A special part of the Montessori classroom, which is different from traditional classrooms, is that children concentrate deeply and for long periods of time on their work, whether a teacher is watching over them or not.
Even Dr. Montessori was surprised by this when she first observed a 3 year old student engrossed in her work with the wooden cylinders in the first Casa dei Bambini in San Lorenzo, 1917. She said, “the expression on the child’s face was one of such concentrated attention that is seemed to me an extraordinary manifestation”. (The Advanced Montessori Method, 1965) This level of concentration later appeared in another child and another until every child in the Casa was able to reach a state of peaceful focus through their work. Thus concentration became a core principle of the time-tested Montessori method.
Montessori supports concentration in 3 ways:
- by offering a prepared environment (a space that facilitates the child’s ability to use engage with it)
- by preparing interesting materials with varying levels of difficulty (practical activities and materials which engage the senses)
- by removing obstacles that might disrupt or distract the children.
To prepare an environment which supports the child’s power of concentration, the parent becomes a protector of their attention and an observer of their work. The adult must be able to differentiate between purposeful play, and chaotic play.
Maria Montessori called the child’s purposeful play with materials “the child’s work” because when they play, children can be deeply involved in the activity; their attention is clear and focused; and they are persistently mastering a new skill. “Used in this way,” Maria Montessori says, “ the material reveals itself as a key which puts the child in communication with himself and opens his mind to expression and activity.” (The Discovery of the Child, p. 210)
The way young children think
Children from 0-3 have a special kind of learning style – an “inner teacher ” which attracts them to the experiences and materials which will teach them what they need to learn in the moment. Toddlers also have the tendency to ignore activities which are too simple or too challenging for them.
This tendency can be observed even in newborn babies – when they are interested in something, they will focus on it for long periods of time and when they become bored, they will look away and their period of concentration will have finished.
Research in developmental psychology has shown that young children, when free to choose among different materials, will choose materials that optimise their development and that are just above their currently level of competence. (Lillard, p. 117)
In my classroom, the materials on the shelves are arranged from easiest to hardest, from left to right. When parents are in the class, they can see clearly that the youngest children in the group choose more often activities on the left, which are perfect for their stage of development and the older children usually choose to work with the most complicated materials on the left side of the shelf, which offer them the right amount of challenge for their stage of development.
It is because of these observations that we know we can trust the child to make good decisions and know that when we observe them in an intense state of concentration that their activity is crucial to their development and self-mastery. For this reason, we do not interrupt the child unless it is a matter of safety or consideration for others.
Supporting concentration in babies
When a newborn is concentrating on something, don’t disturb them until they are finished. You can observe them for signs:
– When they are concentrated, they will focus their eyes on something and appear to be in a trance with it.
– When they are not concentrated they will move, maybe fuss and make noise that they are done and would like to be moved or have another need that needs to be met.
freedom of movement
Babies are fascinated with using their senses to understand the world around them better. They are also very focused on learning to slither, crawl, stand, and walk. Offering sensorial activities and open space where they can move freely is the best thing you can do to support their concentration.
Allowing the possibility of movement through an entire room opens up a whole world of interest an opportunities for the child to thoughtfully choose the activities which are necessary for their development.
Materials for supporting concentration at home
1. Levels of difficulty
The optimal materials for supporting concentration in toddlers are ones that are just above their current level of abilities, but not so challenging that they will not have success. When toddlers are under-challenged they can become deviant so it’s important that their environment constantly offer them new levels of difficulty as they grow.
For example, when you buy or prepare an activity for your child at home, think – “How will this grow with my child?” Is it something you can simplify and add on to as they grow?
The MontiKids Mailbox, which I have in my classroom, is a great example because it teaches toddlers about early geometric concepts and new vocabulary like “triangular prism!”; and it comes with 3 geometric solids and 5 lids that progress in complexity.
2. Practical life activities
Activities in practical life support toddlers’ development of concentration more than any other Montessori materials because they fix their attention on a repetitive movement or process. The purpose of this process is focused on a goal to which the child can relate – a goal that corresponds to their need to care for the environment and engage in the activities they see adults doing around them.
Movement is the secret for holding the attention of the child.”maria Montessori, Creative Development in the Child I
A toddler might, for example, work very hard to clean a table and then start all over again, just for the pleasure of repeating and perfecting the skill of washing it. Although materials like table-washing have a practical purpose of getting the table clean, to the child it is much more. The child is getting to imitate an activity they see adults perform regularly and they are feeling the reward of engaging their full attention on a process they can understand and complete independently.
In Montessori we adapt all regular chores for the children so they can enjoy completing them successfully. For example, you might buy a sponge at the supermarket and cut it twice to make 3 small sponges which are the perfect size for tiny toddler hands.
Practical tips for supporting concentration
- Use a shelf On a shelf in the child’s play space, set up a shelf with only 6-10 activities for the child. Keep activities on the shelf which you see them repeating again and again. When they ignore an activity it may be too challenging or too simple and it’s time to change the level of difficulty by adding or removing a step or exchanging it for another material.
>>> See my blogpost on How to use a Montessori shelf at home for more shelf tips for 0-3 year olds <<<
- Have a defined work space where the child can bring their activity. For babies this is probably a carpet on the floor in front of the shelf; for toddlers, this is a low table and chair near the shelf. Make sure this workspace stays clean and ready to use so that the child is able to focus on completing the activity they chose completely and have success in the end.
- Provide many opportunities for practical life (cooking, cleaning, self care). More than anything else, toddlers love to concentrate on these activities.
- Avoid interrupting their state of concentration. Interrupting can take many forms, some as well-intentioned as giving a kiss or applauding them. Remind yourself to stay silent when they are focused on their work and give them the space they need to concentrate and learn.
- Invite them to repeat an activity after they have finished it once. Every time they finish something, you can say “let’s try this again” or “would you like to do this again?” or “you can do this by yourself now”. This gives them the chance to use the material by themselves and find concentration in the activity if it’s important for their stage of development.
- Less is more the more difficult it is for the child to find concentration, the simpler and quieter their environment should be so as to not distract or overstimulate them. The order of the space should be clear and consistent so the child can find security in the space and relax enough to find peace and focus.
Tips for when the child struggles to find concentration
- Observe without intervention how the child interacts with the space. What is distracting them or drawing their attention from place to place?
- Practical life for toddlers: entice them to get involved with some practical activity. Practical life activities are usually the first place a child who has trouble focusing will find concentration.
- Let them find their own solutions to their problems. Often with a child who has trouble concentrating, trying to help them will immediately cause them to abandon their activity and move on to something else. Their point of interest is often the difficulty itself, rather than the task.
- Lower the noise level in the space. When the space and the people around him are peaceful, the child will be more aware of themselves and their surroundings. It’s very easy for babies to become overstimulated and for toddlers to become overwhelmed.
- Don’t cause distractions: When they finally concentrate on something, say nothing and do nothing, so as to not distract their attention.
- Do your own purposeful work: Model concentration yourself by focusing completely on one thing at a time like reading a book, doing some handwork, preparing a meal.
Lillard, Angeline Stoll, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, 3rd Ed., Oxford University Press, 2017
Montessori, Maria. Creative Development in the Child 1. Kalakshetra Press, 1994
Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of the Child, Third Edition,1948
Montessori, Maria. The Advanced Montessori Method, 1965