from "The Joyful Child"
Michael Olaf's Essential Montessori for Birth to Three

At this link it is now possible to order the The Joyful Child, which is a 70-page Montessori overview and catalogue of appropriate toys, tools, and materials for the home or school that support the Montessori philosophy for educating the child from birth to three years of age.

All the activities connected with looking after yourself and your surroundings, such as getting dressed, preparing food, laying the table, wiping the floor, clearing dishes, doing the dusting, etc., are activities belonging to what Dr. Montessori called "Practical Life", and are precisely the tasks that adults like least. But between the ages of one and four years, children love these jobs and are delighted to be called on to participate in them.

—Silvana Montanaro, MD

Adults and Children Working Together

Practical life work provides valuable opportunities for adults and children to spend time together. We parents often wish for more excuses to be with our children, and to use our hands in the time-honored and calming traditional work of the artist and homemaker. Most of us have some talent we could share, or would like to develop - cooking, gardening, sewing, woodworking, making music. Even half an hour a week of sharing this with a child is a great beginning.

This cooperation can be of great benefit to ourselves, to our children, and to our developing relationship with each other. Enjoy.

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

—Maria Montessori, MD

Furniture & Materials

Solid wood tables and stools, which allow the child to sit up straight with the feet flat on the floor for drawing, playing, fixing and eating snacks during the day, are very important. Not only will good posture be developed, but she will be better able to concentrate and focus in this position.

Small solid wood benches, useful next to the front door for removing shoes, in the bathroom for removing pants, and for reaching bathroom and kitchen sinks, are very important for the child's work and independence.

Whenever it is safe, we give beautiful, breakable materials to the child, respectfully sharing with him what the rest of the family uses—pottery, glass, metal, real tools. There is a great increase in the self-respect of the child when she is allowed to use our things, instead of being given plastic substitutes. There is also a corresponding respect for, and caring for, the materials when they are beautiful and breakable.

Children and parents can work together to make these things, throwing pots, cutting out and hand hemming aprons and dust cloths. In days past the aprons, cloth napkins, polishing cloths, were decorated with embroidery by teachers and members of the children's family. In the Montessori Assistants to Infancy training, students still do this - adding special touches to the items they make for infants and young children.

Often in the home we need to think carefully about how to arrange the children's practical life supplies. If the parent is a woodworker, or a gardener, a few good-quality but child-size tools can be kept in a special place near the parent's tools, easily within reach. He can be shown how to use them along with the parent, and how to clean them and put them away when the work is finished.

We can do the same with tools for cleaning, preparing food, cooking, setting the table, any everyday activity. We can either adapt our tools, cutting off the handles of good brooms and mops, or make or buy suitable ones - a small apron, smaller metal buckets, watering cans, kitchen tools, and so forth. For a child, just a few minutes a day working with parents on important "adult" activities can have a great benefit and begin a new way of communicating and living together.

Undressing - Dressing

Undressing is easier than dressing and is learned first—sometimes much to the consternation of the parents. Clothing that is easy to remove and to put on oneself enables the child to practice these skills. These are things to consider when picking out any clothing, from shoes to pajamas, to coats, for young children.

A child's efforts at picking out her own clothes and dressing herself are satisfied if the parents hang up, within the child's reach, just two outfits, letting the child decide between them when she dresses in the morning. This is enough of a decision in the beginning. Eventually she will be able to select everything from drawers, hangers, and shelves. This takes the adult's time and patience in the beginning but it is worth it for all.

Following the Child

Observation is a very special experience and teaches so much about children. Parents often have too many other responsibilities to do nothing but observe, but when they realize the importance of observing, and build it into the schedule for even a few moments each day, the benefits can be great. It is quite a pleasure just to sit and watch, not having to do anything else, and nothing can help a parent more in getting to know his unique child. 

If you would like to see more information on Montessori theory and practice from birth to age 12 and beyond, links to lectures, information on Montessori teacher training, books and other materials for the home and school, and more, go to: The Michael Olaf home page The text on this page is reprinted from several different versions of The Joyful Child, with permission of The Michael Olaf Company.

Copyright 2009, The Michael Olaf Montessori Company
Please E-mail for reprint permission, but feel free to link this page to any site for educational purposes.


Participating in Family Life

Human beings of all ages want to be able to communicate with others, to challenge themselves, to do important work, and to contribute to society. This is human nature at its best.

This desire is especially strong during the second and third years of life, for the child who has been observing all kinds of important activity going on around her, and who has finally mastered the mental and physical skills to stand up, walk, use her hands, and participate in real work.

A child learns self-control, and develops a healthy self-image if the work is real—washing fruits and vegetables, setting or clearing a table, washing dishes, watering plants, watering the garden, sorting, folding, and putting away laundry, sweeping, dusting, helping in the garden, any of the daily work of her family.

. . . but I know happiness does not come with things.
It can come from work and pride in what you do.


A Place for Everything
and Everything in its Place

Ideally, whenever a toy or tool is brought into a home the family decides exactly where it will be kept. Any great artist, or car mechanic, knows the value of being able to find his tools ready for use exactly when he needs them. Children are the same, and their sense of order is far more intense at this age because they are constructing themselves through work.

In our home for many years we had to show guests where the dishes were kept because they were all in the low cupboards, within reach of the children. Dangerous cleaning supplies of course were kept out of reach, but everything else in the house was kept within reach of the children and their friends.

The Child's Research

Some people call the search for limits "testing" but there is negative connotation on this word. When a child is trying to learn the rules and the procedures of the society in which she lives this is a very positive undertaking. It is actually important research.

A good example is the research question "What is the meaning of the word 'No'?" I remember an incident in our home between a good friend and her two-year-old daughter, Julia. The two-year-old had climbed up on the piano bench and was reaching for a bust of Mozart kept on the piano. As she reached toward it she looked expectantly at her mother, obviously for some kind of a response. The mother said "No, don't touch it." Julia stopped, lowered her hand and then reached toward it again. The mother said "No" again, a little louder. Again the daughter reached and looked at her mother. This happened several time with no resolution.

I watched this communication, and the confusion on both sides, and offered the suggestion "I don't think she knows what 'No' means and is trying to find out".

The mother laughed and said "Of course." Then she went to Julia, said "No," gently, and, as she said it, picked Julia up and moved her across the room to a pile of building blocks. Both were completely satisfied.

In the first exchange perhaps the child thought "No" meant "I am waiting and looking and expect you to eventually pick up that statue. And I am getting mad at you."

In the second exchange the message was clear. "No" meant "stop doing what you are doing and move away to another part of the room or another activity," (and, thanks to the clear and gentle way of speaking, "I am not mad at you").

Children do not understand the language of reasoning until around age six. They need clear demonstrations along with words.

It is very helpful for parents to realize that their child is not trying to be bad, but she is being a normal, intelligent human being trying to find out how to behave. She is carrying out research.

Expressing Emotions

Children also read the adult's mind and emotion and will carry out research to find out exactly what the parent is trying to communicate when they give double messages—for example when an angry parent is trying to appear cheerful.

A child needs to know that it is all right to feel and express anger and frustration. He need models to learn how—walking, scrubbing a floor, hitting a pillow or pounding clay—and not hitting another person (spanking, for example). If an adult goes for a walk or pounds clay, so will the child. If the adult hits the child, the child learns that it is okay to hit to express emotion.