One of the first questions I tend get when giving a tour of the Atrium (the prepared environment made just for children of a particular developmental age) is "Why do you have all these trays of beans, rice, and water? Isn't this place supposed to be for learning about God?"
Good question! Why would a space dedicated for the spiritual development of children contain such items? Typically, there are several shelving units dedicated for these trays. But why?
Exercises in Practical Life
These "exercises in Practical Life" are there for reasons that aid in the development of the a child's spiritual life.
Dr. Maria Montessori, throughout her life of research and observation of the child, developed the understanding of the "Four Planes of Human Development." At the end of her life, she said that her greatest accomplishment was this understanding of the human person--an understanding that is now being confirmed with neuroscience today.
The Four Planes of Human Development outline the development of the human person from infancy to adulthood. Within this development there are four planes (0-6 years old, 6-12 years old, 12-18 years old, and 18-24+ years old). There are key developmental needs that are observed in each plane (see an overview in the picture above). Here we will focus on the first two planes of development: 0-6 and 6-12 years of age.
During the first plane of development (0-6), a child has an "absorbent mind" that takes in everything from their environment. They have a silent plea of "help me to do it myself!". Children of this plane deeply desire and have the capacity to independently interact with their environment. They explore their world through their senses.
What does this look like in the Level 1 (3-6 year old) environment?
Children are invited to engage the spiritual life through their senses. They see, smell, touch, and hear with hands-on materials that foster wonder and conversation with God.
Materials like "hand washing" and "flower arranging" help with care of self and care of the environment. Pouring beans and water or lacing large beads help the child grow in their concentration. It is amazing to watch a child who is new to the Atrium concentrate long enough to lace on one bead and then by the end of the year, they lace all of them. This prepares the child for bigger and longer work in the Level 1, 2, and 3 Atria as they grow and develop.
The child at this age also has a silent plea within the Atrium: "Help me to know God, by myself" This is upheld through how we approach materials (which we will discuss with another blog post).
What does this look like in the Level 2 (6-9 year old) environment?
Something happens around the age of 6 that causes us to look at "practical life" a little differently--the child enters a new plane of development.
The shift occurs when the child transitions from the absorbent mind to the reasoning mind. The child wants to know the "why" of everything! They are also learning the social constructs and how "that's not FAIR!" Their silent plea is "Help me to THINK about God by myself!"
In Level 1, we focused on the development of the body and in Level 2, we focus on the development of the mind and of the social being. Practical life in Level 2 really supports the social development of the child. We learn and role-play different social situations and how to navigate them--how to work together in a group, how to disagree in a respectful way, and how to help a friend who might be struggling with following our community guidelines. In this "age of rudeness" we learn how to handle these new situations as the child becomes more socially conscious and aware.
What is so beautiful about these exercises in practical life is that they help us integrate the development of our being, our personhood, with our spiritual life. So often, we try to separate these things when in reality they are one in the same.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd meets the child where they are at and goes from there--this is "Incarnational"--God coming to us, meeting us where are at--formation.