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What is a Montessori Work Cycle?

I’ve said this a few times since this Covid-19 pandemic experience started, routines are key for my family. And not just any routine, but one based around a 3 hour work cycle. Let’s talk about what a work cycle is and what it looks like for my family. A work cycle is the (ideally) uninterrupted block of time where children can go about their activity. This isn't to be confused with the cycle of activity, which applies to individual works. 

Here is a look at a Montessori work cycle at home and some of the activities that children might choose during that time.

(Nora and Gus work with beeswax modeling material

(We start our work cycle every day with tracking the date and moon phase.)

Dr. Montessori found that three hours (less time for infants and toddlers) was the ideal amount of time for children to have in the Montessori classroom. During this time children are free to move about the classroom choosing work that class to them, socializing, and receiving presentations that the guide has determined they are ready for. The three hour timeline wasn't randomly chosen, but was based on Maria's own observations of child development and their particular needs. This was the optimal amount of time for children to engage  deeply with work, repeat work, and concentrate. You can read more about the 3 hour work cycle in a classroom here. 

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(Henry works on online materials from his Montessori school during distance learning period.) 

(Nora writes a list of her choosing on a tiny clipboard.)

Our home is not a classroom so our work cycle looks a bit differently than it does in a school environment. But I still structure our days in these three hour blocks because I don't believe that my children's developmental needs change based on where they are. At home they still need repetition, they still need freely chosen work, they still need to concentrate - and they do all that through the work cycle. 

(Gus works on a vintage puzzle)

(Nora constructs silly sentences using word magnets and reads them aloud.) 

At home, the kids have the option of working on anything in our environment. I create the limits by defining the environment (our morning work cycle takes place on our main level for example) and by limiting what is available. Other than that, the children are free to decide how to use their time. They can find what speaks to them, and use that material for as long or as little as they like.

(Henry polishes a silver cross with baking soda and lemon juice - big kids do practical life too!)

(Henry, Nora, and Gus work together with me to make beeswax egg candles in preparation for Easter.) 

I think there is a bit of a myth that during this work cycle children work continuously on shelf work. That for three hours children sit quietly and pick work after work from the shelves. This really isn't true. The kids follow their own need for movement, their need to engage in practical pursuits, and their need to be social. They laugh, they are silly, they rest on the floor, they go outside and back in again. Here are some examples of things they might do in a particular work cycle: 
  • Shelf work
  • Practical life - folding laundry, mopping floors, emptying the dishwasher, dusting, cleaning, watering plants, food preparation
  • Snack
  • Art or art project
  • Gardening
  • Playing outside
  • Read books
  • Get presentation on new work
  • Build with blocks/open ended toys
  • Sensory play, kinetic sand, playdough
  • Special project or activity
(Gus reads a book. Mia the dog plays with her toy 😅) 

(Teddy plays on the floor with a pacifier clip.) 

Each day will feel a little bit different. The choices are always there, but the kids will decide how to best use that time for themselves. My job is to protect that work, be available when I can to help with those choices, and prepare the environment to allow that work to unfold. 

Here is a look at a Montessori work cycle at home and some of the activities that children might choose during that time.

What does a work cycle look like in your home? How is that different from a classroom? 


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