Material Spotlight: Washing a Table
Seriously, what’s the big deal with washing a table? Why do Montessori folks get so excited about it? You just spray on some cleaner and wipe it off, right? Why go through all those ridiculous, laborious steps just to get a table clean? Heck, it wasn’t even that dirty in the first place!
Washing a table is one of those quintessential Montessori activities that one can talk about for hours. It beautifully epitomizes the work of the Practical Life area: fine and gross motor control, lots of order, use of the will, concentration, repetition, indirect preparation for work in other areas, following a logical sequence… you name it, and table washing does it. This is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘The Queen of the Practical Life Activities.’
Here are the table washing tools we use at the Montessori Institute Northwest. Note how everything in this set looks like it belongs together. This appeals to the child's emerging sense of order, as well as being very aesthetically pleasing (after all, who can resist red spatterware?).
When the materials are all set up and ready to use, there is a very pleasing arrangement of tools. A chair is turned to the side, indicating that the table is in use and is not available for anyone else. Mats are put on the chair seat and under the table to protect surfaces. Items are arranged for their most logical use. I mean, just look at that. Don't you want to scrub that table?
Table Washing comes early in the Montessori Primary curriculum, with the child around 3.5 years of age (or possibly even younger if she attended a Montessori toddler community). However, it’s not one of the very first activities a child would encounter in Practical Life, and there are some good reasons why not. We need to get lots of important preliminary activities in place first. Preliminary activities are component skills that a child will combine to do a more complicated activity later, such as reserving a table, walking through the classroom, carrying a pitcher of water, fetching water, pouring water, folding, carrying a bucket, and pouring water out of a bucket. By the time the child learns how to wash a table these skills are already in place, demonstrated by the teacher in charming small-group presentations and practiced by the child until she’s confident.
The building of skills in this way is critical to the success of the presentation. Washing a table takes quite a long time, and there are many steps. Imagine that in addition to trying to remember all those steps, the child also had to carry water for the first time, or pour water for the first time, or fold a cloth for the first time. How much more difficult and intimidating table washing would be if all those little tasks were also completely new! Instead, by allowing the child to accumulate these various skills, we make her confident and sure of herself so that she need only focus upon what is unfamiliar.
It seems obvious to us that you have to wet the table before you can soap it. It seems obvious to us that a wet sponge will absorb water better than a dry sponge. To the young child so new to the world, however, these things are not apparent. Washing a table, like so many other Practical Life activities, reinforces not only that each step is important, but that the order of the steps is important. Logical sequencing is actively fostered in table washing, and will serve the child well in other areas of the Montessori curriculum that parents give great attention to: Language and Mathematics. Math in particular demands close attention to logical sequencing, and the preparation the child receives through the Practical Life materials will allow this skill to be effortlessly acquired.
Cleaning a Clean Table: process trumps product
This aspect of table washing – and of Practical Life in general – can make parents a little nervous: the child not only washes a clean table, but she washes a clean table repeatedly! No need to call the child psychologist for an OCD diagnosis, because this is not only perfectly normal but very much encouraged.
Again and again, we observe that younger children in Montessori classrooms undertake tasks for very different reasons than the older children. Until about age 4.5, children are still under the influence of the Sensitive Periods. These are best thought of as nature giving the child a strong nudge in the right direction, helping them to build skills that they will find useful throughout their lives. There’s a Sensitive Period for Movement, for example, in which the child will be irresistibly drawn to experiences that allow them to practice certain kinds of movement. Put a 20 month-old child in front of a flight of stairs, and you’ll see the Sensitive Period for Movement exert its influence. The same goes for balancing on a short brick ledge, or walking perfectly upon a meandering crack in the sidewalk, or threading small beads onto a string. No matter the motive of activity, the end result is the same: the child gets better at moving confidently and precisely. There are other Sensitive Periods too, each of which aids the child in important developmental creations.
A child who is under the influence of the Sensitive Periods doesn’t care that the table is clean. How odd it seems to our efficient adult minds, to waste time doing something that doesn’t need to be done! But as Montessorians know, washing a clean table is far from wasteful. Table washing, like any Practical Life activity, provides a way for the young child to satisfy a strong internal need. Perhaps that need is to combine big body and small body movements. Perhaps the child feels the need to experience the various sensorial impressions of the table washing process: the smell of the soap, the changing appearance of the table, the sound of the soapy bristles as they skate across the table, and the feel of the soap-laden sponge in the hand. These impulses are largely unconscious; the child only knows that he feels better now that he’s given that table a seriously good scrubbing. And as teachers, we see that he is calmer, more coordinated, better able to concentrate, and more able to follow a logical sequence with each repetition of the activity.
