As the school year progresses, you’ll see the simpler, familiar activities on the classroom shelves replaced with beautiful, carefully crafted equipment. When children first arrive to school, we want them to see activities that are welcoming and comfortable: blocks, puzzles, coloring activities and simple games. While these more common options are available to the children, the teachers can focus classroom lessons on the classroom norms that allow children to take responsibility for the environment and each other: how to roll a rug, how to push in one’s chair, how to prepare snack, how to wash one’s hands, and the like. At early points in the year, the children are primarily learning how to engage in the Montessori classroom. The materials with which they engage are not as essential.
As that engagement becomes the norm, however, teachers will begin switching out the activities children recognize from home with the Montessori didactic materials. These materials, distributed throughout the classroom in areas dedicated to Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language and Cultural lessons, share certain key characteristics. They are self-correcting, allowing the children to discover by themselves whether the material is accurately completed without asking a teacher to check their work. They are beautiful, enticing the children to explore and engage even with very complicated concepts. Finally, they offer single concepts in isolation, as varied as the relationship of dimension to volume or the base ten number system. While the intent of each material is distinct, the way in which children access these materials is universal. We call it the “cycle of activity.”
The “cycle of activity” identifies the basic structure of a single activity from beginning to end. While the “cycle of work,” describes the cycle we observe over the course of an entire morning’s session, the cycle of activity is limited to a single work choice. The cycle of activity includes choosing a single material from the shelf, taking it to a table or rug, engaging with it for as long as the child is interested, restoring order to the material on its tray or stand, and, finally, returning it to the same place on the shelf to be available for another child to enjoy. It’s a simple cycle: choose a work, explore the work, return the work to the shelf, but it’s an essential norm in the classroom, reflecting Montessori’s understanding of children’s development and of the societies they can help to create. Allowing children to choose their own work reinforces their sense of ownership over the classroom. Expecting that they will complete it at a table or on a floor mat allows them to attend to a manageable area, both physically and cognitively. Ensuring that they return it to the shelf ready for another child to use supports the developing inter-reliance of the children’s community.
Likewise, because each material is used independently, the special qualities of the lesson are preserved. This is one strength of a classroom so distinctly focused on the development of each individual child. A material designed to teach the concept of pouring, for example, would lose its isolated concept if it was used with a material designed to teach the concept of volume. Likewise, when a child mixes multiple materials together, returning them to the shelf in a condition that’s ready for other children is a much more challenging task. That’s why you’ll see teachers reminding children to choose a single activity at a time and to put their work away before moving on to a new activity. While that may seem limiting in the early days of the classroom when children are exploring pegs and puzzles, it’s essential as the more complex Montessori materials appear. Establishing these norms early in the year allows us to move more quickly toward turning the environment over to the children, and supporting the peaceful, collaborative environment we believe they’re capable of creating.