Work Cycle Routines
During a typical morning in my Montessori classroom, the children work with activities from the shelf and also feed the fish, go to the washroom, enjoy a snack, chat with friends, walk around the classroom, observe other children working, help a friend or an adult with a task, discuss and resolve social conflicts, participate in circle time and help set up for lunch.
This "3-hour work cycle" includes many activities that are purposeful, but do not necessarily involve the traditional Montessori materials. The activities the children choose to work with from the shelf may hold their attention for only a few minutes at a time. After the children are finished working with an activity, the expectation is that they return it to the shelf. Children in a Montessori classroom absorb the idea that cleaning up after yourself is your social responsibility to the group.
The children are free to move around the classroom and touch materials they have already been shown. They are free to choose activities based on their interests, and may repeat activities as many times as they need. No single area of the Montessori classroom (or curriculum) is more important than any other. The children are free to be alone or with other children. They are free to engage in conversation, as long as it's not interrupting another child's concentration.
Three takeaways from the Montessori work cycle.
1. All purposeful activity is valuable.
Much of the early work that children do in a Montessori classroom is in the realm of practical life. This foundational work helps children develop concentration along with the fine and gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination needed for later academic work.
At home, notice when your child is engrossed in an activity with or without toys. You can tell when an activity is purposeful because your child will be concentrating.
Intense focus shows that the activity is meeting some inner developmental need. The activity may not make sense to your adult mind because, unlike children, we work to get something done. But for children, work is play and play is work.
So, you can let go of the idea that your 3-6 year old child "should" be working with the traditional Montessori materials at home for 3 hours! Children still do need a chunk of uninterrupted time to get immersed in their work, whatever that activity may be.
2. The work cycle is choosing an activity, working on the activity and then returning it to the shelf.
You can expect it to take some time, with much modelling and many gentle reminders, to establish the routine of choosing an activity, working on it and then returning it to the place where it belongs in your home.
Having a designated place for each activity or toy in your home will ease the process. You will likely need to declutter the toys significantly to limit the number of activities available at any one time.
A general rule of thumb: have only as many toys or activities out that you are willing to pick up (if your child is very young or you are in the early stages of establishing the work cycle) or that your child can put away independently.
3. Establish 3 simple "rules" or "ways of being" in your family:
The guide in a Montessori classroom models a way of being that is based on respect -- for yourself, for others and for the classroom environment.
You can do the same at home by living these 3 rules:
- Protect concentration (do not disturb).
- Handle materials gently (do not destroy).
- Create a safe and peaceful environment (do not hurt).
A few children help to prepare the snack each morning in my Montessori classroom. The snack is set out on a tray on a low counter along with porcelain plates and a jug of water and glass cups.
The children are free to eat snack when they want, but this freedom comes with responsibilities. There are limits on how many times they can have snack in a morning and how many pieces of each item they can take so that everyone gets a turn to have a snack with enough food to share. The children are also expected to clear the table and wash their own dishes. If their water spills or food falls on the floor, the children are expected to clean it up.
Set up a snack station at home.
At home you can set up a snack station on a low shelf or child-size table in the kitchen or dining room. Or, have a designated spot in the refrigerator (or set up a bar fridge) for your child's snacks.
Here are some things to consider when you're setting up a snack station:
- Where will your wash hands before preparing and eating a snack?
- Which child-size kitchen tools does your child need to be able to prepare and eat snacks independently?
- How much food will be available at any given time?
- Where will your child eat his or her snack?
- Where do you want your child to put uneaten food and dirty dishes?
- How do you want your child to clean up wet and dry spills?
- What should your child do when a glass or plate breaks? (And what will you tell yourself so you remain calm?!)
If your child's snack station has a jug of water and a glass cup, it's a good idea to put them on a tray to catch spills. Have a cloth nearby to wipe up spills, along with a supply of dry cloths and a place to hang the wet cloths.
Also make sure the jug is not too big as it can get heavy when filled and it may be difficult for your child to manage.
You may want to fill the jug with just enough water to fill one cup if your child is still figuring out cup capacity.
IKEA sells a 0.5L/17 oz stainless steel milk-frothing jug that is a good option for water at a snack station. A milk or cream pitcher is a bit smaller and may work better for a child who is just learning how to pour.
Another option is to set up a water dispenser. You won't need to keep refilling it as often as a jug, and it can also be an accessible water supply for other practical life activities at home.
Make sure the water dispenser has a spout with a lever that's easy for your child to use. Place the water dispenser on a raised platform so you can place a tray below the spout (to catch drips) yet still have room for filling jugs and small buckets.
Routines for Resolving Social Conflicts
When the children in my Montessori classroom have a disagreement, it's usually not long before one or the other will say "Let's have a peace talk."
They'll get the peace shell and meet on a small round carpet. The child holding the peace shell speaks first and the other child listens. I'll usually overhear, "I didn't like it when you... Please don't do that again." Then the child will pass the peace shell to the other child so he or she can respond. They continue passing the peace shell back and forth until the issue is resolved.
Use peace talks at home.
As you watch this short video of a peace talk in a Montessori classroom, think about how you can incorporate the idea into your family life. The children in the video use a peace rug with a rose that is passed back and forth instead of a peace shell. Even a peace stone would work! Use what you've got.
