The Montessori work cycle happens in every prepared environment at The Children’s House. Depending on the age group, the work cycle can last from two to three hours in the morning and an additional period of time in the afternoon.
Why is this work cycle so important for the children?
The work cycle is when deep concentration and learning occurs. Children have the opportunity during this period of time to choose activities and work, uninterrupted, to the point of self-satisfaction. Sometimes, that activity may last just a few minutes, and other times, several hours. If the child is using the material for its intended purpose, adults do not arbitrarily end the child’s engagement with an activity.
At each developmental level the work cycle looks a little different.
In the early childhood years, children are typically offered presentations on an individual basis by the teacher during the work cycle. Children work at individual tables or rugs, using the material until they feel satisfied before replacing it on the shelf.
During the elementary and adolescent years, students join in small group presentations. Because children of this age require a great deal of socialization, activity typically happens collaboratively with peers. Students keep work logs and meet regularly with their guide one on one to ensure progress is being made with academic expectations.
At every age group, Montessori guides are keen observers of student work choices. They keep careful notes on each child’s activity during the work cycle and plan lessons accordingly. They also make note when a child seems to be avoiding particular activities and may give a follow up lesson on a material or invite the child to get support from a peer.
Ultimately, the uninterrupted work cycle offers children the opportunity to engage deeply in work, and to develop a sense of independence and confidence. The children learn to love learning because of the freedom they are given to choose what is of highest interest to them. Creating an environment where students can become passionate learners who go out in the world to make a difference doing what they love, is precisely what we aim for.
That year, I was given the chance to do something I had longed for many times. In September of 2007, I took charge of the Nido program at The Children’s House, and my dream of guiding infants came true. The Nido program itself was still in its infancy and just four babies, Alexander, Dillyn, Elise, and Lola, were put under my care for the school year.
Each one of them joined me at about twelve weeks old, Lola was even younger. At the time it did feel as though I had my own set of quadruplets, it was just me and the four of them all day, all year. Of course, I could call for backup but I rarely did. Dillyn’s mother called them my four calling birds. And because the word Nido is the Italian word for “nest” that made perfect sense to me.
So, these freshly hatched humans and I got to work getting to know each other. I remember thinking about them day and night, and how I could make their first year of life the best that I could. I sourced new activities constantly, in order to meet the growing needs and interests of each one of them. I planned our days to include walks, and a variety of sensorial experiences. I made sure we participated in gross motor and fine motor work everyday. We sang, we read, we ate, we rocked to sleep. I went home pretty exhausted everyday but we were a happy flock, and I loved my job very much.
And like all baby birds do, mine outgrew our cozy nest. One by one each one learned to walk, and talk, and do for themselves and I had to say goodbye.
Luckily they didn’t fly too far. I was able to witness their continued growth from afar. Each of them moved through the toddler and preschool programs at TCH and I would see them on the playground or at our all-school gatherings. Eventually, Alexander and Dillyn would leave our school for a different elementary experience but would return every year for our school’s summer program. Elise and Lola both stayed on through elementary and would often visit the Nido, to read and play with the babies.
But last summer, the summer of 2019, the most wonderful thing occurred. Dillyn and Lola migrated back to their original nest as junior counselors! Now they were twelve years old. They each took turns being assigned to help me in the Nido. My sweet calling birds took on their new roles with confidence and ease. Their care of the infants and their strong work ethic impressed me each day. I often found myself overjoyed and beaming with pride in seeing their maturity and effortless care of infants. I would even tease the girls that they were so good at their jobs because of the great foundation I laid out for them early on.
During the last week of the summer program, I decided I wanted to do something special to thank them for their hard work. I arranged a surprise outing for the three of us. I picked them up at school and we went out for ice cream, dipped our toes in the lake, and played games at the local arcade. We chatted about their lives as young adults and about their hopes for their future. We had a wonderful time. I made them promise to stay in touch and should they ever need a personal reference I’d be pleased to give them a glowing one.
“Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children are roots and wings,” wrote Hodding Carter. Alexander, Dillyn, Elise, and Lola - I am in awe of you. Your TCH roots are strong and sturdy, fly on my little birdies!
Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” One of my favorite topics is play. I define play as: activity for enjoyment or recreation rather than for serious or practical purpose, it is self directed. Play helps our children develop curiosity, social intelligence, creativity, and both physical and mental health. These skills are at least as important as IQ when looking at future success in life.
Dr. Peter Gray, an evolutionary developmental psychologist, wrote in his book, Free to Learn, “Research studies have shown repeatedly that adults who have a great deal of freedom as to how and when to do their work commonly experience that work as play, even – in fact, especially – when the work is difficult. In contrast, people who must follow others’ directions, with little creative input of their own, rarely experience their work as play. Moreover, dozens of research studies have shown that when people choose to perform some task, they perform it more fully and effectively than when they feel compelled by others to perform it.”
At The Children’s House, play is valued as an important part of children’s development. We have recently extended recess and the children have always had the ability to play with things of their choosing, they just call it “work.” Students at The Children’s House do not have a teacher telling them which activity to choose or how long to use it. You will often see things being left out overnight so the work can resume in the morning. There are very few products of their work because it is undertaken for the joy of doing it and not in order to create a product. I have often observed children polishing a mirror to a fine shine only to see them start right back at the beginning. They are not polishing the mirror to make it shine, they are building themselves and working on mastery.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiencing the environment.”
- Maria Montessori
We know Dr. Montessori was a scientist, she observed children and made groundbreaking observations about the way they learn. Perhaps, more admirable is the way she connected childhood to being human. She made it possible for adults to see children as extensions of themselves, working towards the same goals and deserving of the same treatment.
It is easy for us to see children through an immediate lens, as little people trying to meet their basic needs. They search for food, clothing, shelter, defense, and ways to move. They also long for love and other spiritual needs. If we zoom out, the child’s tasks are much bigger. In the first six years of life, the child has two key duties: to construct themselves and to adapt to their environment. What is driving the child to do this? Dr. Montessori saw and wrote about the human tendencies, defined as urges or natural inclinations that drive humans to meet their needs.
The fourteen human tendencies are hereditary, unchanging, and interrelated. They are universal to all humans regardless of time and culture, but are significantly powerful during the first six years of life. If we want to understand what guides our children to become who they are, we need to recognize and understand the fourteen human tendencies. I will outline them below and invite you to reflect on how they might inform the way you support your child.
Exploration: The more we explore, the deeper we understand the world and the more we can improve the human condition. The adult can support this tendency for the child by ensuring freedom of movement, freedom of choice, and a beautiful and orderly environment.
Orientation: To be comfortable, humans need to place themselves in relation to their environment. This is the inclination to find a point of reference. Young children are very new to their environment and need a predictable, safe and reliable space with minimal stimulation.
Order: Physical order brings mental order. Order gives a young child comfort and freedom, which are essential for engagement and learning.
Communication: Communication allows humans to correspond about satisfying their needs, transfer knowledge, and share stories. The adult can provide a clear model of language. Freedom to communicate in the environment is also essential.
To Know/To Reason: The tendency to know and to reason is especially prevalent in the elementary mind. The adult should inspire children to reason for themselves by providing resources for children to find their own answers.
Abstraction: Abstractions are concepts that are not tangible in the child’s reality. Maria Montessori made abstract concepts, like quantity, color, and subtraction, concrete by creating materials that the child could manipulate with their hands.
Imagination: The Montessori environment provides the child with a strong basis of the concrete world as a springboard for imagination. The adult must allow for the child’s own creativity by providing quality tools and letting children choose how to use them.
