In the Young Children’s Community, Toddlers work for an uninterrupted hour and a half; as soon as the child transitions to the Primary environment, that work period jumps up to three full hours! Though it seems difficult to imagine a child staying occupied for three hours, it is possible–and entirely critical for the child’s growth. Having a long stretch of time for independent, purposeful work builds the child’s concentration, decision-making, resourcefulness, and confidence.
Dr. Montessori’s word for all of this? Self-construction. When a child is given the opportunity to accomplish meaningful work on her own, she is doing something far greater: she is constructing her personality, intellect, and independence.
In Primary, children are not only honing skills in functional independence (like slicing vegetables and tying shoes), but they are also gaining psychological and intellectual independence. They are making choices based on their skills, desires, and interests. This continues in significant ways as the child moves her into Elementary and Adolescent years. As adults, our job is to, well, step out of the way and let her approach this great task.
IN THE CLASSROOM
The guide maintains an expectation that children in the Primary classroom will choose work on their own whenever they are not receiving a lesson during the work period. Not only should the child be able to make the choice, she should also be able to attend to the work, complete it, and restore it to its place in the classroom–all without an adult’s assistance.
Because the guide gives lessons individually throughout the day, many children are working on their own for the majority of their time at school. This gives them time to return to work they know and perfect their skills as they repeat it independently.
When a child does ask for help, the guide or assistant may provide it in the most minimally intrusive way: asking an open-ended question, drawing attention to something the child may have missed, or by saying, “Let me show you how…” This provides the opportunity for the child to actually resolve the issue herself, or at least give her the know-how for next time.
Consider ways in which your family’s day can be structured to allow your Primary child time on her own, without adults. When at any given moment a parent is just a step away for help, intervention, or entertainment, the child grows more and more dependent on adult influence at all times. This can extend into the classroom, creating a child who struggles to choose or complete work without the full attention of the guide or assistant.
To build the child’s confidence that she can do things herself, create time at home for her to work or play without you. This could be a time to read, draw, build, fold clothes–whatever sparks your child’s interest. Make a space for this in which your child has everything (or almost everything) she needs in reach, minimizing the need for someone else.
While your child works, find something to occupy your own attention. Not only is it powerful for the child to see those around her deeply interested in their work (reading, cooking, cleaning), it also renders you unavailable to “help” with something that the child can likely resolve on her own.
At first, this could be just five minutes of independence. Over time, it should stretch to incrementally longer periods as she gets older: ten, fifteen, even thirty uninterrupted minutes. In fact, by the time your child is in her last year of Primary, she should be able to work or play independently at home for about an hour.
Primary children are facing the major work of self-construction; if they remain dependent on adults to help them, then they have fewer opportunities to actually conduct this great project. With the expectation–both at home and at school–that she can (and will actually enjoy!) work independently, children gain freedom to meet their own needs and pursue their own interests. When adults support children by (ironically) leaving them alone, we open the door for them to become self-sufficient, creative, and, most importantly, happy human beings.