You'll need to facilitate the process initially, comforting both children while they are overwhelmed with emotion and validating the feelings of both children. With practice, you'll be able to resist the urge to take sides and offer a quick a solution. Often we are uncomfortable with all the emotion and need it to be over! It will get easier over time with a routine in place.
You can ask questions such as "How did you feel when...?" and then invite that child to share his or her feelings with the other child. Then do the same for the other child so everyone involved gets to express themselves.
You can prompt the children to ask each other what they need to feel better. Maybe an ice pack, wet cloth, hug, drink of water or some space and time alone will help. Ask the children to share what they would like to happen next time.
This article explains in detail the problem with requiring a child to say "sorry" and outlines a step-by-step process for facilitating a peace talk.
Once the routine is established, you can usually step back and let your children sort out their own social conflicts. Sometimes I'll simply say "I trust that you two have the skills to work this out. Would a peace talk help?" Then I'll observe from a short distance away and be ready to step in if someone is going to get hurt.
Routines to Ease Transitions
Transitions are a part of life, but they can be particularly hard for some children. Consistent routines and clear expectations help your child figure out the cycle of daily life so he or she feels secure in knowing what to expect.
The Montessori classroom environment is prepared in such a way that the physical set up guides them. For example, when children arrive in the morning, they put their outdoor shoes in the hallway, hang up their coat and backpack on a hook, put their lunch bag in their cubby, and put on their indoor shoes.
Singing a song, playing a musical instrument or a rainstick, turning the lights off or on, or clapping a particular rhythm are often used in a Montessori classroom to signal a change in activity.
When the children in my Montessori classroom hear a chord on the guitar, they know that it's time to put work away and get ready for circle time and then lunch. Without any prompting, a clean up song will be heard in the classroom: "Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere! Clean up, clean up, everybody do their share!"
We also eat lunch with the overhead lighting dimmed. When the lights are turned back on, the children know that it's time to pack up their lunch bag and get ready to go outside.
Prepare your yourself and your home.
Think about what transitions your child finds difficult and how you could make small changes to both your home and your mindset to help things go more smoothly.
A good place to start is with the daily transition of leaving the house and arriving home.
You don't need an elaborate mudroom with built-in cubbies! Keep your entryway simple and focused on developing independence. Have only the things needed for the current season and remove the rest to keep the space uncluttered.
- Install low hooks on the wall for a coat and backpack.
- Have a basket for small seasonal items such as hats.
- Place a mat or a row of hooks very low to the floor to contain limited shoe options.
- Set up a child-size bench, chair or stool to make it easier for your child to put shoes on and take them off.
Set up your child for success by allowing 2 or 3 times the amount of time you think it should take to get through a transition.
It might take your child 20 minutes to put on his or her shoes independently, and that's ok. If you've built enough time into your schedule, then you can relax and be more patient.
In the prepared environment of a Montessori classroom, there is a sense of endless time so that children never feel rushed and they have lots of time to practice new skills.
Clean Up Routines
The last 15-20 minutes of the school day is clean up time in my Montessori classroom. There is a board with pictures of the various clean up jobs and a basket with a small photo of each child with velcro on the back to attach to the board.
A coveted task is putting the photos on the board to show who gets to empty the recycling, garbage or compost bins, spray and wipe the tables, sweep under the snack table or tidy the bathroom!
The child chosen to be the detective walks around the classroom looking for opportunities to straighten the trays on the shelf, the books in the library area and the pencils.
Opportunities to contribute happen spontaneously throughout the day too. A child may be invited to take the attendance to the office, tidy the outdoor shoes in the hallway, get more paper towels from the storage room or help with laundry.
The children are almost always willing to help because it fulfills a need to contribute and belong to the community. Unlike at the end of the day when the routine is that everyone helps to tidy the classroom or when a child has made a spill and it's his or her responsibility to clean it up, there are times when I make a request ("Would you be willing to...?") and it's ok if the child says no. I think it's important to respect that choice and not take it personally. You cannot actually "make" someone do something!
Invite your child to "contribute to the family" rather than Do chores.
Before lunch, dinner and/or bedtime are times when you might want to establish a clean up routine and invite your child to participate.
I don't like the word "chores". I already sounds like something I don't want to do! Instead, I always talk about contributing to the family. I'll ask my sons:
- Have you done anything to contribute to the family today?
- What have you done for practical life today?
Rather than a typical chore chart, there's a list on the refrigerator with ideas of how either of them could to contribute to the family. My sons can choose what they want to do. It's expected that they help out, but they don't have specific jobs they must do. Completing tasks is not tied to any reward system.
This routine is still a work in progress in my family. I'm planning to make the list of ways to contribute more visual with magnets and "to do" and "done" columns. My hope is that my sons will eventually take the initiative and not need any prompting from me. Ideally they will notice when something needs to be done and just do it.
As Montessori parents, we want our children to be responsible. Responsibility is the ability to respond. It starts with awareness that, for example, the toilet paper roll is empty and needs to be replaced so the bathroom is ready for the next person.
When too much is done for a child, he or she does not develop awareness. Contributing to the family through practical life activities helps children develop awareness so that they will become able to respond and be responsible.