The Montessori work cycle, what on earth is it? And why should you care?
It is no secret that kids are brilliant at making a mess and sometimes it is hard to believe that one teeny little person can create so much havoc, but they can, and they do!
This is exactly why we are talking about the Montessori work cycle and how to introduce it to your kids and more importantly, why you should.
One of the many aspects of Montessori theory that I love is the idea of the work cycle. Not only does it make perfect sense and makes our lives easier, but it also prepares the child to be a responsible adult. Heaven knows there is enough information being banded about, about how college leavers today can hardly look after themselves.
Two of the things that often come up with regard to young adults are a lack of time management skills and the inability to finish a job properly.
It is the latter we are going to concentrate on today.
What is the Montessori 3-hour Work Cycle?
Sometimes called the Montessori work period, the 3-hour cycle, the 3-hour period or the work cycle. It is a block of time where the child works on activities of their choosing, self-guided learning which is not interrupted by a teacher.
This works beautifully in a classroom setting. But it can be more tricky when we do Montessori at home as there are other things to take into consideration.
If you can give your child a full 3 hours, then do so. We did it consistently 3 days a week. Also, if you are working at home then this is a great time to work alongside your kids. Do keep in mind that Montessori normalization needs to be achieved before this will all work smoothly.
A typical Montessori 3 hour work cycle at school for 3-6-year-olds has 5 stages:
- Settling in – engaging with greetings and circle time to get the class settled.
- Repetition work – Often students will choose an activity they have done before, easing themselves into the day. Very much like we do when we sit down and check our emails before tackling the big jobs of the day.
- False Fatigue – this to an untrained eye looks like the child is slacking off, they may go and chat with friends or they look like they have lost interest in what they are doing. This is like the 10 am coffee break in the office. You are an hour into the day, you need to stretch your legs and get mentally ready to do the heavy work.
- The Great Work – This is where students will choose more challenging or new activities to work on. This is the time of most intense learning, deep concentration and focus happens in this part of the cycle and it can last up to 2 hours.
- Clean Up – the last 30 minutes is when they mental wind down as they finish their work. Putting away their materials and tidying up.
Why Do They Need The Work Cycle?
As you saw above, the 3-hour cycle gives them a great chance to learn independently and immerse themselves into something they are called to focus on.
For parents or caregivers, it gives us time to get on and do our jobs, knowing the child doesn’t need ‘entertaining’
And finally, it teaches the child the responsibility of cleaning up after themselves.
Condensing the typical 3-hour work cycle, it looks something like this:
- Settle in
- Decide what and where to work with
- Set up the work area (take out the activity)
- Work on the activity
- Clean up
Implementing the work cycle from an early age becomes impregnated in the child’s brain, they start to do it automatically and don’t question the concept of tidying up after themselves. The work cycle can be applied to all parts of the day, whatever the activity.
They learn that a job isn’t completed until everything is put away and that doing a job properly means completing the full cycle. It also means fewer tantrums and fights about cleaning up!
So even if you are not able to do the full 3-hour cycle, you can implement the work cycle in this way with every activity.
Let’s Look At How The Work Cycle Actually Works…
For example, the child wants to draw a picture.
- The child decides where they will work, maybe the dining room table. They check that there is space to work there.
- The child takes out what they need, the crayons, a mat and paper.
- The child works on several masterpieces until they have had their fill of colouring.
- The child replaces everything, puts the mat and crayons back where they belong, puts rubbish in the bin and then shares their work with his family.
The child may decide that now he wants to play with Lego or make a rocket, play the piano or see how high they can jump on the sofa!
Now, I would be lying if I said this works perfectly every time, let’s be realistic here! We are talking about children and yes, sometimes they need reminding, but the younger they are at starting this the better.
These days, I rarely have to ask my boy to clean up. He automatically puts one thing away before getting out the next, and then at bathtime at the end of the day, there is very little to actually clean up.
