Monthly letters to help put the work of the catechist of the Good Shepherd into the context of the larger world · from the archives
by Catherine Maresca
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.