Going to work… Doing housework, yard work, homework… Yuck! For adults, work is something we want to do as little of as possible, because it takes time away from play! (This was recently confirmed by the Twitter Mood Map, which showed that people are considerably happier on the weekends, when fewer of us work.)
It’s therefore understandable that one of the Montessori concepts which can throw parents for a loop is the idea that their little child will “work” in the classroom. Here are some comments I’ve heard from parents of three-year olds:
“Won’t my child get tired from so much work?”
“Don’t children learn better when they play?”
“I want my child to love school; she’s not going to be happy if she has to work.”
Most of the time, explains Dr. Montessori, adults operate under the law of minimum effort, “according to which one seeks to attain the maximum productivity with the least expenditure of energy… It represents not so much a desire to do as little work as possible as to produce as much as one can with the least effort.” Paradoxically, children, while not contributing to the production of goods and services, strive for maximum effort: “[The child] consumes a great deal of energy in working for no ulterior end and employs all his potentialities in the execution of each detail.”
Why do children work so hard if they’re not producing? What is their goal? In a word: self-creation. The child’s work “…is an unconscious labor brought about by a spiritual energy in the process of developing.” In other words, the child is forming the man he will become through his drive to engage with his environment.
When Dr. Montessori started her first pre-school in a poor area of Rome in 1907, she offered the children beautiful toys that had been donated by rich patrons, because everyone knows that children love to play with toys! She also involved them in everyday activities of the type the children saw at home but didn’t have the tools or opportunity to engage in: sweeping, mopping, dusting, washing. To her great surprise, the children ignored the toys and gravitated towards the activities we consider “chores”.
She observed that while they were involved with these activities, they demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of focus and self-control. She also noticed that they didn’t work just to get the job done; they repeated chores they had already completed. They worked with happiness and excitement, as if the table they were washing or the shelf they were dusting were some delightful toy. Even more remarkable, when they finished their work, they seemed more energized and peaceful than when they started!
Her observations led her to conclude that, “A child… does not become weary with toil. He grows by working and, as a consequence, his work increases his energy. A child never asks to be relieved of his burdens but simply that he may carry out his mission completely and alone.”
When it became evident that her little students were not interested in the fancy toys, she removed them and widened the scope of work activities. She soon noticed that these children – street urchins who lacked discipline, self-esteem, and focus – became self-possessed, confident, and centered. She called this process of positive self-construction “normalization“, and deemed it “the most important single result of our whole work.”
Dr. Montessori’s discoveries don’t mean that children should be forbidden from playing. What she realized is that for children, work IS play! A three-year old wants nothing more than to be involved in her parents’ everyday activities. She wants to cook, garden, and mop. Instead of banishing her to a toy kitchen, invite her to join you in the real kitchen. Give her tasks at which she can succeed; tasks that require her to concentrate; tasks that don’t have to be done perfectly the first time; and tasks that truly contribute to the household.
Take some time to modify the environment: a low shelf or table for food preparation, a few child-sized but real kitchen utensils, and some cleaning implements are essential for your child’s success. Tell her what you expect her to do with a positive tone that emanates trust; show her how to do the task, using as few words as possible and slowing down your movements so she can internalize them; then leave her to concentrate and enjoy her company as you work quietly side by side. There’s no need to praise her success or point out her mistakes; remember, she works not for productivity but for self-perfection.
“An adult must assist a child in such a way that he can act and carry out his own work in the world. [The child’s] very life consists in the work of growth… If adults do not understand this secret they will never understand the work of children.”