is a toy. ¬†It is not practical life because there is no practicality in clipping fake clothes to a fake laundry line. ¬†In contrast, they could be out in the sun hanging up your real laundry that needs to air dry. ¬†Let them hang the simple things like socks, underwear, and cloth napkins. Let their hands get stronger by using real-sized clothes pins and allow them to practice large muscle coordination. ¬†I’m unsure whether this idea is meant to be some sort of PSM activity, but it is for sure not to be confused as practical life.

Pinterest does have some awesome practical life ideas that I had never thought of, so don’t be fooled by these poor examples.¬† I saw “peeling and crushing garlic” on pinterest. ¬†We could do this at my job, and then give them to our school cook to use or send them home for the parents to cook with. ¬†So basically, if you use those two questions I provided, “what is the functional, purposeful outcome of this activity?” and “would an adult willingly spend our time doing this?”, ¬†you can then go on pinterest, type in “practical life”, and be able to tease out the legitimate practical life from the weird, purposeless waste-of-time activity ideas. ¬†Do know that the formal AMI Montessori curriculum includes distinctly chosen practical life activity offerings; ¬†and if you are interested in knowing what those are, anyone with a bachelor’s degree can go get trained in the AMI Montessori tradition.


It is also worth clarifying that the Montessori curriculum for primary aged classrooms (ages 3-6) ¬†utilizes “exercises” for children called “preparatory activities”. ¬†Preparatory activities fall under the category of practical life because they are exercising the child’s muscular movement patterns in preparation for executing ¬†actual, functional practical life activities. ¬†Dr. Maria Montessori was a medical doctor who knew about neurology and human functional physiology; and she clearly brought this expertise into her classroom.

Preparatory activities may appear to be meaningless and close-ended to the untrained outsider, because technically, they are disconnected from functional activity and they are designed to be repetitive on purpose to refine skills.  But again, the function of these preparatory activities is literally exercising and training muscular movement patterns of the hands and eyes, and exercising coordination and control for precision.  That way, when the child is doing real activities, like transferring liquids for real purposes, like say, refilling a bottle of cleaner one day later on in their life, they are going to be able to do so with confidence, control, skilled/ precise/ graceful movement, and with adult-like mastery.

However, in my opinion, a shelf full of preparatory activities is not necessary for toddlers at home, or in a toddler Montessori classroom environment. ¬†Preparatory activities have their place for the child who goes straight from the home where they may have zero ¬†formal Montessori experience in their lives, into a primary Montessori ¬†classroom. ¬†But I find they can be confusing in a toddler classroom which I’ll explain in a moment.

The primary Montessori classroom can be so perplexing to the uninitiated older toddlers and preschool aged children transitioning from the home (and honestly, to even any adult who has never been in one before) that some children really benefit from the grace and control that preparatory exercises will deliver.  Older children might also benefit from getting more and more precise and controlled in their movements.  Pouring a basin of water into a bucket requires a lot less precision and exactness (a toddler expectation) than say, pipetting liquids into a petri dish (which might occur in a Montessori elementary classroom).   So if you want to get a child from buckets and basins to more challenging transfers, you might set them up with preparatory activities.


Younger toddlers benefit more from receiving undistorted, functional, applicable reality while their very young mind is trying to make sense of the reality in which they live and operate. ¬†They will naturally develop and practice ideal movement patterns from the real practical life activities they engage in. ¬†While they are young enough to learn everything there is to know about reality “from scratch”, all they need is to be shown from the start how to do things with grace and care , as opposed to offering a preparatory activity. ¬†They don’t need to practice squeezing out sponges back and forth, over and over, if they are already naturally practicing squeezing out sponges to wash the art easel after they’re done painting, or after they’re done arranging flowers. ¬† ¬†I personally feel they get more out of functional uses of materials.

