Montessori Fundamentals: the three hour work period

“But the first step (toward concentration) is so fragile, so delicate, that a touch can make it vanish again, like a soap bubble, and with it goes all the beauty of that moment.” Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Good morning and happy Monday!

Continuing with my Montessori Fundamentals series, I want to talk today about the three hour work period.

If you visit a Montessori classroom, one thing you would notice is that the children stay in one classroom working for a long period of time, generally three hours, though it can vary by age and school.

Children do not switch from English to Math to Art every hour.  They spend their time in one environment where all of these subjects are included.

As noted here on the American Montessori Society website, three-hour work periods are not generally appropriate for very young children, such as infants and toddlers.  Infant and toddler classes still have very minimal group activities or transitions, just with shorter work cycles that are developmentally appropriate.

Why It’s Important:

One main reason that Montessori classes don’t have pull-outs or adult-directed activity changes is to protect children’s growing concentration.  While some see the role of a teacher as a person who directly imparts knowledge, a Montessori teacher’s role is more indirect.  One of the primary roles of a Montessori teacher is to provide a stimulating environment and then protect concentration so that a child can discover things for himself.  This simply can’t be done in 45 minute increments.

The Work Period in the Classroom:

A Montessori class has as few interruptions and transitions as possible.  Many Montessori teachers have a “circle time” at the end of a work period where the group comes together, but even this time is generally optional.  If a child wants to keep working, he may.

Thus work time is interrupted for lunch and outside play, but that is about it.  A typical schedule might be:

  • 8-11 individual work time
  • 11-11:45 lunch
  • 11:45-12:30 outside play, with a similar structure in the afternoon.

That is not to say that a child sits and works on the same thing for three hours straight – far from it!  A child may do 2-3 pieces of work in that time, or he may do 8-10.  It depends on the child and the day.  A child may work on math for the entire three hours, or he may split his time between reading and math and geography and art.  He receives some guidance from the teacher when necessary, but how he spends his time is mainly up to him.

Having long stretches of time encourages children to engage deeply with the materials and develop concentration.

How can I use it at home?

As a teacher of young children, parents would often ask us what kinds of things they should have at home to help their child with school.  We almost always replied that no academic materials at home were necessary, or even advised (apart from reading lots of books of course!)  Children need a place of refuge, just like adults, a place to just relax and have fun.  If they’re in school all day, or even half of the day, they are likely getting all of the academic practice they need.

One thing you can do at home though is to encourage concentration and independence, which will help a child in school (and life!) more than any workbook.

You can use the same approach of the three-hour work cycle at home by allowing your child regular stretches of unstructured time.  It might be uncomfortable at first, but through having this time at home, he will be able to explore what he’s really interested in and will have the time to concentrate on it.

It may not be realistic to have uninterrupted three-hour stretches at home – and that’s okay!    Life happens.  Right now, with a one year old, I aim to have 1 – 1 1/2 hour stretches of play without interruption.  This isn’t to say that we don’t interact in this time, but that we stay in the same environment, inside or out, with no structured activities or plan.

Any amount you can increase your child’s true free time to explore will help him learn to concentrate and to entertain himself.

Will he get bored?  Yes!  Almost certainly.  And, in my opinion, that’s more than okay, it’s incredibly useful.  It’s through being bored that children learn to use their imaginations, to look deeper into their surroundings and find something interesting, and to engage with the world.  A certain amount of boredom is good.

If you’d like to read more, I really liked this post on the subject and this post, which includes a beautiful short video of one 4 year old’s morning in a Montessori classroom.

Please leave any questions you may have about Montessori in the comments, I would love to address them!

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Montessori Fundamentals – Oberservation

A teacher should acquire not only an ability but also an interest in observing natural phenomena.  In our system, he should be much more passive than active and his passivity should be compounded of an anxious scientific curiosity and a respect for the phenomena which he wishes to observe.” Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child

I’m starting a new series on the blog giving an overview of Montessori basics – the fundamentals of the philosophy, why they were developed, and how you can use them at home.  My hope is to do this in short, easily digestible tidbits and to make Montessori less mysterious and more accessible.

I decided to start with one of the most fundamental aspects of both Montessori schools and Montessori parenting – observation.

How it Started – A Scientific Beginning

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a doctor before she was an educator.  She approached teaching children just as she approached everything else, scientifically.  She threw out all of the preconceived notions on how to run a school and started from scratch by observing the children and building a school around what she saw.

She watched them and how they interacted, what they needed, and what they responded to.  Through rigorous observation, she developed a system to meet their needs, the model for today’s Montessori schools. (You can read more about the history here.)

Why It’s Important

Observation lets us see a child in a different, deeper way.  If we’re able to sit quietly and fade into the background, even for a few minutes, it gives us glimpses into who they are apart from us.  Observation also shows us where the child is in terms of development, and the types of things they may need from us to progress.

The Role of Observation in the Classroom

Montessori teachers conduct both formal and informal observations every day.

For example, when I was teaching and we had a new student ready to move up from the toddler room, we would always go observe him in his current environment first.  We would watch his social interactions, how he interacted with the teachers, what type of things he was drawn to, and his ability to concentrate.

We would conduct formal observations of our own classrooms as well.  This meant sitting with a notebook and watching the classroom for 15 minutes or so.  Children would sometimes come up to us while we were doing such an observation, but we would signal we were unavailable and they would move on.  Respecting that an adult is sometimes occupied and not always immediately available is a good exercise in independence as well.

Sometimes we would observe a specific student who was having a behavioral issue and sometimes we would observe the classroom as a whole just to see how things were going.

Montessori teachers also engage in less formal observation all of the time, making mental notes that a child is struggling with the “P” sound or that a child follows what another tells him to do instead of making his own choices.  It is through these observations that Montessori teachers are able to individualize the curriculum for each child, a key component of any Montessori classroom.  Each child is encouraged to work at his own level and observations show us what that level is.

How can you use it at home?

It may seem silly to formally observe your own child, whom you see constantly, but stepping back and just watching, and even taking notes, really does give you new insights into him.

To observe your child, choose a time when he is relatively content.  Choose a spot nearby and just sit quietly and watch.  It can help to have a notebook to take notes, and to signify to your child that you’re not available for play at the moment.  I personally find that taking notes really helps me to stay focused, but if I don’t have a notebook handy, I just try to be as present as I can be.

I watch for new developments, things he may be struggling with, and what he is drawn to.  Is he looking for new gross motor challenges and climbing everything in sight?  Is he fascinated by the light coming through the window and the shadows?  Is he interested in tiny objects and working to refine his pincer grip?

Then I try to think about how to I can respond to these interests.  I think about whether there is already something available to him to support his new interest and, if not, what I can provide.  This helps me decide what to put on the shelves in his room and what kinds of things to make available around the house.

Below is an example from last week.  We were in the backyard and James spent the first few minutes testing limites and trying to get into the few things out there he knows are not allowed (i.e., pulling up the succulents).  Soon though, he settled into content, independent play and I realized it would be a good time to observe him.  I found a quiet spot to sit and this is what I saw:

If you’re interested in reading more about observation, this article is focused on the classroom, but it gives great ideas on the kinds of questions to ask yourself when observing.  I also love this article on observing your child at home.

Are there any Montessori questions you’d like me to cover?  I’d love suggestions!

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