You may have heard Montessorians use the language of "work," to describe the materials on the shelf, or the activities in which the children engage or the internal motivation that a single child may demonstrate. For Montessorians, the term, "work," doesn't carry the same implications that it may have elsewhere. It's not something to be avoided. It's not tiresome. It's not a have-to. So, why do we use this language to describe something that, when observed, is rich with joy?
When Montessorians describe "work," they are describing more vocation than chore. We understand "work" to be that thing that calls to us, that inspires us and engages us and brings us satisfaction. The child's work, then, is whatever activity or motivation they are drawn to, those engagements that capture their concentration and attention, that seem to fulfill an inner drive unique to the child.
Unlike adult work, which we think of as burdensome or grueling, children's work is closer to what Csiksgentmihalyi calls, "flow.' When we see a child, "at work," in a Montessori environment, we can observe extended concentration, almost a complete absorption in the activity, as though the child were the only one in the room. We see intentional action, reflecting the specific goals the child has for each movement or action. We notice children losing track of time, spending extended periods of time completing and repeating the same activity, regardless of any extrinsic reward. While the child may be engaged in quite challenging lessons, they seem nonetheless to be at ease, as though even these hard problems are ones they can tackle confidently. There is a seeming mindfulness to the child's engagement. Over time, we see children regulate their own activity, selecting simpler activities for periods of rest and sense-making and then choosing, of their own accord, more challenging work.
Montessorians sometimes describe the actual apparatus of the Montessori environment as, "work," as in, "I am preparing a new work for the children." We use this language to remind us of what each lesson should inspire. Because we understand the child's work to be intellectually challenging, intrinsically motivating and individually satisfying, we design new lessons when we see a need in the children that is not yet met by an existing material. We remind ourselves that these lessons should call to the child, intellectually and aesthetically, and we use the language of, "work," to emphasize this point.
Don't fear the label, "work," when it's applied to your child's activity at Montessori school. It doesn't mean your child is being forced to complete tiring exercises joylessly. Quite the opposite- we use the label, "work," because Montessori lessons engage, inspire and satisfy the children for whom they are designed, providing a calling to activity and meaningful experiences for the children they call.