If I were to go down to the seashore and were to come upon a man filling a wheelbarrow with sand, and a small boy filling a toy wheelbarrow with sand, I could then compare the work of the child and the work of the adult. I would offer to help the man. He would hand me his shovel and sit down, thinking me a bit crazy. If I were to offer to help the boy, the chances are very high that he would not allow it, but would defend himself against my help vociferously. Furthermore, when the boy finished filling the wheelbarrow, he very probably would dump it out and refill it any number of times, whereas the man would never in the world do such a thing.

Adults do not fritter away their energies in this fashion. We try for economy of action, we admire the fast worker, we work to finish the job. The child is in no hurry to finish, but dallies away with no regard to time schedules which adults find necessary. Children will hold you up when dinner is ready, trying to put on their shoes over and over again. An adult sweeps the floor in order to get rid of the dirt. I once asked my pupils if they were allowed to sweep at home. An eager boy answered with delight, “Oh yes, my mother let me sweep and I found such a lot of dirt!

This sort of thing is not frittering or “playing” at all. It is practicing, it is experimenting. Much intelligence is brought to bear in finding the qualities of sand, how fast it flows, how big are the grains, what forms it takes in the wheelbarrow. Water is even more interesting. Since water makes up most of our bodies and covers most of the earth, it is incumbent upon us to know its properties as soon as we can. We have a working knowledge of physics before we ever go to high school.

Work is defined as activity with a purpose, as opposed to play which is activity without a purpose. Play has its place, is enjoyable, but cannot begin to give the satisfactions of work. The work we find unpleasant is work that we have not chosen to do, activity that is forced upon us. We find repetitive activity terribly boring, but the scientist who makes repeated experiments all day long does not fine it unpleasant at all. The artist who paints intricate draperies works enthusiastically.

All children like to handle water, “water-play” adults call it as they fill the bathtub and give them toy ducks to play with. However, the children derive much more pleasure when there is a purpose, such as washing their hands. Washing hands is an activity they have observed many times, it has a purpose. They will wash their hands over and over just for the joy of the activity, the joy of organizing a sequence of actions. The mind is then involved in all the hand motions. They do not stop when the hands are clean as would an adult.

Such an activity gives satisfaction, even great joy because the mind is directing the activity, and the small person gains a little more control of himself or herself.

When we work we interact with the environment. The adult uses inner energies, ideas, imagination, effort, to change the environment, to make it more useful, more orderly, more beautiful. The child, on the other hand, uses the environment to change himself, to perfect body movements, to find out how things fit together, to try things out, to learn all the things they will later take for granted.

Adults get up in the morning and relax a bit before starting to work. Children have no time to waste, so they have at it every waking moment. When they take time out they are watching carefully some activity that they will soon feel up to trying. Adults tire after working, children seem refreshed by it. They only collapse after many hours of activity. Adults hurry so that they may be finished. We map out our day with allotted tasks. Children seem to live in an everlasting present. They rejoice in the action itself, even when it is repeated over and over.

Adults are able to repeatedly perform routine tasks which need to be done. Children hate this sort of thing. They are happy to help with the housework but rebel against washing the dishes every day. As soon as they are good at a task they want to go on to bigger and better things.

Adults have something of this attitude when they take golf lessons. They go to the driving range and hit ball after ball, checking on every motion of the body. They watch the pros and do it again and again. There is no external aim here as is usual in adult work, but the inner aim of improving one’s prowess.

Adults like the idea of division of labor, for the child this is impossible. You cannot learn to pour water, to swim or make friends by letting someone else help. If you let this happen you surrender something of real value.

Children start and stop work at times inscrutable to adults. They can stare at a fluff of dust for long periods. They sometimes seem to go from one thing to another capriciously. Sometimes it is easy to distract them, at other times they cling to the activity tenaciously. Adults have a terrible time with this and wish they would hurry up and become “mature” like them.

Children are just as dense as adults. They actually think that adults love to vacuum floors and wash dishes. Adults seem to be privileged characters in that they are allowed to do any of these things whenever they wish. They cannot imagine anyone getting tired from such activity.

The aim of the child is to build an adult. The child does not realize this fully so can only follow instincts, instincts that tell him to copy everything he sees and hears, to find out everything, see how everything is done and adapt himself to it all. By means of this he learns to speak, to walk, run, climb, hold a spoon, a pencil. Sitting still is painful, so strong are the urges. It all seems to happen spontaneously but requires much, much work. To the adult it seems like play. Work, after all, is supposed to be unpleasant, isn’t it? Every adult owes the richness of life to the work of the child of long ago, work that you can’t even remember doing.

When children complain about washing the dishes it is usually because they already know how, are sure of themselves about it, and want to go on   to something new. They want to take part in everything. The adults need to understand this.

The idea of work for us is something unpleasant, burdensome, tiring, a necessary task to be finished as soon as possible, necessary for survival. We have a work ethic, we don’t like lazy people who go on welfare, yet those who are financially independent usually do not work. They are considered fortunate. Yet there are adults who love to work, who are never so happy as when they are busy organizing, ordering, building, planning. They don’t like interference either.

It is a fortunate child who is allowed to work, to work at tasks he chooses, tasks which help him adapt to the home in which he lives. Fortunate is the child whose work is appreciated by the adults around him.   Fortunate is the child who is helped just enough and not too much, who is allowed to fail and try again. The more failures the greater the glow of success.

Northwest Montessori School was founded in 1965 by Marietta Rawson, who began her career in education as a public school teacher. After attending a lecture on the Montessori method of individualized education, Marietta was so inspired that she traveled to Italy to take Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) training. Upon her return, Marietta started the first Montessori school in Seattle.

Today Northwest Montessori remains one of a select few AMI-recognized schools in the Seattle area.