Purposeful Work and Practical Life

Apple Slicing

I’ve missed Montessori Monday by a few days and here we are on Waldorf Wednesday, but it works together perfectly to fit together something that I’ve been turning over in my brain for a bit, so here we go.

One thing that often pops to the front of people’s minds when speaking of Montessori education is what is known in Montessori circles as “practical life work.” The idea behind this work, which begins pretty much right away in a child’s life, is three-fold: practical life activities are meaningful, they develop a child’s growing motor skills, and they instill in a child a sense of purpose, pride, and responsibility. So, we have an outward, tangible product, an inward motivation, and that sneaky bonus of helping a child travel along their own personalized road of development. And so, learning to make their own (in my house at least) instant oatmeal isn’t just about giving mom a break and learning to make their own breakfast– it’s that outward, tangible result of cooking a meal for themselves, no matter how simple, an inward feeling of pride and responsibility of knowing they can make a nice warm breakfast on their own, and along they way they’re learning about measurement, fractions, time, and science, even if they don’t know it.

Some Montessori practical life skills include work that helps care for the child’s environment– dusting, wiping tables, watering plants, washing dishes, etc– and work that helps the child care for themselves–dressing, packing their own suitcase to travel to Dad’s, putting on their jacket, and so on. There are other activities that are often lumped in with practical life that may not seem very practical, such as flower arranging or pouring for a tea party, but have value nonetheless in that they help make the world a little more beautiful and meet those three goals of being meaningful, caring for their environment, and having them engage in a step-by-step process that strengthens their skills.

Daniel cooking porridge

Waldorf education does the same thing. There may not be lots of fancy charts out there, color-coded by age and listing every individual steps, but children in formal Waldorf programs or Waldorf-inspired home are encouraged to participate in purposeful work every day. They put on their rainboots and raincoats. They help make holes for little seeds and practice one-to-one correspondence as they plant their seed babies deep in the ground. They garden and harvest and prepare food for the whole family to enjoy. They’re given child-sized versions of grown-up tools to use from an early age, and practice woodworking and weaving and other art forms. And while they’re doing this, they are accomplishing the same three goals as Montessori practical life work– they are creating something meaningful that betters their environment, they are growing in responsibility and pride and learning what they can do, and they are strengthening their minds and bodies and learning while they do developmentally appropriate work.

A four-year-old child might take a piece of wood to a child-sized workbench, screw it into a vice, and begin to sand it down. The Montessori child might be creating a napkin holder and the Waldorf child might be creating a gnome, but both are meeting those same three goals of practical, meaningful work. A Waldorf child and a Montessori child can both be given a child-sized broom and they will both sweep the floor. One might carefully follow steps that have been explicitly taught to them and the other might sing a little song, but both are bettering their worlds, feeling proud of their work, and developing their hand-eye coordination.

To me, those three goals are the heart of practical life/ purposeful work. Head, heart, and hands… learning, feeling, and willing. I am less concerned with the how, although both have value. Montessori education teaches explicitly, demonstrating step-by-step methods of doing things and having children practice by isolating the activity until they are ready to apply what they learn in real life. Waldorf education tends towards a more whimsical approach with stories and songs and teaches more implicitly by inviting the child to observe while they are in the thick of things, and then to participate when they are ready. I believe both have value, because the end goal has value.

Waldorf is not all fairies and gnomes, and I think that gets lost sometimes. It is inviting the child, from infancy on, to join in meaningful, practical, purposeful work. And Montessori is not all processes and table washing. It is working towards the goal, from infancy on, for the child to better their environment and feel like important, meaningful citizens of their world.

Apple Slicing