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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