Montessori Basics: What is the Montessori work period?


You may already know a bit about the Montessori work period, also known as the work cycle.  What exactly is it, and why is it so important?

A Montessori work cycle is an uninterrupted block of time.  During this time children are able to explore the prepared environment and engage with materials of their own choosing.  The time is meant to give them opportunities to enjoy the work they love, while also cultivating basic life skills.

How long?

The length of a work cycle varies depending upon the age group and the school.  Most classes typically have a three hour morning work period most mornings.  Some other general guidelines to keep in mind for different age levels:

Toddler classrooms: 1-2 hours each day

Primary/early childhood classrooms: 2-3 hours most mornings, additional time in the afternoon for 4 and 5 year olds.

Elementary: 2-3 hours most mornings and another 2-3 hours most afternoons

What are the goals?

When we give children this time, we do so in an effort to assist their development.  The work cycle helps children:

  • Become more independent
  • Strengthen their ability to focus
  • Find joy with the materials
  • Feel deep satisfaction with their work

What exactly do children do during this time?

While it looks slightly different at different levels, there is always some combination of most students working independently while teachers give individual or small group lessons.  Great care is taken to not interrupt children while they are working, showing them the respect that this time and their exploration deserves.

In primary/early childhood classrooms, lessons are given mostly to individuals.  Children move around the classroom selecting work of their choosing.  They may work on a table or the floor, with a special rug laid out beneath them.  After selecting a work from the shelves, they bring it carefully to the workspace of their choosing, and use the material as they have previously been taught.  Children know they are responsible for putting the materials back neatly and selecting their next work independently.  At this age, children are typically focused on their own work and may engage in what is called ‘parallel play’.  This can be seen as defined working and playing beside one another while focused on their own individual work.

At the elementary level the basic structure is the same, but teachers honor the developmental need for more socialization in children of this age.  Lessons are more often given in small groups, and children prefer to work with one another.  While there is a great emphasis on choice and self-directed learning, children in elementary classrooms are expected to meet certain academic guidelines.  For example, a teacher may require that throughout the course of the day or week, a child must do work in all academic areas.  Teachers check in with students to make sure they are meeting these goals, and gently guide them with strategies to do so.

Regardless of the level, the work cycle gives children a chance to develop autonomy, make choices, and find genuine joy in their work.  Teachers hold this time as sacred, and it allows children to dive deeply into learning.

Check out this cool time lapse video that shows a four year old’s three hour work cycle in four minutes:

Montessori Happy Moments

As a Montessori educator for over 25 years, I have had countless happy moments with children. I have delighted in their play, joy and work. But the moments that have brought me the greatest pleasure are those that I have not been a participant in but an observer.

What do all these observable moments have in common? The inner knowing of the child to find himself in his own accomplishments. I have seen it in on the faces of 14 year olds, exhausted and hungry from hiking the highest mountain in Maine and THEN a 3 mile hike to camp. I have seen it on a 4 year-old's face as he asks for his fifteenth word to write with his movable alphabet. It is subtle yet powerful.

The key is to wait for it. The child’s timing is not our own. Anyone who has had to wait for their 3 year old to put on a sock or exit a car independently knows that! We adults are constantly chattering and moving and doing for our children. Stopping ourselves, slowing it down, taking the opportunity to observe and really notice is required for this experience. Try it. Sit on your hands or bite your tongue if needed. When we take that step away from the constant comments and running commentary we tend towards with our children, they will unfold before our eyes. And it’s beautiful. 

If we can accomplish this, amazing things begin to happen. Our children take on and enjoy responsibility for themselves and their part in the world no matter what their age.

By accomplishing a task with out the cheerleading and praise of the adult, the child experiences an inner knowing and understanding of what they are really capable of. This joy is evidenced, if you wait for it, in a look, a smile, a subtle gesture, a sigh of satisfaction, excited chatter to you or another. Their experience takes on a whole different meaning when it has come from within the child and not from us. 

Synonyms of happiness include pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction. I have seen all these on the faces of children reveling in their own accomplishments. It never fails to be one of my happiest moments.


Want to know more about letting go and letting your child? Check out Vicki Hoefle’s fantastic book Duck Tape Parenting