Montessori 101: Work

Did you know, that in a Montessori classroom, the children’s activities are referred to as “work” rather than “play”? To most adults, this is confusing, as they would prefer to use the word “play”. 

Our teachers do not ask children, “What would you like to play with?” or “Would you like to play with these toys?”  Instead, they might say, “What would you like to work with today?” or “Would you like to work with the Puzzle Map?”

Let’s dig into why Montessori schools use the term “work” rather than “play”.

What is “Work”?

Words we typically associate with work:

  • Wages
  • Duty, obligation
  • Livelihood
  • Purposeful
  • Goal-oriented
  • Accomplishment of goals
  • Routine
  • Tiring
  • Energizing
  • Positive/negative interactions with colleagues or clients
  • Requires concentration
  • Typically, considered impolite to interrupt
  • Typically, others respect our work obligations
women stressed out at work
Let’s look at the Oxford definition of work.  It is not just a “task or something a person or thing has to do” but is also defined as “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result”. Whether your personal experience with “work” has been disappointing or fulfilling, no one would argue that work is without value.  By its very nature, work requires effort and results in reward (e.g. a paycheck, an accomplishment, a goal fulfilled, internal satisfaction, etc.).  Work is purposeful.

What is “Play”?

Typically, we would associate “play” with:

  • Fun
  • Pleasure
  • Enjoyment
  • Recreational
  • Undirected
  • Often is not associated with a goal (aside from enjoyment)
  • Easily interrupted
  • May or may not require concentration

Play is often overlooked and considered to be without great value.  However, with modern research emphasizing the importance of recreation and play for adults as well as children, play is beginning to be viewed as essential to quality of life.

child playing under sheet

Let’s look at how Montessori tied these two seemingly contrary terms together.

“Play is the Work of the Child.”

Montessori believed play was essential to childhood.  She also believed children’s natural interests and activities were devalued when adults called them “play”. Instead, Montessori saw childhood play as:
  • Purposeful
  • Rewarding
  • Respected
  • Uninterrupted: a child concentrating at play should be uninterrupted, just as an we would not interrupt an adult concentrating at work.
  • Satisfying
  • Enjoyable
  • Goal driven (unconsciously, subconsciously or consciously)
In calling child’s play “work”, she gave it value and respect, and children responded by taking immense pride and satisfaction in knowing that they were contributing something of purpose – contributing to their own development, and to that of their classroom and community. To some measure, that is what we all desire for in our work: a place of purpose, respect, satisfaction, enjoyment, and reward!

“Does Nature make a difference between work and play or occupation and rest? Watch the unending activity of the flowing stream or the growing tree. See the breakers of the ocean, the unceasing movements of the earth, the planets, the sun and the stars. All creation is life, movement, work.”

Dr. Maria Montessori

Bringing it Home

How do you use the word “work” with your child? 
Is work something “forced” upon a child?  Or is it something they are joyfully invited into?  In the Montessori classroom, we always invite children to a work.  We keep our tone light, pleasant and inviting, our facial expressions pleasant, while also permitting children the opportunity to decline.  We want them to know that learning and working is a joyful experience.


  • I need you to work on your homework or you don’t get a cookie
  • If you don’t work on cleaning your room, you don’t get to watch TV
  • Too bad you don’t want to clean up, but get over it, cleaning up is part of life.


  • Would you like to work with me on getting dinner ready
  • Would you like to work with watercolors?
  • It’s time to work on getting you room cleaned up! Won’t it feel so good when it is clean? You won’t trip over your clothes and your toys will be safely put away, so they won’t get broken.
  • I’ll sit next to you while you work on your homework. Isn’t it so fun to learn about numbers?  Numbers help us tell time and how to measure the ingredients for cookies.  They help us to learn about seasons and to know when Christmas is coming.  They help us build strong and safe houses and bridges, and fun rides like roller coasters and carousels!  Doctors and scientists use them to create medicines to keep us healthy!
child writing on desk
How do you talk about your work? What words and tone of voice do you use when talking about your work around your child?  While frustration on the job is normal, what is normalized in our homes becomes the expectation a child has toward their future. Do we want our children to associate work with frustration and drudgery? Or, with fulfillment and reward?  Do we want our children to seek career paths that align with that expectation?

What can you say to your child about your work?

  • Mommy and Daddy work so that we can take care of our family.
  • In our jobs, we get to help people by __________________!
  • I really like _______________ about my job!

Using the word “work” to talk about school.

Here are some questions you can ask your child at the end of their day at Sonnet Montessori!

  • What work did you enjoy doing today?
  • Was there a work that was challenging for you?
  • Did you work with a friend today?
  • Did your teacher share a work with you today?

“Work has existed in the nature of man as an instinct even from birth itself….”

Dr. Maria Montessori


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