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Work and Play in Montessori

The children in our schools have proved to us that their real wish is to be always at work —a thing never before suspected.  Just as no one had ever before noticed the child’s power of choosing his work spontaneously. Following an inner guide, the children busied themselves with something (different for each)which gave them serenity and joy.”

                                                 Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

What comes to your mind when thinking about work?  Dedication, labor, focus, concentration, timing, thinking, process, and/or achievement?  The answer should be all of the above. In our society, ‘work’ is defined as someone setting a goal with a purpose which requires thinking, planning, and concentration, and must be done whether or not he/she enjoys it.  On the other hand, ‘play’ is defined as recreational and not particularly important, not necessarily requiring concentration, and as something that can be easily interrupted or stopped.

It is true that work and play are valued differently, and we normally think that work is an adult’s responsibility while children like to play all day if you let them.  But have you ever heard your preschooler complain that he/she is bored after playing all day at home? As we can infer from the Dr. Montessori quote above, the real wish of children is to be always at work.  That’s why she referred to children’s activity as work rather than play.

Children’s Desire to Complete Real Work

In the Montessori classroom, the lessons are designed to meet children’s desire to work.  Instead of playing ‘pretend kitchen,’ children use real glasses and plates to get their snacks.  They clean up by using real brooms and mops. Every lesson is presented with sequenced steps that the students learn to follow in order.  Many lessons require thinking and concentration, either individually or cooperatively, just like an adult’s work. Rolling up a rug may seem easy, but it takes concentration and hand-eye coordination for a child to roll the rug neatly enough that it can stand up straight in a bin.  The table scrubbing lesson has at least 60 steps! You can see the rush of joy and pride on a child’s face when they complete a work they have chosen. We often hear them saying: “I did it all by myself!!” Intrinsic motivation becomes their habit.

Please don’t forget to check your child’s Friday folder and Montessori Compass for examples of their work at school. Not only do the letter or number works matter, but there are processes and effort involved in a little envelope of cutting work, a painting, or a drawing that your child makes. Discuss with your child some works they did in school that you don’t get to see in the folder, such as table scrubbing, water pouring, spooning, or puzzle maps.  Your child is working hard everyday, just like you work hard at your own endeavors. 

Westshore Primary Directress Nancy Wu