making eye contact

MICHAEL OLAF NEWSLETTER #9, Practical Life—Grace and Courtesy,
August 2011


In 1990 I was having dinner in Rome with Silvana Montanaro, director of the Montessori 0-3 training, and holding her new grandson. He was fascinated with speech, as are all children at this age. Silvana insisted that I NOT LOOK AWAY OR STOP SPEAKING TO HIM UNTIL HE WAS FINISHED AND LOOKED AWAY! That taught me a great lesson. If we want to teach consideration in giving one's full attention to another during a conversation, we must do the same. This gives pause for thought about manners connected with cell phone use, a radio or TV playing during meals, and other elements of modern life. Technology is constantly changing, so we must continually explore, observe, and devise ways to help children adapt and flourish.


What! Our own grandchild discovered using a carrot for a cell phone in the Christmas picture!

carrot as cell phone

Bluetooth manners

(Image, left: Bluetooth manners)

A unique lesson on the need for a new set of manners for the modern world!

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AGE 6-12
Compassion, Cooperation & Peace

What good is knowledge if not combined with consideration for others. Peace is not studied as an independent subject, but with the study of examples from the past, and the experience of serving food and helping others. Peace is the natural outcome of a method of education where children experience work with their hands and long periods of individual concentration and contemplation. In this way they are able to process and recover from all the input of our modern world. They learn that peace is not just the absence of war, but the way we treat each other in our daily lives, the way we communicate, and the way we solve problems. Peace begins inside us, at home, at school.

The acts of courtesy which he has been taught with a view to his making contacts with others must now be brought to a new level. The question of aid to the weak, to the aged, to the sick, for example, now arises. If, up to the present, it was important not to bump someone in passing, it is now considered more important not to offend that person.
While the younger child seeks comforts, the older child is now eager to encounter challenges. But these challenges must have an aim.
The passage to the second level of education (age 6-12) is the passage from the sensorial, material level to the abstract. A turning toward the intellectual and moral sides of life occurs at the age of seven.
— Maria Montessori

AGE 3-6
Care of Self, Others, the Environment

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

Today the importance of the formative first six years of life is common knowledge. During this time a child becomes fully a member of her particular culture and family group, absorbing language, attitudes, manners, values, of those in which she comes in daily contact. A child who spends the first six years in a loving and supportive environment, learns to love herself and feels safe in the world. A child who has experienced the joy of making a contribution to her family or group, learns to love making an effort, and feels needed. Every child, by instinct, wants to learn and grow to the limit of his abilities. In the first six years of life he does this by imitating those around him. To support this need we must carefully prepare the physical and social environment, provide tools that enable the child to work to create himself, watch for those first tentative moments of concentration, and get out of the way, following the child as his path unfolds.

The traditional work of the family is referred to in Montessori as practical life work. It is the single most important area of an education for life. The activities of practical life are generally thought of in three main categories, and looking at the child's life in this way helps to keep a balance in the activities we offer children to master. These areas of practical life depend on the culture in which the child is growing up, and may include, but are not limited to:

(1) Care of the environment—cleaning, sweeping, polishing, hanging up clothing, washing clothes, gardening, putting away toys.
(2) Care of the person—bathing, dressing, brushing teeth, cooking, setting the table.
(3) Grace and courtesy—walking carefully, carrying things, opening and closing a door, tucking in a chair when finishing work, rolling up a floor mat, offering food, saying "please" and "thank you" and so on.

It is in learning to do such seemingly mundane activities as dressing, dusting, sweeping, preparing and serving food, and fixing or building, work that the child sees going on around her all day long, that she learns to use her body and mind for a purpose, to concentrate, to complete cycles of activity, to finish what she started, and most importantly to contribute to the important work of the family, the social group.
Practical life activities provide superior groundwork for physical, mental, and social development, and teach the work habits that lead to success in all later academic work.
Practical life work provides practice in eye-hand coordination, the control of large and small muscles, the ability to walk and to carry objects with control, and to behave with knowledge of good manners. These are the activities that bring the child's attention to his own progress and development, and that open up a world of important work. Learning to look a person in the eye when speaking, to listen patiently, to exhibit thoughtfulness through good manners, enables the child to be welcomed into a social group, to be happy and to make others happy.

Children have for eons shown an interest in daily life through make-believe cooking and cleaning. It was one of the pivotal discoveries of Dr. Montessori that, given the chance, children usually choose real work over imaginary. Allowing the child to participate in the daily work he sees going on around him is an act of great respect for, and confidence in, the child. It helps him to feel important to himself and to those around him. He is needed. We can empathize if we think about the difference in treatment of a stranger, perhaps a dinner guest in our home, who is served and waited upon, compared to that of a good friend who is welcomed in our kitchen to talk and laugh while we prepare the meal together. Children don't want to be the guest, they want us to help them to do it themselves.