And it was a very rare occasion that we have to tackle putting away the whole contents of the toy cupboard, in fact, that only tended to happen when we had friends round to play.
When we do have friends over we don’t bother with the work cycle rules but I do expect everyone to pitch and tidy up at the end of the play date and I expected that of my son when he goes to a friend’s house to play.
TOP TIP – have labels on the different toy boxes to make it easy for everyone to put things away in the right place.
Does the Work Cycle Just Work At Playtime?
No, not at all.
Think about almost everything we do…
Taking a bath – Run the bath, get undressed, have a nice soak (san kids), and a G&T (OK, one can dream!), get out of the bath, drain the water, get dry, get dressed, hang up the wet towel. Finished
Making a sandwich – Get out ingredients, butter bread, add the filling, and cut into squares, or triangles if you are feeling posh, put them on a plate. Sit at the table, and eat. Wash plate and chopping board etc. Put everything away. Finished
Doing the shopping – Write a list of what you need, drive to the supermarket, collect everything on the list, pay, bag up the groceries, load up the car, return home, unpack the car, put everything away. Finished.
So as you see, this isn’t just a short term solution to stop you from treading on random pieces of Lego, this is a life skill and so many kids are just not learning it.
When can I start doing this with my child?
As soon as possible, even toddlers can help to clean up. Children in general, thrive with routine and it helps in so many ways. It eliminates power struggles, they know that after dinner they have a bath, brush their teeth and go to bed, it’s just what happens at that time of day.
They learn that cleaning up after themselves is expected rather than them expecting YOU to do it. It is so easy to fall into the trap of doing it yourself because it’s quicker and easier than fighting with a three-year-old right?
But you have to see that ‘disagreement’ is part of the investment of having an independent child further down the line.
It helps kids to take charge of their own activities and become more independent (which frees up time for you!)
Over time they learn what they need to do and when they need to do it without constant reminders from mom. And yes, it is OK to let them forget something for school – if they get in trouble then they will make more of an effort next time.
What if my children are older, how do I start implementing the rule?
I suggest sitting down and talking to them, asking them how they feel at the end of the day when they have SO much to clean up and put away.
Ask them if they would like the clean up to be easier.
Ask them if they have any suggestions, if not would they like you to suggest something.
Make the suggestion that they put away whatever they have been playing with before getting out something new, make a challenge of it and then tell them that as a family we are going to stick to the challenge for a week.
You will need to use gentle reminders throughout the day but it should get easier as time goes on and it becomes a habit.
When you notice your kids sticking to the rule, make a big deal of it, comment on how lovely it is when they put their stuff away and you are not fighting about it. And tell them how much you love having a peaceful home rather than a battlefield.
What if my child wants to get more than one thing out at once because they want to play with them simultaneously such as the toy cars and the train set?
No problem, let them go for it as long as they clear it up before they move on to the next activity. We have often had the marble run, train set and all the blocks we own out at once. Makes for great imaginative play!
Kids often feel overwhelmed when it comes to tidying up because they don’t know where to start.
Make it easier by having labelled containers for everything and when it comes to actually start, give them prompts “You put all the cars in the box and I’ll pick up the trains” Or Luka, you put the blocks away and Jess can do the marble run.
Break it down so that the job isn’t so big and overwhelming, think baby steps!
Think about how you feel when you need to tidy up the attic, spare bedroom or garden shed – wherever your room of chaos is!
My kid often spends all morning building something out of Lego and then doesn’t want to put it away, what can I do?
We have had the same problem, what we do is keep the new creation (usually some kind of castle in this house) on the shelf or trolly, but all the other pieces have to be put away. Or if they have built an elaborate town or something, it’s OK to let them leave it up so they can continue the next day, we do that with big projects, right? Just as long as they are clear that when it is all completed and they have finished with it, it gets put away.
We imposed a time limit too. If a big construction wasn’t played with for 3 days, it gets put away.
If you feel that Montessori is not working, then read this post for some inspiration.