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The Benefits of Practical Life

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catherine
catherine's picture
The Benefits of Practical Life

As we prepare our atriums for the new year, our attention often returns to practical life. These materials, while not explicitly religious, help set the stage for prayerful work throughout the year. 

Practical life develops concentration. Simple exercises invite the child to repeat the movement until they are satisfied. This may be a few times or many times. The freedom to work with one material as long as desired fosters longer and longer periods of concentration.

Practical life develops independence. Exercises such as hand washing, sweeping, sorting, polishing or table cleaning allow the child to take address any accidents related to their work independently. If something spills, the child can calmly wipe or sweep as needed. If a pencil needs to be sharpened, the child can do so without waiting for an adult to help them.

Practical life prepares the child for care of the atrium and for particular atrium materials. For example, cloth folding prepares for the work of folding altar cloths or chasubles. Pouring exercises prepare for the preparation of the cruets and the chalice. Dishwashing, table cleaning, and sweeping all prepare for work with the leaven. 

Practical life develops fine motor control. This allows the children to work with satisfaction on all the materials of the atrium.

Practical life develops the child’s work cycle. Choosing a work and a place to do it, carrying the work to the chosen table or mat, repeating the work until satisfied, and returning the work to the shelf ready to be used again is a pattern used for every material in the atrium. As this is established children put away work and choose their next activity with more independence.

Practical life develops language. Each material and its components have names. Each exercises has particular movements. This language is introduced and used by the catechist, developing a precise vocabulary for work in the atrium and life in the church.

Practical life develops community. As these exercises are used children are also learning to work without disturbing each other, to wait patiently to use a material another child has chosen, to move around the room quietly and carefully, and to make sure each material is put away and ready to be used by next child.

Practical life develops a capacity for meditation. As the hand moves the brain makes connections. Some of these are the pathways needed for large and fine motor movements. Others are related to the language. And others are the mysterious insights and meanderings of the mind emerge from work with the hand. When the child sits down with the Good Shepherd or the Pearl of Great Price and starts to move the figures, insights follow, and enjoyment of the presence of God.

For older children, practical life continues to provide purposeful movement as a way to provide focus and calm.

In your 3-6 atrium prepare practical life exercises that will support independence in the environment and success with atrium materials. These include cloth folding, flower arranging, graded pouring exercises, polishing exercises, hand washing, sweeping, and table washing.

In the 6-12 atrium, provide all supplies needed to care for every part of the environment and any needs that may arise. At Christian Family Montessori School, where I am a catechist, this includes a wide dust mop to prepare the hall to work with the Fettuccia, large floor cloths for rainy and snowy days, vinegar spray for cleaning tables, baking soda for hard to remove marks on the tables, brass and wood polishing, plant care, flower arranging, pencil sharpening, dustpan and brush, a variety of cloths for cleaning, Baptism, and polishing, laundry basket for used cloths, and a line with small clothespins to hang watercolor paintings. The practical life shelf is spaciously arranged and carefully tended.

While practical life may provide an early focus in your atrium year, it’s importance for settling a child or group, nurturing independence, and developing the capacity for concentration and meditation through work with the hand is foundational and ongoing.

What are your own gems on your practical life shelf? How have they helped children in the atrium? What are the challenges we can address together?

walshnorma
Practical Life in my 3-6 atrium

I love your post Catherine, I had to print it. I think is very informative, and so easy to follow through.  In the atrium that I set up, the practical life that I have, and that I think are important for the child to teach them, are the sowing, pouring water, sweeping, spooning, plant care, pencil sharpening, dressing frames, liturgical colors with Montessori's squares, and color sorting with the liturgical colors. What I also do is when I see children that are already looking for challenge, or that they need something else. I change some practical life.  For instance, if children have mastered a work, such as pouring water, and don't use it any more, I change it to cloth folding. If a child doesn't work any more with spooning, I change it to polishing, etc.  I don't know if that is what I'm supposed to do.  But what I have seen is that the child, engages with the presentation of the new material and accepts the changes, and works with it.Many blessing, and I am looking forward for your thoughts on my post.Norma

catherine
catherine's picture
Norma, refreshing your

Norma, refreshing your practical life shelf is a good idea. You might think of a series of related exercises. When they finish with the easiest, increase the difficulty. For example, after bean spooning, something smaller like rice.

Pour rice, then water in equal size pitchers. Then pouring from a pitcher into a vase or cup that is smaller, learning to stop pouring when necessary. Then pouring with a funnel. Sowing, polishing, and work with colors could also be in a series of increasing levels of difficulties. Any exercises that will continue to be needed for care of the environment should remain available.

Polly Tangora
Talking with Parents about Practical Life

Thanks for raising this topic.  My question would have been how to talk with parents about the practical life activities they see on our shelves.  Catherine, your post on the benefits of practical life is so clear and helpful with this.  I'm also printing it out so I can share it with some of our new atrium assistants. They haven't had much training yet and are not sure why we have those bowls of beans,or keep putting the pouring works away because the children spill the water.  I also like the reminder that my unequal pitchers should allow to over pouring rather than having just enough to fill the smaller container.    What is sowing?  I don't know that I have seen that in an atrium before and would like to add it?

catherine
catherine's picture
Sewing or sowing

I'm using both spellings to answer your question. Many atriums do a little planting in the spring (sowing) to deepen the understanding of the wheat parables. Something in a paper cup that can be taken home. Some places also have a little planter or garden box near the atrium where flowers can be planted and enjoyed.

We have needlepoint with some patterns of traditional Christian symbols (such as crosses) as a meditative work in 9-12. Preceding this would be some practical life, in our school there are some very simple sewing exercises in both the primary and lower elementary classes.

I'm sure this varies around the country if anyone else has favorite exercises for sowing or sewing.

lindaa021750@ve...
Practical Life

Catherine, thank you for this wonderful article. This is such an important part of our atria.  I saw a fellow catechist use Pearl Spooning.  I found the most beautiful bowlsin which I could to place the pearls.  It was much enjoyed!  I think the beauty and presentation of our materials shows respect for the child.  However, I think thishelped develop a capacity to meditate.  It also seemed to lead them to The Pearl of Great Price after doing this work.  My other thought is theimportance of observing the children and letting this lead us to what we put on our practical life shelf.  For example one year I put out a small box held together withscrews and a scewdriver.  This pulled in a lot of the active 6-9 year old boys to practical life.  It is so important to match their needs and put the other great ideas wehave back in the closet.  I would love feedback on the use of practical life when you have only an hour for your atrium.  It is hard for the children to settle in, go deepwith a work, and continue their meditation in the short time allowed.Blessings for a prayful and joyous year with the children!

catherine
catherine's picture
Practical Life in an hour long session

I do remember Kate Collins saying that even in their one-hour session the year they started slowly with a lot of practical life was one of the best.

 

Polly Tangora
Practical Life in an hour long session

We have an hour-long session in our church as well and as I watch the children settle in this fall, I see how much the practical life work enriches the atrium with a sense of peace and purpose.  Even our new three-year-olds have taken ownership of the space. The other Sunday one of the younger children was delighting in using scissors to make small snips of paper. Many of which were falling to the floor.  When he reached a point where he was satisfied with what he had done, he began to put the materials away.  Without prompting he went and got the broom and then the dustpan.  What had been a cutting work took on another dimension in sweeping up small bits of paper. It was clear to me as he went about this task, that he considered the atrium his and felt responsible to care for it and capable of doing so without an adult intervening.