Work and play.
Kind of sounds like the title of this blog, now doesn't it?
The idea of a child working can be a bit confusing for some people and can even evoke strong negative feelings. What work does a child have to do? Isn't play a child's work? During his Montessori training, Tim told me stories of children being corrected for doing their work incorrectly when they used the pink tower or brown stair as building blocks instead of completing them as they were designed. Before I started teaching Montessori at home and studying more, I thought this was rediculous!
Over time, I have come to be less sure. While building and creating are certainly constructive, they may not help the child reach their learning goals. This is where a common misunderstanding of Montessori comes in to the equation. Even at the 3-6 level, the teacher is reponsible for ensuring a balanced exposure to concepts through the materials. It is not a free for all of unstructred time. If children are using a material for something other than what it is designed, they may be prevented from spending their time in other areas.
How do I define the difference between work and play? Well, right now my children are playing. Aidan is in his room listening to a book on CD while building with legos. Caleb is driving his matchbox cars on the windowsill. Kylee is sitting next to me, taking apart and putting together a chain of Zoobs (I think that's what they are called). They are all benefitting from their play time, but the goal of the playtime is not for them to gain a specific skill.
Later in the afternoon when we have our designated school time, or this morning when we did our chores, I would call their activities work. The difference is that we are doing a specific activity with a specific purpose in a specific way. During school time, they may select their own activities (as in playtime) and what they are doing may look similar to their play activities (especially for K & C), but the difference is that there is an end goal in mind.
I don't do cutesy extensions with my children and I don't encourage creativity with the materials. When I see a material being misused I will first ask myself if they are using the material in a way that still meets the indirect or direct aims of the material. If so, I will ask them about what they are doing, but let the use continue. If not, I will also ask them about what they are doing to make sure that I am understanding the situation correctly. If I still think the use is innappropriate, I will gently remind or guide them to either (a) the appropirate use of the material or (b) a different material that may help meet the goal they are working on with the improper material. I don't discount that they may in fact be using the material productively and I want to give them the opportunity to continue their work if that is the case. I don't, however, let work continue in a way that is not appropriate to the situation.
Think of all of the companies who have blocked access to blogger, facebook, twitter, and other websites from their employee computers. The employer (teacher/parent) is restricting the use of the computer (material) to ways that appropriate to the employee's (student's) work. When I was subbing over a long period in a 3-6 classroom, I had to take all of the scissors out of the classroom after a flurry of homemade snowflakes (and their subsequent paper scraps) began to take over the room. Children were still allowed access to scissors, but they had to request them from myself or the assistant so that we could monitor the use. No one was told no, provided they had an appropriate use for them. Change the behavior by changing the environment- another key Montessori idea.
One challange of the homeschool environment is that children have access to materials they would not normally. This can be hard for an older child who has access to the *fun* sensorial materials. Just because they CAN complete the extensions with the knobless cylinders, doesn't mean that they should be spending their work time doing so! Maybe it seems harmless, and during playtime I would agree that it is. During worktime, however, I would liken it to a toddler drinking out of a bottle. Just because they CAN, doesn't mean that they should. Maybe it's harmless from time to time, but it certainly is interfering with the child's ability to grow and learn in ways that are age appropriate.
Work and play are equally important at our house and drawing the line between the two helps ensure that balance is maintained. I would no more want my child to spend all day completely unstructured and undisciplined than I would want my child to spend all day under the watchful eye of instruction.
Work develops discipline, focus, and a good work ethic. Work helps us reach our goals academically and as a family. Play develops creativity and allows time for personal interests. Both work and play promote learning. Do the lines blur, and even cross, at times? Absolutely.
Which only makes it more important to differentiate between the two.