“So what toys did you play with today,” a mom asks her three-year-old daughter while a teacher buckles her in during car line dismissal. “No, Mommy, we don’t play in the classroom. We do work,” she says matter-of-factly. While the word “toy” carries a connotation that the word “work” does not, Montessori materials, or works, are designed to fulfill an inner purpose while also bringing joy to the child. The concept of work and its meaning within the Montessori classroom is just one example of jargon rooted in the Montessori philosophy, which can be misunderstood outside of the Montessori community.
When entering the Montessori classroom, visitors discover a prepared environment. A term typically associated with nature or the planet Earth, the Montessori environment is a thoughtful, carefully-prepared classroom created by teachers, with students’ interests and needs in mind. It allows the children to independently explore materials and participate in caring for their surroundings.
Within that environment, guides, or teachers in the traditional classroom, steer students to use materials and make discoveries independently, whereas in a more traditional venue they are often viewed as beholders of all knowledge. Guides serve as the link between students and the environment as they explore purposeful work based upon observation of each child’s readiness and interests.
In the Primary classroom, a mixed-age group of children ages 3-5, emphasis is placed on Practical Life. In this case, the term practical life does, in fact, reflect the meaning as it is understood outside of the Montessori community. What is unique is that Montessori instills practical learning in its youngest learners. While the traditional classroom often primarily focuses on academics like math and language, children in the Montessori classroom perform practical work, for instance, washing dishes, preparing their own food, scrubbing tables, sweeping the floor, or vacuuming the carpet, as they learn academic concepts.
These works might not reflect what is typically expected for small children, but they nurture independence and give students purpose, happiness, and inner satisfaction, which is exactly what play provides. In the Montessori community, this concept is referred to as normalization, or a natural developmental process in young children exhibited by a love of work or activity, concentration, self-discipline, and joy in accomplishment.
So yes, Mommy, we “work” in the classroom, we don’t “play,” and we love it!