Monday, September 19, 2011

Montessori and Workboxing – How We Mix the Two

Montessori and Workboxes?  They don’t seem to go together very well, do they?

Montessori, a method begun many years ago by Maria Montessori, is all about following the child.  While Workboxing is a modern-day system created by homeschooler Sue Patrick in order to help organize a homeschooling day, offering parents structure and present curriculum in a way the helps children learn more independently.  While both seek to develop independence in children, one is, by nature, child-led while the other, by design, is parent-led.  Both appeal to me for different reasons.  So, this year I have decided to reconcile the two in a way that works for my family.

In Theory

In my understanding, a Montessori parent/educator not only models active, curious learning for children, but respects and delights in a child’s growth through fulfilling four key roles:

  • Observer:  A Montessori teacher observes children carefully, noting what motivates each one individually.  She notes how a child interacts with others, works within his or her environment and approaches activities.  She reflects on her observations in order to discern individual children’s learning styles and to cultivate each child’s personal interests and abilities.
  • Facilitator:  A Montessori teacher is responsible for nurturing self-discipline, motivation, and confidence in children while assisting them in learning how to succeed in the world around them.  As such, a Montessori teacher not only assists children in learning how to communicate with other children and adults alike, but also guides them toward activities and experiences that include practical learning materials, sensory investigation and continual opportunities for independent growth and learning.  Once the educator has modeled an activity to a child, she must allow that child autonomy in investigating it.  That means, she must allow the child to make and learn from errors, intervening only if the child asks for help or if safety issues become a concern.
  • Record Keeper:  A Montessori teaches must not only keep track of observations, but also record what activities engage a child and which might further a child’s development.  Thus, a Montessori teacher employs a variety of methods to record a child’s progress.  These might include check lists, flow charts, anecdotal narratives and objective notations.
  • Evaluator:  A Montessori teacher reflects on observations and records and evaluates patterns of behavior, growth and development within children.  She determines if a child has mastered a particular skill or element of knowledge and determines whether a child’s level of proficiency indicates a need for variations of a particular lesson or activity or if the child is ready to advance to something new.  She also considers a child’s strengths and interests in order to ascertain how to best nurture a child as a whole person, considering not only the academic progress of a child, but their emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

So, what does this have to do with Workboxes? 

After much thought, I have decided that utilizing workboxes as a part of our learning environment, I can better fulfill my role as a Montessori-inspired teacher.


  • As a home educator, I am admittedly fall short in my role as Observer at times.  Housework, business tasks, meal making, phone calls and other things vie for my attention and, sometimes, I opt to use moments when my children are happily engaged in learning to sneak away to attend to these things instead of to the important task of observing my children.  By utilizing Workboxes, I afford myself a safety net.  My children’s Workboxes act as concrete way for me to note which activities they are interested in, motivated to do and progressing forward with with even when I am out of the room.
  • As Facilitator I am charged with assisting my children in developing self-discipline, confidence and independence while maintaining motivation.  Because we do not spend time daily in our Montessori space, adding Workboxes to the children’s choices of activities on the days that we do helps me meet my responsibilities.  My children know they must do the activity in one workbox before moving onto the next.  Thus, they practice self-discipline and benefit from motivation; they concentrate on getting through a task that may not appeal to them as strongly as another in order to get to that other one they really want to do.  While doing so, they develop confidence and independence.  The activities I place within their workboxes are not ones that require me to present them.  They are geared to allow them full autonomy and, through completing them, they gain self-confidence. 
  • Workboxes provide me with a double dose of Record Keeping and Evaluation.  Most of the activities I put in the Workboxes are ones the children can complete and proudly show me.  So, I am able to track their work this way in addition to simply observing their work with Montessori Shelf activities and their interactions with me and each other.  Also, once I have presented an activity on a Montessori shelf, if I feel the children need additional repetition of it, but are not motivated to select it, I can “recycle” it into a Workbox. 

In Practice

We have 23 Montessori Shelf cubbies in our classroom.  I have unofficially assigned each of these to a particular “subject”.  (Unofficially in that the children have not been told that “This is our Language-Reading cubby. This is our Math one. This is our Sensorial one…” and so on.  Rather, I try to simply put a specific type of activity in a specific cubby.  The children are free to use any of these activities at their own pace as they wish.  The only guidelines are that:

  1. If an activity is one they have never used before, they must ask me to present it to them first.
  2. They can only do one activity at a time and must return an activity to its proper shelf cubby before moving onto another one.
  3. If they want to explore an activity someone else is using, they may ask to do it together and, depending on what the other person says, may join in, sit and observe until the other person is finished or go onto a different activity until the activity is available.

My pre-K and K children each have five Workboxes.  Typically, I put a Reading, Writing, Faith or Math activity in three of these, something that feeds their sensory diet in another and something that I really think they will be eager to do in the last.  Guidelines for using the Workboxes are:

  1. A child may open any of the Workboxes to peek at what is inside, but may only do them in order, top to bottom. 
  2. A child must complete a Workbox activity once it is selected, but may move back and forth between Montessori Shelves and Workboxes at will.

