The Montessori classroom is an interactive community full of children who are simultaneously choosing materials to gather, explore, utilize, and pass on to others. It’s more than neat and colorful toys that can each be used for a learning concept—each classroom environment is carefully cultivated with simple materials that are purposeful for the developmental needs of the group and that appeal to the inner curiosity of the children.
In our environment, “work” is not merely touching and manipulating the materials; it includes making the choice of what to use, gathering and organizing needed supplies, using them for the purpose of the activity, and returning the material neatly to its original location so that the next child will find it ready to use. This cycle that they repeat with each choice of activity in a Montessori environment is referred to as their “work”, and is an important cycle that is repeated multiple times during the course of a school day. A child’s exploration and play with the objects in the environments around them is their way of internalizing the information they will use to develop their understanding of the world—this is the child’s most important work.
The child will revisit a work multiple times throughout a school year, absorbing more each time —this looks different for Primary and Elementary depending on the individual child. In the E1 elementary room, a seven year old will learn about the layers of the earth in a multi-faceted way. By the time they choose works about the Earth, they have previously participated in presentations about land and water and read books about Earth—now it’s time for the work to begin.
They gather their materials, lay out three part nomenclature cards, draw a diagram of the layers, color and label the layers, perhaps gather and use clay to add different colored layers around the original core, cut the sphere open to reveal inner earth, use small labels to identify each part, and clean up their materials to leave it ready for the next student. This entire process is one work cycle. The child will then take a moment to consider their surroundings and expectations before moving on to the next work cycle.
In a primary room, works are building blocks foundational for learning at this phase in a child’s development. Children choose from a wide variety of works like tracing metal shapes, punching holes in patterns, creating “parts of” books where they trace and notate parts of animals or plants, and working with beads to understand numbers.
As a child moves into Elementary, they will discover that works offer more detailed information and require focus on detail and mental organization as they express their understanding in creative extensions and follow up work. The colored bead bars that were used for counting in Primary are now used for adding and building visual sets for multiplication and for multi-digit multiplication. Even though they are older, they are still expected to move the bead bars carefully and they naturally remember the colors of each specific unit bar. When the adults in the classroom observe that the child is able to retain and use the information presented to them by the material, the child is invited to work with other materials that will build upon their understanding as they move toward abstraction.
“He does it with his hands, by experience, first in play, and then through work. The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” – Maria Montessori