“When the children had completed an absorbing bit of work, they appeared rested and deeply pleased.” – Maria Montessori
Can a Three-year-old Stay Still? It is quite fascinating to see little boys and girls as young as three-years-old stay on a task with a sustained attention span for up to 3 hours and even more. After several months in a Montessori classroom, these little persons are able to choose their own work and actually focus on and finish their tasks after staying the course.
In her research, Maria Montessori discovered the significance of a two-and-a-half to three-hour uninterrupted work period after much observation and experimentation. She discovered that the last hour of a lengthy work period is usually when children are most likely to choose challenging work and concentrate deeply.
Do it Again … and Again: Montessori once observed a three-year-old repeat the knobbed cylinders activity 44 times. The girl’s concentration did not waver when Montessori tested it, first picking up the girl in her chair and placing her (still in her chair) on top of her desk and then asking classmates to sing. When she stopped working of her own choosing, “…she looked round with a satisfied air, almost as if waking from a refreshing nap.” Montessori called this a “never-to-be-forgotten” discovery.
Phases of the Work Period: Montessori noted that in the first eighty minutes children often chose an easy initial task. This was followed by a more challenging activity. Then there was a ten-minute period of “false fatigue” as children appeared restless and classroom noise increased. This is the time when many teachers get uneasy and end the work period. However, it should be noted that false fatigue is actually “preparation for the culminating work.” This is when children choose challenging work and concentrate deeply. When the task is finished, there is a period of “contemplation” as children appear deeply satisfied and at peace.
Interest to Absorption to Deep Concentration: Children in Montessori classrooms become absorbed in their work because they have the freedom to choose activities that interest them. In classrooms where the work period is less than two hours long, children rarely experience the deep concentration where leaps of cognitive development can take place. Children are hesitant to choose challenging work if they think they won’t have time to complete it.
So, what is false fatigue? False fatigue is similar to adults taking a short break after working hard. If children are disrupting others, they can be quietly redirected, but too much interference actually prolongs the period of false fatigue. Instead of anxiously over-controlling or ending the work period, one must trust children to return to work. Given some time, one can observe whether the children choose their most challenging task of the day.
At Little Lea, we strive to motivate parents to bring their children to school on time, since we are very aware that when children miss class time, they are less likely to choose challenging work that requires more concentration. Montessori educators know the value of an uninterrupted work period for a child’s development. Therefore, we fiercely protect the three-hour work period! It is one of the most important ingredients in the Montessori method and one of the greatest mysteries of early childhood learning.