Canon law stipulates that the novitiate should be a separate house or area. Our constitutions state that the novitiate forms a distinct group and that except for the prioress no one is allowed in the novitiate area without permission of the novice mistress. How the novices and professed interact and how much is determined by each community.
Why is this so? It's a wise decision. The novitiate is a very unique, very privileged time of a sister's monastic life. During this time with the grace of God, through formation classes, dialogue with the novice mistress and living life with the other novices she grows in her interior life. To do this means a lot of purification and sometimes it can be messy. It can also be a great joy!
Having a separate place for the new sisters gives them the space they need to allow Christ to be formed in them. The novitiate is separate from the daily life of the monastery and is by nature a more quiet, more prayerful part of the house. The novitiate has it's own community room, chapter hall and library. In some houses there is also a separate classroom. The novice mistress' office is there also and in our monastery the novitiate cells are on the same floor. In some monasteries the novices' cells are a dorm off of the professed dorm with the living areas on another floor.
In our monastery the novitiate is the brighest, most beautiful part of the house with the best view!
There are other practical considerations as well. Professed sisters, though well-meaning could take on the role that is reserved to the novice mistress. No one needs more than one novice mistress! The novitiate also allows the space to "mess up" and pick up and try again!
New sisters are by nature fervent and generous. Over time these qualities need to mature and become true virtues. This is the work of a life time and a novice could find that a professed is not as holy as she thinks she should be! (That's because a novice hasn't really learnt yet that a monastery is for sinners!) A novice could become scandalized by the behavior of an older professed and it could shake a vocation that isn't firmly rooted.
Also, there are things in the life of the monastery that just aren't the business of the novices. They would be distractions from the important work that is hers at this moment. A novice also might not have all the information to understand certain things that could upset her. Anything serious, of course, that would affect her life a novice would eventually be told. For example, if a sister asked for a period of exclaustration (meaning living on her own outside the monastery) a novice would be told when that decision is finalized because obviously this is one of her sisters and she would notice when she left!
In our monastery novices are allowed to interact with the professed at the recreation times although the novitiate has its own recreation once or twice a week. It's important to have both because the novitiate sisters need to strengthen their relationship with both the community and the other sisters in the novitiate. However, professed sisters are supposed to be careful not to pry into personal areas of a novice's life. As a whole, they don't ask questions about their family. They might ask, "how did it go in the laundry today?" or "is it true that you cooked today for the first time?" Professed sisters do try in general to be encouraging and uplifting.
Novices and professed if they are working together may discuss the work at hand. For example, if a novice is the cook's helper they may discuss what is to be served, etc. BUT a professed would refrain from any corrections and leave that to the novice mistress.
Certain areas of the house are "off limits" on a regular basis for the novices. They may go into the professed community room only during recreation or for necessary business. For example, a novice may go into the community room to get her apron off her shelf but she wouldn't go over to the table and thumb through the Christmas cards that are on the table. In general, novices are to be in the novitiate unless their work requires them elsewhere in the house.
A sister is in the novitiate until her final year in temporary vows. She then integrates into the professed community life. We refer to this as "going downstairs" although in fact, she moves down the hall! We never say just "the novitiate" but "upstairs in the novitiate". So, if a sister asks, "When did you go downstairs?" she means when did you start your year of integration.
We hope that is not-so-brief explanation is helpful in understanding something of life in the novitiate!