Everyday life presents abundant opportunities for children to engage in Practical Life Activities, which are purposeful activities children can do at home to take care of themselves, others and their environment.
These are the different aspects of practical life activities:
- Self-care (Children's identification of their own physical needs, and knowing how to take care of them)
- Care for the Environment (Children doing physical cleaning and developing appreciation for an orderly environment)
- Grace & Courtesy (Children understanding polite social norms and behaving appropriately e.g. wait for a turn, respect others' space, ask politely for help)
- Movement of Objects (Children mastering coordinated, mind-guided body movement to perform everyday tasks)
Through participation in practical life activities, children grow to become independent and confident individuals who are empathetic and add value to the communities they live in. Practical life activities also provide children with a keen sense of identity and belonging.
Ways to encourage children's participation in practical life activities:
- Allow our children time to work on the activities, at their own pace.
- Accept our children's help, no matter how small, even if they can't perform the task as well as we can.
- As the Montessori saying goes, "Teach by teaching, not by correcting." We can provide a positive and supportive environment for our children to make mistakes and do trial and error learning. Instead of correcting, thank our children for their effort and suggest trying again. Pick a more neutral time to provide the lesson.
- Help our children scaffold skills, to work through tasks that are first simple before progressing to complex ones, so that they could build new skills upon a strong foundation of skills. Work with them patiently until they can master full, multi-step activity cycles.
Practical Life Activities in a Toddler Day's Work!
I strive to provide as many opportunities as possible for practical life activities in my toddler's everyday life, aligned to her willingness to help and interests. I started slow and small, with activities being just 1 or 2 steps in sequence e.g. taking a piece of clothing out of the basket and when mastered, increased the steps to loading the clothing into the washer, closing the door (with help) and pressing the start button.
Everyday is dynamic and varies in its rhythm and events but I largely keep to the same daily schedule and structure of practical life activities. Of course there are days when my toddler is not in the mood to participate and I tell her that's perfectly okay and I can offer more help as necessary. There are days when she is zealous at helping out around the house and I encourage her enthusiasm.
Flexibility and freedom keep practical life activities fun at home.
This is a run-through of my toddler's day:
Self-care: Face Washing
A chair (serving as a step stool) is permanently placed against the bathroom sink for my toddler to climb up and access the tap independently. She turns on the tap without help but does it under my supervision (because hot water runs from the tap, which can reach an uncomfortably high temperature).
To help my toddler understand how to safely use the tap, I modelled how to align the spout to the middle before lifting the faucet lever. I demonstrated and explained to her the effects of turning the spout to the side (getting scalded or getting a shock by cold, unheated water). Then, I stated my expectation of keeping the spout in the middle. Freedom within limits empowers my toddler to use the bathroom sink freely and responsibly to get warm water for her needs.
With practice, Miss 24 months can now complete the full activity cycle of face washing -- turning on the tap, cupping her hands to transport water, wetting and rubbing water over her face. The only help I render is turning off the tap as she brings the water to her face.
Previously I had provided a small face basin with water for Miss 24 months to wash her face. This enabled her to scaffold basic skills of handling water and face-washing before she advanced to learning how to operate the tap.
A small absorbent hand towel is accessible from the wall hook next to the bathroom sink for my toddler to dry her hands and face. I provide help to dry the areas of the face and in-between area of her fingers that she may miss.
Self-care: Teeth Brushing
My toddler's toothbrush, toothpaste and rinsing cup are placed in an accessible spot on our bathroom sink for Miss 24 months to retrieve independently. I help her uncap the toothpaste tube and squeeze out a rice grain sized portion. She knows to turn her toothbrush around to rub the toothpaste onto the bristles.
Then she brushes with the directions I provide in a sing-song voice (to the tune of 'row row row your boat'). "Brush brush brush your teeth, brush the front top teeth, brush brush brush brush, brush till they're clean." I interchange 'front top teeth' with 'front bottom teeth', 'back left teeth' and 'back right teeth'.
I would then invite her to brush my teeth as I brush hers to ensure we get the nooks and crannies. She fills her cup with water and rinses her mouth. I rinse mine with my own cup. When we are all done, she empties the cup, places her toothbrush into it and places her cup beside my cup. Then she descends from the chair.
- To help children process and remember the full activity cycle, ensure activities are sequential, with a beginning, middle and end. I used to cue the beginning of face-washing and teeth-brushing activities with putting on of a waterproof apron.