How It Is Working So Far?

My kindergarten son, who needs structure and will also focus indefinitely on something of high interest to him, does not always choose materials from our Montessori Shelves to work from and rarely repeats an activity once he has completed it.  Novelty seems to have become as much a motivator for him as are things related to whatever his current interest is (dinosaurs and elephants this week).  Coloring, drawing, creating and building are preferred activities for him, too.   

Thus, Workboxes add a dimension to our work periods that works for us.  They speak to my son’s need for order, his desire for novelty and his penchant for doing what he wants (not necessarily what others want.)  In fact, he usually motivates to do whatever is in his upper boxes (even if not completely novel or in sync with his interests) in order to get to whatever I have put in his bottom box.  And, better yet, he does so with attention and little to no display of opposition.  (He can be very rigid and oppositional.)

Granted, at this point, I put things in his Workboxes that I know will hold some appeal to him and I know that the boxes themselves are still a novelty for him.  So, time will tell if the system keeps working for him.

My pre-K daughter, who is usually a go with the flow sort of girl, tends to do activities from our Montessori Shelves over ones in her Workboxes.  And, she tends to repeat activities that interest her.  (Playdough, Knobless Cylinders and Cutting and Pasting activities of late.)  She sometimes does the activities in her Workboxes, but often only the first one or two.  So, I find I have to move an activity up over consecutive work periods if I really want her to do it. 


My toddler does not have Workboxes yet because, frankly, there is no space for them in our classroom and he does not really need them anyway.  Instead, he remains content with activities geared to him in our bottom four Montessori Shelf cubbies.  He also proves his developmental stage by being a typical toddler, reaching up to disassemble trays meant for his older siblings.  When this happens, I usually take him to the hallway with one or more of his activities, putting a baby gate on our classroom door.  This is not ideal, but it is what works for us.  And, we don't ostracize the poor babe completely.  Rather, his siblings and I take turns being with him out there or helping keep him engaged back in the room with us. 

Do Montessori and Workboxes really work together?

In our home, yes, they do!  But, Montessori purists may beg to differ. 

Even tweaked the way I have been using Workboxes, they do not follow the Spirit of Montessori to the letter.  For, yes, they may be part of our prepared environment, and, yes, I have adapted them to support my roles as a Montessori-inspired parent/educator.  But, no, they do not allow the child as much choice and autonomy as simply putting work choices out on shelves do and, admittedly, they inherently include a bit of manipulation, for lack of a nicer term.

That said, we are eclectic here.  Montessori is a core inspiration for us, but we happily weave in other methods, philosophies and systems that appeal to us and Workboxing certainly does! 



This post is being shared at Montessori Monday hosted by One Hook Wonder and Living Montessori Now.

7 comments:

Honey said...

See, the problem with Montessori is that too many forget the foundation is following the child. I love what you have done with your new setup. It's wonderful!

Then again...what do I know as I mix Montessori AND Waldorf! ;) So perhaps my opinion is just a wee bit biased!; ;)

~Honey

Martianne said...

Honey,

You made me giggle. I love how eclectic we all are to fit our kids, ourselves and our personal situations.

The girl who painted trees said...

I tried to incorporate workboxes with Montessori in the Spring, but it really did NOT work for us. First, my daughter is too used to the independence of choosing from the shelves. Second, the boxes were not clear and it bothered her not to see what was inside. Now we are using what her teacher at her Montessori preschool used to say to the second and third year students, "Choose from Math, Language Cultural, then when those are done choose from whatever you like." It still gives them choice, but with a bit more guidance.
I think in a home setting, eclectic is necessary.
I do think we will try workboxes again at some point, but for now our system is working for us:) I'm glad to see I am not the only one who mixes things together. :) And I am glad it is working for you.

Martianne said...

The Girl Who Painted trees - Your idea for letting the child have specific choices in what to select first and then free choice is a good one. Thank you for sharing.

Kylie said...

This is a very well-written post. Thanks for sharing! Also, glad laundry is going well at your house :)

Deb Chitwood said...

I love how you've found a way to use Montessori and Workboxes in a way that works for your family, Martianne! Julie's suggestion to "Choose from Math, Language Cultural, then when those are done choose from whatever you like" is great, too.

In a homeschool, we're already adapting from a Montessori classroom filled with students, and I think it's important to find what works for each individual family. I love that you're observing each of your children's learning styles and needs and finding a solution that works well for you!

I'm so glad you link up with Montessori Monday. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/LivingMontessoriNow

Amy Warrick said...

Thank you so much!!!! We have been Montessori inspired for some time, but I really feel the need to move to a work box style because of space in our new home AND because I sense the need for the structure that they bring. I am so encouraged by this! Definitely confirmation of what I need to do!

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