Mathematical Mind: We use mathematical thinking to measure the amount of flour in a recipe or the length of a table that is to fit through a doorway. To nurture this human tendency in the child, the adult must provide presentations in sequential order so concepts build off of previous understandings.
Work: Work is needed for survival, satisfaction, happiness, capacity, spirit, and turning ideas into reality. The adult must know how to choose inspiring, authentic, purposeful, and constructive work that will satisfy the child, rather than busy work that might satisfy the adult agenda.
Repetition and Exactness: Repetition and exactness are key characteristics of work that are very apparent in children. The adult must provide freedom to repeat activities that require exact movements.
Activity and Manipulation: Activity unites the mind and the body. Children need opportunities for movement and motives for movement, including activity of the hands.
Self-Perfection: Humans have a natural tendency to persevere and an inner compulsion to be self-disciplined. In order to support the child’s search for excellence, we must provide appropriate freedom and allow children to self-correct.
The first days of a new school year usher the children in with the promise of extraordinary potential. As they settle back into the routine of classroom life with one another, the guides take great care to establish a positive tone, respect, and care.
Grace and courtesy lessons are one of the most fundamental aspects of a Montessori classroom. These lessons provide clear and tangible guidelines for how to care for one another, the classroom and themselves. As we reestablish routines, these lessons are offered frequently to the children to establish expectations for behavior.
In the Young Children’s Community (YCC), a lesson may simply be quietly helping a child learn how to carefully walk through the environment. The guide may simply say “I am showing you how to carefully walk in our classroom.”
In a Primary classroom, these lessons become a bit more formalized. The guide gathers a small group of children to sit on the floor. She would say to the group “I am going to show you how to observe someone’s work.” She would then demonstrate how to ask a working child if she may observe, and then stand quietly with her hands at her sides as she observes. She then would offer a child or two the opportunity to demonstrate the skill, and end the lesson by saying “Now you know how to observe someone’s work.”
Lessons in grace and courtesy are offered to children to provide opportunities to practice the skills needed to coexist with others. It can be as simple as how to walk around someone’s work, or as complicated as what you could say to someone who was feeling sad or left out. I once offered a grace and courtesy lesson on what to say to someone if their nose was running. It was so fun to see that lesson carried out in the life of our classroom. Children were offering one another tissues every day!
Sometimes, adults expect children to know how to be graceful and courteous and when they aren’t, they correct the behavior in the moment. In our classrooms, we make note when we observe a child who may need a lesson and, at a time later, invite them to join a lesson that teaches that skill. In this way, a child doesn’t feel corrected or ashamed for simply not knowing the appropriate action in a situation.
Once children are in Elementary and Junior High, conversations occur as a group to create mutual expectations of one another. Rather than having rules imposed from the teacher, children discuss how they want to coexist in their classroom and create a class creed through their conversations.
When we grow graceful, courteous children, we offer the promise of a society where humans can peacefully coexist with compassion, empathy, and peace. I love the thought that Montessori schools all over the world are providing these opportunities for children every day— to learn the skills to care for themselves, one another, and their world.
The end of the school year at The Children’s House brings celebrations, traditions, and endings. It is important to note the passage of time by honoring each developmental milestone. It helps the children to mark their place in the continuum of their development with memorable experiences.
During her countless hours of observing children, Maria Montessori noted very distinct characteristics in each developmental age group. She called them Planes of Development. The first plane spans from birth to six years, the second from six to 12, and the third from 12 to 18.
The “Stars” of The Show
The first plane of development encompasses a child’s most profound period of physical and cognitive growth. In just six years, a child goes from being completely dependent on adults to being able to ride a bike, read, independently meet her own needs, and care for the environment and those around her. Because the change is so great, this first plane requires three separate classroom settings: Nido, Young Children’s Community (YCC), and Primary.
