Demystifying Montessori – part 2

If you haven’t already read my first post in this series, you may want to.

In order to address the issue of choice in the Montessori classroom, you first have to understand the structure of the day.

Dr. Montessori believed that, given long stretches of time in which to work, children will gradually lengthen their attention spans. In her opinion, shepherding the children along to a different activity or a different subject every 30 minutes made it impossible for the kids to become engrossed in any one task. It makes sense to me – if I’m in the middle of a really good book, or sewing a project, I loathe being disturbed.

This observation resulted in the establishment of the three-hour work period in Montessori schools. That means that for three (sometimes two and a half) hours, the children work with the materials of their choice. Snacks or short breaks are taken on an individual basis, when each child is ready.

So here we are, at the question of choice. Many (uninformed) critics of Montessori complain that the children have too much choice and too much freedom. I see how it can appear that way, what with the children entering the classroom and gravitating to the work they want. On closer inspection, though, it’s pretty obvious that what we have here is choice within a rigid structure.

When the child has their choice of materials, they are not really free to choose any material. Each child is restricted to the materials appropriate to his or her level – that is, the activities that have already been presented by the teacher. Sometimes the child will choose materials that she has not yet learned. If those materials are the next in a progression of skills, the teacher may present it to the child. If not, the child is redirected to other materials.

And out of the materials on his or her level, the child must choose from among the ones on the shelf. If another child is already using a material, it is (obviously) unavailable. Some materials are for work in small groups, but most are not. Children can (and do) watch each other work and offer encouragement, but they can’t step in and do the work for a classmate.

So imagine that a kid is doing his work, and then he wants to do something else. While that’s certainly his choice to make, he doesn’t get to abandon the task at hand – if he does, he’ll find the teacher gently guiding him back to the materials and encouraging him to put everything back the way he found it before moving on.

When they get hungry, the kids can go to the kitchen area (every classroom has one) and sit down at the snack table… if there’s a seat available. Otherwise they must wait until someone else has finished before they can sit down. When they do sit to eat, they have to first spread out a napkin on the table, and then they can take as much as they want – up to the amount written and drawn on the small board. And of course, when they’re finished eating the kids must clean up after themselves and leave the snack table usable for the next child.

There is a “peace corner” in every classroom. It’s usually a small space with comfy chairs and a small selection of books. The children are free to sit in the peace corner, read, or even doze off.

The argument goes that by being given an opportunity to govern their own time (within a structure), the children learn self-regulation (apparently this has been proven by studies, but I haven’t read them yet). They are also able to delve deeply into their work when they are so inclined, and able to rest and refresh themselves when they need to.

Maybe the strangest effect of this approach is the one we discovered when we took our first tour of the school. As we watched the children quietly working, replacing materials and choosing others, negotiating with other students, and taking breaks without disturbing the other kids, the principal whispered, “You probably haven’t noticed it – I just realized it myself – but both teachers are out of the room and the kids are still doing their own work.” And they were.


Do you have any thoughts or questions about this? Need clarification? Leave a comment and I’ll respond to it in a future post!


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