Montessori Philosophy & Practice

AGE 3-6+ YEARS—Care of Self, Others,

and the Environment

The following is the text from this section of the 2009-2010 edition of Child of the World, Montessori from Three to Six Years

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"The child can only develop by means of experience in his environment.
We call such experience work."
—Dr. Maria Montessori


Today the importance of the formative first six years of life is common knowledge. During this time a child becomes fully a member of her particular culture and family group, absorbing language, attitudes, manners, values, of those in which she comes in daily contact. A child who spends the first six years in a loving and supportive environment, learns to love herself and feels safe in the world. A child who has experienced the joy of making a contribution to her family or group, learns to love making an effort, and feels needed.

Every child, by instinct, wants to learn and grow to the limit of his abilities. In the first six years of life he does this by imitating those around him. To support this need we must carefully prepare the physical and social environment, provide tools that enable the child to work to create himself, watch for those first tentative moments of concentration, and get out of the way, following the child as his path unfolds.


The child's reason for, and way of, working is different from ours. Adults will usually choose to do things the most efficient and quickest way and to rush through or avoid anything labeled work. A child, on the other hand, is working to master the activity and to practice and perfect her abilities. She may scrub a table each day for weeks, then turn her attention to some other activity to master. We must not look upon this method as inconsistency or laziness but rather cumulative mastery of abilities. The child's purposes is not to complete the task as much as to construct the self.

Practical life activities may well be the most important work in the Montessori 3-6 class. By means of these activities the child learns to make intelligent choices, to become physically and then mentally independent and responsible. She learns to concentrate, to control muscles, to move and act with care, to focus, to analyze logical steps and complete a cycle of activity. This lays the groundwork for mental and physical work in all other areas of work, not just in early childhood, but throughout life.

The traditional work of the family is referred to in Montessori as 'practical life' work. It is the single most important area of an education for life. The activities of practical life are generally thought of in three main categories, and looking at the child's life in this way helps to keep a balance in the activities we offer children to master. These areas of practical life depend on the culture in which the child is growing up, and may include, but are not limited to:
  • (1) care of the environment—cleaning, sweeping, washing clothes, gardening, etc.,
  • (2) the care of the person—dressing, brushing teeth, cooking, setting the table, etc., and,
  • (3) grace and courtesy—walking carefully, carrying things, moving gracefully, offering food, saying "please" and "thank you" and so on.

It is in learning to do such seemingly mundane activities as dressing, dusting, sweeping, preparing and serving food, and fixing or building, work that the child sees going on around her all day long, that she learns to use her body and mind for a purpose, to concentrate, to complete cycles of activity, to finish what she started, and most importantly to contribute to the important work of the family, the social group.

Practical life activities provide superior groundwork for physical, mental, and social development, and teach the work habits that lead to success in all later academic work.

Practical life work provides practice in eye-hand coordination, the control of large and small muscles, the ability to walk and to carry objects with control, and to behave with knowledge of good manners. These are the activities that bring the child's attention to his own progress and development, and that open up a world of important work. Learning to look a person in the eye when speaking, to listen patiently, to exhibit thoughtfulness through good manners, enables the child to be welcomed into a social group, to be happy and to make others happy.

Children have for eons shown an interest in daily life through make-believe cooking and cleaning. It was one of the pivotal discoveries of Dr. Montessori that, given the chance, children usually choose real work over imaginary.

Allowing the child to participate in the daily work he sees going on around him is an act of great respect for, and confidence in, the child. It helps him to feel important to himself and to those around him. He is needed.

We can empathize if we think about the difference in treatment of a stranger, perhaps a dinner guest in our home, who is served and waited upon, compared to that of a good friend who is welcomed in our kitchen to talk and laugh while we prepare the meal together. Children don't want to be the guest, they want us to help them to do it themselves
© Susan Mayclin Stephenson, 2010 (
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