At The Children’s House, we respond to this developmental growth by providing children with increasing freedom and responsibility—from walks on the school grounds to community field trips and tasks that help them learn to care for one another and their environment. At the end of this plane, we celebrate the children by giving them prominent roles of the planets and comets in our Dance of the Cosmos celebration. It only makes sense for them to be the “stars” of the ceremony as we honor the completion of this foundational developmental plane.
Spreading Their Wings
Around the age of six, children move into the second developmental plane. This plane is marked by a move from concrete to more abstract thinking, the development of reasoning ability, and a focus on social relationships. In the elementary classroom, students work collaboratively, utilizing the strengths of every individual to complete work and care of their physical and social/emotional environment.
The culmination of this second plane at The Children’s House is the trip to Montessori Model United Nations (MMUN), where all of the skills they have acquired during this plane culminate in the writing of position papers and working on teams of children from all over the world to ponder solutions for real life issues. They are certainly ready to spread their wings in this way and prove to themselves and others their level of maturity that has come from this conscious phase of development.
The Middle Years
The third plane of development marks the ending of childhood and the passage into adulthood. In early adolescence (ages 12 to 15), young adults are exploring and coming to terms with integrating different aspects of themselves. This is a period of rapid growth and early adolescents need enough food and sleep, as well as time to process and reorient. All Montessori classrooms nourish the whole child—academic, emotional, social—but the adolescent experience adds personal reflection to particularly support students at this phase of growth.
Our school provides these experiences through a variety of outings and overnight trips to give real life, hands-on experiences with the topics they study in the classroom. They are given the responsibility to independently plan and execute itineraries of their outings. Students support each other and work together to problem solve when mistakes happens or conflicts arise. Graduating eighth years get the spotlight and take the stage to deliver speeches reflecting on what life at the school has meant for them and who they aspire to be as they move on to high school and older adolescence.
Being the parent of a high-schooler who spent her life at The Children’s House from three months through eighth grade, I can tell you firsthand why marking the passage of each plane of development with traditions and celebrations is so important. My daughter looks back with clear memory of being a comet in the Dance of the Cosmos, traveling to New York City the first time to discuss the rights of the child at MMUN, and, her final speech reminiscing and giving thanks for the experiences—thanks to teachers and friends—and the lasting memories she made here.
Traditions and celebrations are a deeply-rooted part of our school community. As the school has grown over the last 35 years, these events have evolved along with it to appropriately represent growth through all three planes. Endings can be bittersweet, but we choose to celebrate them to mark the completion of one chapter of life and the potential that held with the passage to the next plane.
In 2015, The Children’s House published a strategic planning document, Strategic Plan 2015, that guided our decisions through the 2017-2018 school year. The plan was generated through a comprehensive phase of discovery that included input from focus groups, research on best practices from independent schools nationwide, an organizational assessment, and goals set by our Board of Directors.
Over the last four years, this strategic document was integral in creating priorities to strengthen and grow our school community. Major accomplishments include launching our adolescent program (TCHJH), adding 2,600 square feet of classroom and fine arts space, strengthening our fiscal health and building cash reserves, and implementing new methods of communicating with families.
With the dedication and focus of the board, administration, faculty, and staff, we were able to accomplish all of our goals, putting us ahead of our expected timeline. It took every member of this community to reach these goals and we are proud of where we are today.
In the fall of 2018, we gathered again to generate the next iteration of our plan. Building on the thorough strategic planning work carried out in 2015, the board set to work to create a vision for the next 3-5 years. Valuable input from our dedicated staff was collected to generate a new vision for the future of our school community.
We are pleased to share our Strategic Plan Version 2019 which will be used to uphold the vision of high-fidelity, independent Montessori education for all of our 247 students. We are excited by what the future holds for The Children’s House and look forward to sharing the journey with you.