Eventually when my toddler showed readiness and demonstrated competence in keeping her clothes dry during the wet activities, I omitted this step from the sequence and streamlined the activity cycle, making it easier for her mastery.
Self-care: Replace Diapers & Clothes Change
Miss 24 months helps in diaper-changing by taking a new diaper from the bathroom, unzipping her PJs, removing the sticky tapes and I take it off. She lays down and allows me to clean with a wet wipe, before pushing her bottom up so I can put on a new diaper. Then she picks a new change of going-out clothes or stay-home clothes (placed in low bathroom drawers) and puts on the pants on her own. With the top, she needs help to place over her head but can put her arms through independently.
Sometimes she expresses interest in wearing cloth underpants in place of diapers, which I welcome. If her underpants get wet, she would inform me and I would lead her to the bathroom to help her change out of them. She usually picks and puts on a new one by herself.
Self-care: Breakfast Preparation
I typically provide 2 options for breakfast and my toddler picks the more appealing option. We would work on preparing it together. The staples in my toddler's breakfast menu are:
Banana Wheat Pancakes
My toddler helps to peel the banana and mash it up. I measure the wheat flour and she helps to stir the wheat flour with the banana in a mixing bowl. I cook it and she serves herself.
My toddler places fruit, oats and pours water into a pot, which I bring to the stove to cook. When cooled, she serves herself.
I am working on involving her to help with loading and unloading of the dishwasher.
Care for Environment: Putting Toys Away
With Montessori, there is a place for everything, in trays, baskets or shelves. While it doesn't happen everyday and all the time, my toddler periodically returns books to the book shelf, returns her toys to baskets and hangs up her play scarf. I am working on making this behavior more consistent and self-initiated.
An example of her placing the play scarf back on its hook. She found her own way to hang up the scarf without using the knot, surprising me with her ingenuity!
Another example of zipping and hanging up her ukulele after use.
Stored the animal figurines in its storage basket and working to stack and keep away the magna-tiles, before we have lunch.
- As mentioned above, items are self-contained and it is important to model the return of toys and loose parts to respective trays, baskets or shelves. I find labelling of baskets and shelves helpful. They not only build a print-rich environment, it occasionally helps my toddler identify the right basket to return items to.
- Materials should be placed in locations relevant to their uses, for example song books near musical instruments, grooming items near the self-care station.
- Wait for a natural break in between activities to model clean-up and encourage children to help with the clean-up before moving on to the next activity. Motherly has other tips on how Montessori teachers encourage children to clean up their toys.
Self-care: Lunch Preparation
A vegetable broth is a staple for my toddler's lunch. My toddler helps with taking out the vegetables from the refrigerator, washing and slicing. She particularly likes handling mushrooms, tomatoes and zuccini.
- All foods should be sliced in half length-wise so they do not slide around on the cutting board while being handled by children.
- The Montessori method bases meal preparation activities in reality i.e. providing a real knife that does the functional job of cutting vegetables. This leads to the next point.
- Ensuring safety while materials are functional. Sharp objects could be sanded, covered or rounded for safety. My toddler uses a butter knife that can cut soft fruits and vegetables and is manageable to wield.
My toddler's utensils (plate, cutlery, soup bowl and cup) are placed on hooks on our drying rack which she can access independently. This is a multi-step practical life activity. She gets up the chair, takes her utensils (plate, which is placed behind the wooden cutting board in this picture, and spoon), places them on the chair, gets off the chair, and brings them to the dining table. It took a week or so of practice for her to become smooth, coordinated and efficient in this practical life activity.
Montessori in Real Life has a post on the functional kitchen she created for her toddler, an IKEA hack. It is great for enabling toddlers to access and retrieve utensils independently.
After her nap, we prepare an afternoon snack together. I typically offer 2 options for my toddler. These are the common snacks we prepare:
- Avocado (optional: with bread)
I usually pass a halved avocado (without seed) to my toddler, along with a teaspoon. She scoops the avocado flesh out and eats it. If she appears particularly hungry, I would ask if my toddler would like bread to go along and pass her a bowl to mash avocado in as well as bread to spread the avocado on.
- Toasted Cheese on Crackers
I place a few cheddar cubes into a ramekin into a 350F oven for 10-15 minutes until the cheese melts. Then I let it cool and place in another ramekin and provide crackers on a tray for my toddler.
I usually keep a close watch on the cooling so that the cheese is not too hot to scald yet soft and molten for cracker dipping.
