How Children Work, Why They Need It, & How You Can Help

Montessori observed that children enjoyed work. They felt a sense of pleasure and pride to be busy and engrossed in a meaninful task. “They appeared immensely please, peaceful, and rested after the most strenuous concentration on tasks they had freely chosen to do” (Montessori: A Modern Approach, 37).

Through her observations, Montessori noticed the negative behaviors the children of Casa dei Bambini displayed, destructive or passive, slowly disappeared as they find themselves occupied in meaningful work. This observation led Montessori to believe that the child has a need that must be met through concentration and that this was the child’s natural state. This is what Montessori called normalization.

“It is certain that the child’s aptitude for work represents a vital instinct; for without work his personality cannot organize itself and deviates from the normal lines of its construction. Man builds himself through working.” The Secret of Childhood, 208

The child is driven to work to find his or her purpose.

The child is often characterized as purposeless, all over the place, making a mess, causing distractions, intent on causing disorder and distraction, satisfied by nothing. What the child is really looking for is a meaningful activity that he can do by himself.

When the child comes upon such an activity he has found his place and is content. Until he has mastered it. This is why observing the child and continually cultivating a prepared environment is so important. The environment is not set up once for all. It is consistently cured and adapted to the needs of the child.

Paula Polk Lillard marks an important difference in the way children work versus the way adults work, “Children use the environment to improve themselves; adults use themselves to improve the environment. Children work for the sake of process; adults work to achieve an end result” (38).

This is an important difference to take into consideration. The way we interact in our environment is fundamentally different than the way a child interacts. We seek an end result, usually “to get stuff done.” The child seeks to better know and understand themselves and their environment while challenging themselves to acquire new skills or abilities through work. And, the child wants to “do it by myself.”

What does this mean for us?

Give the child grace and opportunity. It is so easy to get frustrated when children go from one area of the house to another dumping out toys or pulling out a work activity only to leave it moments later. Learn to be okay with that. Usually one of two things are happening, the child is content to work for a short period of time. Or, the child is seeking an activity to hold their interest and fulfill their need for meaningful activity and it is not being met in their current environment.

Don’t be disappointed by this. I know it can be frustrating to prepare activities that remain unused or discarded, but take this as an opportunity to observe your child and assist them to find that meaningful work they need. This becomes even harder as most children cannot explain their exact drive or desire at a specific time. Essentially, they don’t know what they’re looking for until they find themselves in it.

Respect the child’s need and desire for independence. As much as possible, allow the child to “do it myself.” It’s all too easy for us, as adults, to act for our children in ways they could act for themselves. We inhibit their physical capability as well as their will, often causing power struggles. Invite them to work alongside you, even if they don’t do it right or fully participate as you might hope, they are still learning and being exposed to new activities and cycles of work. Allowing them to “do it myself” will also give you a chance to observe areas the child may need growth as well as inspire activities that will meet their desire for work.

Don’t interrupt the child’s attention. When the child is concentrated, they are in the most deep aspect of their work. Things are happening. Even if the task seems insignificant to you, work is happening. The child might be building blocks, working on a puzzle, flipping through pages book after book, cutting paper, spooning, changing clothes, or whatnot. When we unnecessarily interrupt the child’s work, we are telling them that what they are doing is not important.

Take a deep breath and step back. Trust your child’s natural processes. Each child has an intrinsic motivation to grow into their fullest self. This comes through much trial and error, and yes—mess. Learn to let go of the need for control and be willing to look at your child’s actions through the lens of curiosity.

Observe the child. In stepping back, take note of how your child interacts with his or her environment. What are they most interested in? What activities do they pursue? In the home, where do they willingly spend the most of their time? What do they resist or struggle with? When do they say the most “do it myself” and what are they doing? Where and in what activities do you find the most conflict or power struggles? All of these are clues as to what your child needs and desires in their work. Just remember, the child’s needs are constantly evolving. Be willing to adapt and change.

Prepare the environment. Once you’ve observed and noted what could be adapted or assist your children in their direction, prepare the environment. The child cannot conquer their environment without the help of a loving and patient guide. This is our role as parents and teachers. Prepare work that appeals to the needs you’ve observed, adapt or change routines, plan for extra time to let the child make their own lunch or get ready for an errand (shoes, coats, dressing), move or change furniture in the home to fuel their independence. (We’ll be spending the whole month of March talking about the prepared environment and what we can do in the home.)

1 comment… add one

  • Yuliya February 23, 2015, 11:12 am

    I really loved reading this post 🙂 You bring up so many wonderful points! I was just reflecting upon the way I set up our works today, thinking about how I really need to step back. I observed my toddler more today and set up a few new works while he was napping – he was so excited to see them and spent so much more time on them instead of the ones I ‘wanted’ him to do. Anyway, I mean to say that your post really came at an appropriate time for me and I’ll definitely give it some more thought 🙂

    I’m also sharing this on facebook tomorrow 🙂

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