The child's reason for, and way of, working is different from ours. Adults will usually choose to do things the most efficient and quickest way and to rush through or avoid anything labeled work. A child, on the other hand, is working to master the activity and to practice and perfect her abilities. She may scrub a table each day for weeks, then turn her attention to some other activity to master. We must not look upon this method as inconsistency or laziness but rather cumulative mastery of abilities. The child's purpose is not to complete the task as much as to construct the self. Practical life activities may well be the most important work in the Montessori 3-6 class. By means of these activities the child learns to make intelligent choices, to become physically and mentally independent and responsible. She learns to concentrate, to control muscles, to act with care, to focus, to analyze logical steps and complete a cycle of activity.
This lays the groundwork for sound mental and physical work throughout life.

Montessori 3-7 products. 3-7 toys and materials

List of All Michael Olaf Newsletters:

#2 Montessori Art, January 2010
#3 Montessori Cultural Geography, May 2010
#4 Montessori Parenting/Teaching, August 2010
#5 Montessori Home Environment, November 2010
#6 Montessori in Sikkim, January 2011
#7 Montessori Math, April 2011
#8 All 2009-2011 Newsletters, May 2011
#9 Montessori Grace and Courtesy, August 2011
#10 Montessori Biology, May 2012
#11 Practical Life, Real Life, Aug 2012
#12 Happy Children for the Holidays, Dec 2012
#13 New Book, Child of the World, Mar 2013


AGE 0-3
Participating in Family Life

(Image above: a mother giving her complete and undivided attention to her nursing infant, giving the message that he is the most important person in the world, and modeling future intimate relationships.)

The family is the child's first teacher and most powerful model in all areas, movement, kindness, respect for nature, good manners, relationships—the infant is taking it all in and becoming exactly what he experiences around him.

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 time when the child who has been observing all kinds of important activity going on around her 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.

Family work, known as Practical Life in Montessori schools, is the single most important area of a Montessori education at any age. Allowing the child to participate in the life he sees going on around him is an act of great respect for, and confidence in, the child. It helps him to feel important to himself and to those around him. He is needed. We can empathize if we think of the difference in our feelings for a dinner guest in our home who is completely served and waited on, or for one who is welcomed in our kitchen to talk and to laugh while we prepare the meal together. In the first instance the guest is separate, the relationship formal. In the second we share our life and the relationship is intimate—a true friendship.

The main areas of practical life activities are:
1. The care of the self: dressing, brushing teeth, cooking, and so on.
2. Grace and courtesy and concern for others: moving gracefully, using good manners, offering food, saying "please" and "thank you," etc.
3. Care of the environment: dusting, sweeping, washing, gardening.

Children have always shown us their interest in practical life by pretending to cook and clean, taking care of a doll, carrying out adult conversations, etc. But when given the chance, they would much rather be doing the real work of the family and community, instead of pretending.
A child would prefer to remove real dust from a dusty shelf with a real child-sized duster, to help collect the dirty laundry, or to fold it, to take part in preparing real meals, rather than to pretend to do these things with toys.

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

The child's reasons for, and methods of, working are different from ours. We adults will usually choose to carry out a task in the most efficient and quickest way. A child, on the other hand, is working to master the activity and to practice and perfect her abilities. She may scrub a table for hours, but only when she feels the urge. She may sweep the floor every morning for two weeks and not again for a month—because she will be occupied with mastering something else. If we expected her to keep carrying out every new activity every day, there would be no time for sleep.
There are many physical, emotional and mental values in work. Through these activities the child learns to be independent. There can be no intelligent choice or responsibility at any age without independence in thought and action. She learns to concentrate, to control muscles, to focus, to analyze logical steps and complete a cycle of activity.

It is precisely because of the valuable work in practical life that children in Montessori homes and schools are able to concentrate, make intelligent decisions and master the beginnings of other areas of study such as math, language, the arts and the sciences. But the purpose of this work is the inner satisfaction, and the support of the optimum development. Following a successful, complete cycle of family work, a child becomes calm and satisfied and, because of this inner peace, full of love for the environment and for others.

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 needs models to learn how—walking, scrubbing a floor, hitting a pillow or pounding clay—and not hitting another person (spanking included). 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.

The working parent does not always have the time to include the child in everything and should not feel bad about this. We must be easy on ourselves in the home and plan a time when we will really enjoy working together.
Success in learning to "follow the child" comes slowly. It is helpful to begin with one thing, perhaps putting the napkins on the table for a meal, and gradually add to the tasks in which the child can participate, and little by little take over.
Soon we will begin to learn from the child how to bring our whole selves, mental, physical, and spiritual, to the task of the moment, to focus on each thing we do, and to enjoy each moment of life. Thus the child becomes the teacher of the adult. The needs of the adult are met at the same time as the needs of the child.

Montessori 0-3 products: 0-3 toys and materials

Child of the World

Child of the World: Montessori, Global Education for Age 3-12+, 170 page book with 40 black and white pictures of children from the author's work around the world

From Michael Olaf: 3-12+
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From NAMTA: 3-12+

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