One of the first things I explain to parents who are curious about Montessori education is the use of the three-hour work cycle. This often comes up early in conversation because I feel that it is representative of the child-led freedom within boundaries that defines the method. That, and the fact that there is a bit of shock value that draws them in, even if they are incredulous at first! Read more about the idea behind the three-hour work cycle below.
“Work chosen by the children, and carried out without interference, has its own laws. It has a beginning and ending like a day, and it must be allowed to come full circle.” – E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work
The main purpose of the three-hour work cycle is to provide the time necessary for a child to become fully immersed in his work. The concentration and focus required for full immersion takes time! For three hours, a child can choose a work, focus on that work, repeat the work many times, and become fully engaged in the process before moving on to the next work on his own terms, in his own time, and when he is completely ready and satisfied.
This is not to say that a child will choose just one work within that cycle; on the contrary! A work cycle often consists of several works chosen and completed within that window of time. Also, there may be plenty of time at the beginning of a work cycle in which a child wanders around trying to decide what work to choose. Other children come into the classroom in the morning immediately ready to work, with a specific work in mind (on more than one occasion, one of my boys has told me his morning work plan on the way to school, eager to get there early to make sure the work is available!).
The goals of the three-hour work cycle are to provide a child with enough time to deeply engage in his work, to reach a level of deep concentration, to feel excited about the work he has chosen and to feel a great sense of satisfaction at being able to complete the work. When a child is allowed a three-hour work cycle, there is a powerful feeling of success and confidence that radiates from within the child. Long-term, the ability to choose a series of works from which the child derives success, he will then feel comfortable and confident enough to choose a task that is much more challenging; this is where true learning occurs. What a clever gift!