Practical life is about much more than your child doing “chores”.
Simply put, practical life refers to the activities of daily living that all people do. We all take care of our personal hygiene, get dressed, prepare food and eat, take care of our home and establish the order or routines of our family, including etiquette and a process for handling inevitable social conflicts.
Adults have a different relationship to work than children. For us, doing the laundry or washing the dishes feels like a chore and we just want to get it done as quickly as possible. For children, work is play. Children are driven from within to meet their developmental needs through work with a real purpose.
Young children are drawn to practical life activities because of their inner need to control and coordinate their movements. This is why young children will happily wash a clean table over and over again. Or, they will rake leaves into a pile only to throw around the leaves so they can continue raking. Everyday tasks of living involve the type of repetitive movements that are ideal for developing fine and gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Your child also gets to develop concentration, follow a logical sequence, and feel good about being able to do things independently. He or she learns that losing focus results in water spilling or glass breaking, and that there is a certain order to doing tasks that makes sense. You both learn that he or she is much more capable than you may have imagined.
Remember, young children are in the process of adaptation. They are figuring out how the world works. By actively participating in family life, young children absorb the cycle of daily life, helping them feel secure in knowing what to expect.
They also absorb the idea of responsibility and the interdependence of individuals within your family and within society. Responsibility is the ability to respond. It starts with awareness. When you do too much for your child or distract your child with screen time or other activities while you clean the house and cook meals, your child does not have the opportunity to develop awareness of the household activities that keep things running smoothly.
Practical life activities also indirectly prepare your child for writing, reading, and doing math. These are complex tasks that require your child to concentrate. Unlike the need to focus when pouring water to avoid a spill, there is nothing about language and math activities that calls out to your child to pay attention. The ability to focus has to come from within.
Your child also gets to develop the tripod grip, wrist and arm muscles, and hand-eye coordination needed to write letters and numbers using a pencil. Working within a limited space from left to right and top to bottom, estimating, dividing, measuring, adding, and following a process with precision to get a desired result are some of the academic skills embedded in practical life activities. Art activities and flower arranging are a form self-expression, preparing your child to express his or her thoughts and ideas through writing.
How to set up your child for success with practical life activities at home.
Prepare the Activity
Think about your household routines and what parts your child could do with some modelling of the steps. Break down the task into very small steps. Keep it really simple if your child is under 3 years old.
Invest in child-size tools and a child-size table and chair (or floor mat) where your child can work on the activity.
Use materials that are delicate and breakable, such as glass or ceramic plates rather than plastic. This makes it more real in terms of the natural consequences of losing focus. You also send the message that you trust your child to handle fragile materials. This is very respectful.
Expect spills and broken glass. You want these situations to happen because they give instant and obvious feedback to your child about the natural consequences of losing focus. This helps your child develop concentration.
Expect some uncomfortable feelings to come up for you. It will be hard to let your child struggle for a bit. It will be hard to resist the urge to help or fix your child's work. By holding back, you will send the message that your child is capable and can handle a bit of frustration while learning new things.
Expect that it will take ten times as long to get things done. Factor this into your plans. Your child needs to feel unhurried, as though there is unlimited time to practice.
Expect that it will take a long time (even years), with much modelling and repetition, to establish new routines and expectations around contributing to the family. Start early and take it one day at a time.
Invite Your Child to Participate
Get down to your child's level and make eye contact.
Phrase the invitation in such a way so the option to say no is not offered, e.g., “Today we're going to cut carrots." Introduce the activity by name, e.g., "This is cutting carrots."
If your child ignores you or refuses to participate, then let it go for today. You cannot make someone do something they don't want to do. It's not something to take personally. There is always another day to try again, and there's always another activity to offer. Observe your child to identify the kinds of activities he or she might be more interested in.
Show, Don't Tell
If the activity rests on a shelf, invite your child to carry the basket or tray to the table or mat where you will be working.
Sit side by side so your child can see what you are doing. Sit to the right of your child if you are right-handed. Sit to the left of your child if you are left-handed.
Set out the materials on the work space from left to right, in the order you will use them. Move the basket or tray to the top right of the table or mat to help your child stay focused.
Use very slow movements to demonstrate the activity. Limit verbal instructions so your child can concentrate on your movements.
Highlight "points of interest". These are steps that, if your child notices them, will help him or her be more successful with the activity.
- Place bowls close together.
- Cup your hand under a sponge filled with water to catch drips.
- Move a dustpan backwards with each sweep.
- Use a small amount of polish or glue.
- Blow your nose in front of a mirror.
End the presentation with a positive invitation: “It’s ready for you now.”
Go with the Flow
Make the lesson brief and be prepared to cut it short.
If your child is losing focus, asking "Can you see?" may be enough to bring him or her back. You can also invite your child to participate with the next step, even if you haven't quite finished the presentation.
Sometimes you know your child is capable but he or she acts like he or she cannot do it. You can say, "Let's see what you can do." and then offer minimal help.
If things are really not going well, calmly say "We will work with this activity again another day." Put the activity away for another day.