The older child who is no longer in the grip of the Sensitive Periods will choose table washing for a much more practical purpose: the table is dirty, and it can’t be used until it’s clean. The child might do this for himself, or perhaps as a service to his little community. He’s much less likely to repeat the activity or wash an already clean table, because his interests are shifting towards efficiency now. He becomes more product-oriented, whereas the younger child is much more invested in the benefits of the process. Once again, the three-year age span of the Montessori Primary environment is a gift, as the same activity can offer different benefits to a child over a span of several years.
Indirect Preparation for Reading and Writing
Yes indeed, washing a table can prepare a child for reading and writing. The question is, how?
Let’s explore reading first. In English, we read from left to right, top to bottom. When the child is shown how to apply water to the table, scrub it, remove the suds with a sponge, and dry the table, the teacher uses motions that go from left to right, top to bottom. This trains the child’s eye to track movement in those directions, preparing it for the way that we read words on a page. This pattern of motion is repeated throughout Practical Life, in polishing, dusting, and other activities.
The preparations for writing are even more fascinating. Again, the left to right, top to bottom pattern is encouraged to train the eye to track easily in those directions. Secondly, the tall, looping anti-clockwise scrubbing motions mimic closely the shapes, slant, and rhythm of cursive writing which are first introduced through the Sandpaper Letters and then later refined as the child uses a writing instrument to make his own letters. In this way, not only is the eye trained, but the hand and arm are also prepared for writing.
These preparations for literacy are but a few of many throughout the Montessori prepared environment. The Sensorial area also offers delicious fodder for the growing mind, so that when literacy is introduced the preparations are in place for a successful and confidence-building experience.
Anyone familiar with Montessori knows that we’re uncommonly interested in concentration. Many people think of concentration as an innate skill, one that you’re either good at or you’re not. Beliefs about the concrete nature of the child, such as “She’s got such a short attention span”, “He’s just not good at concentrating”, are not borne out by our observations of how children develop.
What we’ve observed is this: concentration is a skill that can be learned, like any other. Every time the child is able to extend his concentration further, even for one single minute, he improves and refines his ability to concentrate. Some recent research has even linked attention span persistence to college completion rates (source). Montessori environments offer countless opportunities for concentration, with table washing being just one example.
Concentration, repetition and control of error form a continuous feedback loop that inspires the child to repeat the activity until he gets it right. Control of error is very important, as it shows the child that he’s made a mistake. Somehow, somewhere, the western world became very fearful of making errors. In Montessori environments, we embrace error as the best way for us to know how to improve. Let’s say I’m a 3.5 year old child, and I’m scrubbing the table, and I suddenly notice that there are suds all over the floor. The lesson is not: “I’m messy, I didn’t do a good job, I’m not good at this”. The lesson is: “I’ll have to make sure I keep the suds on the table next time." No blame, no guilt, just persistence towards a correct result. In this situation, the control of error relies on the child’s observations: he has to notice that the suds are on the floor, or that he didn’t get the table clean, or that there’s soap residue even after rinsing.
What we hope to see, not only in washing a table but in every activity the child does, is persistence in the face of challenge. The benefits of improving a child’s ability to concentrate and persist are obvious. Suffice to say, concentration and persistence are so important to children’s development and character that opportunities for each are built into almost every material and activity in a Montessori classroom.
Self-worth and Responsibility
All the aforementioned developmental benefits of washing a table are hugely helpful to the child as he grows and develops. However, there’s one more benefit that activities such as table washing can offer: character development. We all want our children to be “good people”. We want them to be kind, responsible, to feel good about themselves, to want to help others. Just like concentration, these abilities can be fostered and practiced, and Practical Life offers children the opportunity to care not only for themselves but for other people and for their immediate environment. If something’s dirty, they can wash it. If the brass is dull and dusty, they can polish it. If a friend is sad, they can offer a hug. If a younger friend needs their apron tied, the older child can do it.
What does it do to a child, to be an active agent in the care of themselves, their friends, and their environment? What internal change takes place when a child is asked to tie a friend’s apron and is able to do so? How might a child feel when he walks past a brass ornament that only an hour ago was dull and unappealing, but is now bright and shiny through his efforts? The internal constructions of self-worth, confidence, and a sense of responsibility that result from work with Practical Life activities cannot be taught, and cannot be created by praise or rewards. The feeling that I can help, I can contribute, I make this place better is perhaps Practical Life’s most poignant and powerful offering. In our world, where most American children hear “Good job!” until it becomes meaningless, activities such as table washing offer genuine opportunities for character development and the building of self-esteem.
Washing a table is but one of the wonderful Practical Life activities that allow children to build physical and mental skills, to feel good about themselves, and to have a sense of pride in their environment. Like so many Montessori materials, its humble appearance belies the multitude of benefits it offers.