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Why Montessori Activities are Called Work

One of the more off-putting Montessori terms to those unfamiliar with Montessori is the word “work”. When a child is engaged in an activity, we say not to interrupt the child's work, instead of using the words “activity” or “play”. There is some confusion on why Montessori activities are called work.

When we think about work, we may think of punching a time clock and putting in several continuous hours of unpleasant labor. The fact is most people don't enjoy their work.

play is the work of the child Maria Montessori

The word “work” has an unpleasant connotation for most people. Those fortunate enough to love their jobs often use the phrase, “If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life.”

To most adults, work is a negative word.

Since we (adults) often think of work as a tiresome chore, using the word in reference to children can give images of a stolen childhood, devoid of fun and imagination. Using the word “work” when referring to young children can give the impression that academics are being pushed too early.

This is not the case at all, though. In fact, work vs play is *almost* a simple matter of semantics.

With the recent push for play-based learning over traditional preschool learning activities, you may be wondering where “work” fits into this.

Is there a reason why Montessori activities are called work? Why not just say “play”?

Montessori child working

Why Montessori activities are called work

Maria Montessori observed that children delighted in activities of daily life more so than in fantasy play or with toys. Along with the clear delight, she noticed an intense focus from the children during these activities, along with beaming satisfaction upon completion.

This is why you see Montessori environments set up so meticulously, with a child's absorbent sensibilities in mind.

This was the birth of the term “work” in relation to children performing enjoyable tasks, in a well-prepared environment.

Play is defined as, “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose“. Work is defined as, “to perform or carry through a task requiring sustained effort“.

In childhood, the Montessori term “work” is where the traditional definitions for work and play meet.

Why are Montessori Activities Called Work?

Work in Montessori:

  • Activities are chosen by the child
  • Not forced
  • Does not feel like a chore (It's fun!)
  • Serves a developmental purpose
  • Can be repeated as the child feels necessary
  • Process based
  • In harmony with the rest of the environment (immediate and otherwise)
  • Materials are self correcting, allowing the child to learn without assistance
  • Material have isolated properties

In Montessori, a child's efforts are not minimized or written off as futile. The word “work” is a respectful way of referring to the natural inclination to explore and learn, or as most people refer to it; play.

Purposeful play.

Children have fun engaging in Practical Life and other prepared activities while developing skills for future math, handwriting, and more.

While many Montessori parents have work areas prepared for their children, open-ended, independent play such as with wooden toys or other loose parts is often encouraged. Sensory activities and other messy play is also encouraged in Montessori homes.

Sounds fun to me!

Think again about those who say that if you enjoy your job, it doesn't feel like work. This is what a child engrossed in their work is experiencing; pleasure, growth, satisfaction, and pride, without the toil and torment we envision when the word “work” comes to mind.

Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child“. In Montessori, we respect this as a fact and that is why Montessori activities are called “work”.

Our children take it seriously and so do we.

Do you use the word “work” when referring to an activity your child is engaged in? When your child is busy with something, do you think of what they are doing as being “work”?

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Tamara Kidd

Friday 5th of February 2021

Wonderful explanation fellow Montessorian. I'll be sharing this via my Facebook page, thank you.


Thursday 4th of February 2021

This is a great explanation of what Montessori entails and I really wish that more daycare centers incorporated this style of learning! Interestingly enough, many military installation childcare centers do! It’s wonderful! It teaches your child to be independent and to use critical thinking skills!

Donna Garrison

Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

My daughter went to a Montessori preschool and now is in a primary Montessori class. I always did wonder why they used the term work, as there does seem to be a negative association with the word outside the Montessori realm. Thanks for the great explanation.

Kristen M Wilson

Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

Wonderful explanation! It's awesome to see our children so focused on their work and mastering skills that they can use in other areas of life.


Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

Great post! I’m slowly trying to do more Montessori type activities with my daughter. I’ve noticed that the activities I have tried she really loves and stays engaged longer.