Monday, May 17, 2010

Inspired Practical Life Materials: Hammering Nails into a Tree Stump

"No man learns self-discipline through hearing another man speak. The phenomenon of discipline needs as a preparation a series of complete actions, such as are presupposed in the genuine application of a really educative method. Discipline is reached always by indirect means. The end is obtained, not by attacking the mistake and fighting it, but by developing activity in spontaneous work...This work cannot be arbitrarily offered, and it is precisely here that our method enters; it must be work which the human being instinctively desires to do, work towards which the latent tendencies of life naturally turn, or towards which the individual step by step ascends...The child disciplined in this way, is no longer the child he was at first, who knows how to be good passively; but he is an individual who has made himself better, who has overcome the usual limits of his age, who has made a great step forward, who has conquered his future in his present."

-Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method

In the Montessori environment, the primary purpose of all Practical Life activities is to assist the child in acquiring self-discipline (order, concentration, coordination, and independence). For Montessori, discipline is not to be confused with passive immobility ("Be quiet!" "Be still!"), but refers to purposeful work. By directing the child's actions to a purposeful end, their behavior no longer has the appearance of disorder, but of meaningful work. Although there are innumerable examples of Practical Life activities (limited only by the imagination of the child's guide) with differing aims, my belief is that the most effective ones for helping children acquire self-discipline are those that permit them to imitate adult activity in a purposeful way, to care for themselves (and be more independent), or to contribute positively to their community by caring for the classroom environment.

Like all Montessori guides, I am always on the lookout for new Practical Life activities, but I try to be really discriminating- personally, I have a definite aversion to plastic materials and I definitely prefer "classic" Care of the Self or Care of the Environment activities to endless variations of hand transfers. So, you can imagine my excitement when the newest Montessori Services catalogue arrived with this on the cover:

I love woodworking (my first birthday present from my husband was a drill!) and I have long suspected that children would too! Unfortunately, I have never been in a classroom that was equipped with a woodworking bench (hint, Josh!). I have seen lots of guides try to do hammering activities in their classrooms without a bench and a vise, but to be honest, I was never particularly pleased with the way the activity turned out. For most young children, holding the nail and hammering without hitting their finger is quite a challenge, and expecting them to coordinate this with holding/bracing the board at the same time just seemed like too much to me (I don't think it isolates the difficulty enough to set them up to be successful). As a result, up to now, my biggest foray into hammering was allowing the children to hammer golf tees into clay.

But, hammering nails into a tree stump... that is truly inspired! The stump is beautiful, pleasant smelling, makes a nice sound when struck, and very stable- allowing the child to concentrate all of their efforts on hitting the nail. In short, it is the perfect first hammering activity! Pounding nails is a very pleasant, centering, soothing past time, and sure enough, children seem to adore it!

The lovely oak stump that the children are using was donated by Fred Bustamante Wood Products. When we offered to pay, he gave us a kind, unassuming shrug and said "It's for the kids." Indeed! Thank you for your kindness!


  1. Abigail,

    Just to let you know - you are being avidly followed! Your work with the children is tremendous, and you stand out for the creativity and intellect you bring to this. Thank you for acting as an example and inspiration for the rest of us!


  2. I love it! What a beautiful old stomp! Like you, I tend to be selective in what practical life activities I offer to the children. They are indeed less attracted to activities that resemble "busy" work. They love genuine, respectful activities that enable them to truly imitate the adult's work. So yes, there are lots of ideas out there but not as many that inspire me! This one does though! What sort of hammer are you using? Is it child size?