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<< Child pictured is 2 years old>>

If you give an 18 month old a preparatory activity presentation of a skill before they’ve had exposure to doing a functional activity with the materials involved, ¬†there is a risk of them developing a complete misunderstanding about why we utilize the materials involved.¬† Young children will learn from whatever¬†they’ve been shown to do. ¬†And what they could develop as a result of “distorted wanna be practical life” experiences ¬†or preparatory activities as their only version of practical life is a misunderstanding about reality. ¬†The reality is that there are actual functional reasons why humans may need to utilize certain materials, and that you can produce functional outcomes in reality using certain materials because these things were designed with purpose in mind. ¬†The function of a sponge is to absorb spilled liquids, and it is common practice to squeeze sponges out to rid them of excess water in order to absorb more spilled water. ¬†Sponges aren’t meant to be used to transfer water back and forth, back and forth. ¬† But if the child does’t know any better, they will take what you show them at face value. ¬† ¬†Thus it helps to expose young children to the reality of the functional task and the intended purpose of a material before they engage in preparatory activity practice.

In my professional opinion, after observing a pretty high number of toddlers in my short but busy career, it that is superior for the child to learn functionality first, and perfection of skills after the functional reality is understood on a basic level. ¬†Perfection of the skill¬†can come later, after the child understands the functional reason why we’re doing practical activities in the first place. ¬†Key word in practical life? ¬†Practical. ¬†The goal of practical life is functional, applicable outcomes– not merely rote, out-of-context skill demonstration. ¬†The skill is important, sure, ¬†because it will get us to the ultimate outcome we’re striving for. ¬†But the rote skill itself is not the goal. ¬†That’s why I don’t give preparatory activities or distorted wanna-be practical life ideas to any toddlers under my guidance.

And trust me when I share that I’ve seen this with my own eyes– I offered the washing plant leaves practical life activity to toddlers from an AMS classroom; ¬†and all they wanted to do automatically was either absorb the water from the bowl with the sponge, and squeeze it back out; or they automatically wanted to pour the water from the bowl straight into the plant, and would ignore the sponge completely. ¬†Creative, perhaps. ¬† But clearly these children held an incorrect understanding about why we were using the water. ¬†It is also worth mentioning that in this classroom, the children had never, ever been shown how to pour themselves a cup of drinking water before I took over as lead.


I try to prevent the misuse of practical life activity supplies pretty much at all times, both for safety and for functional understanding of what that item’s purpose really is. ¬†For example, if I repeatedly see that a child wants to misuse a practical life material outside of its intended purpose, they are showing me they may not be ready for that task quite yet; and may need to be redirected to another activity that can fulfill whatever it is they are interested in doing. ¬†If they keep on chewing on sponges, I will redirect them to teeth brushing or a food prep activity where they can satiate the need to put things in their mouth.

There are other misunderstood ways that I’ve observed untrained people presenting practical life materials to young children. ¬†For example, I observed an untrained adult who used to show the toddlers to use the “wiping up water” material when there was no actual spill to wipe up. ¬†So the children would take the tray of supplies, and proceed to go all around the room wiping perfectly clean tables with a damp sponge and drying them off. ¬†It fully trained the children to think that the purpose of the material was just to wipe tables for the sake of wiping tables (a clear misunderstanding). ¬†It trained the children to waste their time doing a dysfunctional task, she failed to ¬†help them learn to recognize when a table actually needed wiping, and she perpetuated the occupation of perfectly available tables to work at, which are basically precious real estate in a Montessori classroom. ¬†If there was an actual spill that needed to be wiped up, the “wiping up water” job would then be unavailable, while a child was busy going around the room wiping perfectly clean, dry tables. ¬† Most people clean because it’s necessary, not “just because”.

So that’s my crazy long schpiel on practical life!

P.S. ¬† If you are ever curious for suggestions on how to present any ideas that fall outside of the training albums, which I’m happy to share, feel free to message me via my FB page “what would montessori think“. ¬† In time, I hope to get informal but functional ideas I’ve used in my classroom available to readers! Some of the ideas I’ve implemented successfully that do not come from the formal AMI album, but are indeed practical life and enjoyed by the children, ¬†are things like making pomegranate juice from scratch, feeding the class hamster, ¬†baking muffins, and washing eggs gathered from the chicken coop. ¬†Stay tuned! )

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