The Kitchn shares the ingredients and steps for making sushi (maki) with young children. I keep my ingredients simple -- rice usually from lunch, nori (seaweed) sheets and cheddar cheese cut into long strips. My toddler helps with the positioning of rice onto the nori sheets and adding of cheese on top of the rice. We roll the sushi together, my hands guiding her little ones.
When in season, fruits like watermelon and tangerines make a tasty and refreshing afternoon snack. My toddler loves watermelon. I usually halve the watermelon and provide a spoon for her to scoop and eat.
Tangerines (and bananas) are good options too. Peeling refines their fine motor skills.
- Lemonade Making
My toddler typically helps with the juicing, squeezing of honey from the bottle and stirring of the lemonade. This is an easy and vitamin-loaded beverage to make.
Care for the Environment: Help with Daily Work around the House
I include my toddler in daily work to organise the house, such as sorting, folding and putting away of laundry, dust moping and vacuuming as well as watering of plants.
Window cleaning is a collaborative effort for both of us. She squirts water on the window, wets the cloth and wipes. I help with wiping remaining areas that's not covered. She uses another cloth to dry off the dampness and again I help when necessary. Lately she developed an aversion to the texture of wet cloth. I told her I understand that she is uncomfortable touching wet cloth and offer help to take over.
- Practical life activities should reflect family culture and have relation to the everyday life of the child and people living in the same environment. For example, my dining table is too small for floral decoration, so I don't provide my toddler with a flower arrangement activity.
- It is beneficial to scaffold skills like folding cloths prior to actual laundry folding to help with mastery of the activity.
- Refer to the Montessori Primary Guide for step-by-step explanation of how to teach children to dust mop, sweep and wash a table among other practical life activities that teach children to care for their environment.
- Provide child-sized tools proportional to the child's height, with sizes that fit the child's grip. This helps with mastery of the activity.
Apart from retrieving, washing and cutting vegetables, Miss 24 months is a great help with seasoning our food.
This is her putting pinches of salt on vegetables pre-oven roasting. She helps with lemon squeezing too. Garlic powder and herb addition would be great ways to involve children in seasoning our food. At the same time, it's a great way to teach them about flavors.
Self-care: Bedtime Ritual
To signal that she is all done with her bath, my toddler empties water from her bath toys and returns them to a low-hanging toy organiser mesh bag secured to the bathroom wall.
She picks a one-piece PJ from the bathroom drawer and I help her with locating the right sleeves for her arms and feet. She puts them through and zips up the PJs.
We repeat the same teeth-brushing exercise, similar to how we did it in the morning.
She heads off to pick 3 books from the book shelf in her play area for bedtime reading in the bedroom. When done, she puts away the books by the side of her floor bed before I turn off the light and we call it a night.
Other practical life activities for toddlers
- Making a grocery list together, doing grocery shopping and helping to unpack
Miss 24 months is becoming more salient of how we do things and the choices we make. Lately she helped to unpack a bunch of grapes and brought the plastic packaging to the recycling bin in my under-sink cupboard instead of the general waste bin. I was pleasantly surprised that she recognised it was plastic, and associated it to the other plastic items she had helped me place in the plastic recycling bin previously.
This made me review my plastic use and think of how I can be a better role model to my toddler in environmental conservation. For instance, I will be transitioning to using reusable mesh produce bags for purchasing fruits and vegetables in-store instead of using the plastic ones provided, as well as using reusable silicon bags instead of plastic ziplock bags for storage in the fridge.
- Baking the week's supply of confectionery (e.g. breads, cakes and cookies)
Toddlers can help with making the bakes from scratch e.g. addition of ingredients, mixing of ingredients, pouring of mixture and storage of baked products after cooling. These are 10 easy recipes I use with my toddler.
- Showing kindness, respect and consideration for others, saying 'please', 'thank you' and 'excuse me' in appropriate situations. This is best learnt from having positive role models who spend time with our children.
I was really happy when my toddler recently picked up, "Bless you!" whenever someone sneezes.
I'm currently working on teaching my toddler to politely 'interrupt' by having her place her hand on my/Daddy's shoulder when she needs our attention (but we are preoccupied), until we can attend to her needs. This is especially timely since my husband currently works from home and my toddler tries to engage him when he is absorbed in his work.
I hope you are inspired to include more practical life activities into your toddler's day, and your toddler enjoys being a great help to the household!
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.