Elementary Program

Small Hands, Big Things: Practical Life in Montessori

By Emily Peters, Lower Elementary Teacher

During the toddler and primary years, children who are given opportunities to use their hands and actively engage in the purposeful, Practical Life work are able internalize and clarify what they observed as infants. Children love to use their hands to wash dishes, water plants, chop vegetables, clean tables, prepare a snack, sweep floors, feed the dog, and rake leaves.

Practical Life work at home and in the classroom allows your children the opportunity to refine their motor coordination and gain independence. This work gives your child self-confidence and dignity. When I was a Montessori Primary teacher, I often heard little voices exclaim, “I did it all by myself!”

Purposeful gross and fine motor activity does not simply keep children busy. An iPad could do that. Every time your children use their hands to construct or manipulate real objects and materials, they are physically building their brains—literally creating and strengthening connections that were not there before.

The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.

— Maria Montessori

The author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius Angeline Lillard writes, “Dr. Montessori believed that deep concentration was essential for helping children develop their best selves, and that deep concentration in children comes about through working with their hands.”

Now, as a Montessori Lower Elementary teacher, I see many children can perform complex procedures in math, language and science using materials that call for fine motor control far beyond that of the tap or swipe of a screen.

Elementary children perform science experiments in which they handle glass test tubes and thermometers, carefully heat various solids and liquids, work with candles, use garden clippers, and use materials such as iron filings. Pouring, transferring, attention to detail, sequence and order, the use of various breakable materials, and the responsibility that comes with all of this is second nature to Montessori Elementary children as they work and learn with their hands.

Parents who visit our class observe children doing long division on the Checkerboard or distributive division with the Racks and Tubes and remark upon the incredible care with which the children handle the beautiful math materials, many of which have tiny pieces that need to be counted and arranged. They see how children line up the Grammar Box cards left to right and label them with their parts of speech. They see children sorting research note cards into paragraphs and then writing carefully on handwriting paper, making their letters sit on the lines and justifying their sentences by the margin.

Our children build their brains by using their hands; I owe gratitude to their parents, their toddler teachers, and their primary teachers for laying that foundation through Practical Life.