As part of my morning routine, I read “The Management Tip Of The Day” from the Harvard Business Review. This recent entry (from February 25th)—which I think applies to business and the way we educate our students here at The Children’s House—so piqued my interest that I thought I’d share:
Weave Learning into Your Everyday Work
We all need to keep learning new things to grow in our careers. But sometimes the urgency of our schedules gets in the way. To find time for learning, make it a part of your day-to-day tasks. One way to do this is to look for ways to pick up skills from those around you. Notice how your boss handles a negotiation; ask sales people about industry trends; get feedback from your peers after you give a presentation. Of course, there will be times when something piques your interest but you’re too busy to explore it. When this happens, try creating a “to-learn” list: write down concepts, ideas, and practices that you want to return to at a later time. And create a learning channel for your team, whether it’s through Slack, SharePoint, or somewhere else. Add links to resources you’ve found valuable — it will encourage your colleagues to do the same.
Learning how to negotiate by observing other students and adults…Get feedback from peers after a presentation or an action…Take note of something you want to learn later when there’s time to explore it.
Doesn’t this sound like a typical Montessori classroom?
One of the beautiful things about a Montessori classroom environment is that learning for children is interactive, joyful, and often effortless. Never forced. Rich learning experiences are happening constantly, from a multitude of angles. And the real beauty is that sometimes children don’t even know it’s happening. The idea of “weaving learning into work” is fundamental and a function of daily life in the Montessori classroom. It’s natural. And as our students grow and, eventually, move into higher education and adult life, learning is what they love because it’s part of who they are, something they have always done, and found joy in everyday of their lives.
Think back to a time when you were a child, passionate about learning something new. Whether it was experimenting with new words, creating art, riding a bike, or how a science experiment worked, it is likely that you practiced repeatedly to a point of great satisfaction. By continuing to have interest and engage in the activity, you mastered the skill without even knowing you were working hard to learn.
Children are born with an innate sense of curiosity. They look at the world with wonder, excitement, fresh eyes, and an insatiable desire to explore their world and learn. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could do something to help perpetuate that wonder and love of learning as they continue to grow up?
The greatest gift we can give our children is to provide them the time and space for their curiosity to work its magic-- to slow down, encourage exploration, provide them opportunities to engage with the world, and be patient. Learning is a natural process that happens best when we provide them with the right conditions and don’t interfere.
When I talk with parents about their hopes and goals for their children, one of the things that is at the top of nearly every parent’s list is that their child is happy and loves learning throughout his or her life. Naturally, in Montessori, we revel in the chance to talk about life-long learning. Our environments and methodology provide the perfect place for every child to learn through interest, freedom to act on their curiosity, and uninterrupted time.
Activities, or what we call “work” in our Montessori setting, is beautiful, orderly and inviting. The materials beacon the children to explore them through their order and simplicity. Every activity is specifically designed to aid the child in learning a specific concepts. No bells, whistles, or complicated instructions included.
With support from a Montessori teacher or “guide,” the child is encouraged to choose work based on their interest and ability. When the perfect balance of challenge and interest is achieved, a child becomes deeply engaged in their work and concentrates to a point where they hardly notice the activity of other children around them. And, this “sweet spot” of engagement, is what keeps the child coming back for more-- to explore new challenges and continue to be interested in the world around them. And to love their work.
The world’s leading researcher on positive psychology and happiness, psychologist, Mihaly Czikszentmikalyi, referred to this deep engagement as flow, or a state of concentration or complete absorption with an activity at hand. He describes it as being in the grove, fully immersed in the task at hand. He states:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
In a world that is increasingly becoming more fast-paced, technology driven, and distracting, there has never been a more important time to provide opportunity for our children to have uninterrupted time. In their Montessori environment, the children have long, blocks of time to be curious, choose work that is interesting and challenging, experiment trying things, fail and repeat.
Step into a Montessori classroom and observe sometime. You will see children engaged with their work, happily learning on their own or side by side with a peer or two. The activities they will be working on will be as varied as the individual children are themselves, chosen based on their interests, abilities and curiosity. And, given uninterrupted time to engage doing things they enjoy, the natural consequence is that they love what they do.