Three Hour Work Cycle

The Work Cycle – Time Environment

One of the interesting aspects of Montessori education is that Dr. Maria Montessori set up an environment for children in which they revealed characteristics which did not appear under other circumstances. One of these characteristics is the ability to work for long periods of time in unbroken time. The following illustration of a work cycle shows a “primitive curve of ordered work” during a class session that lasts three hours.

The straight line, which represents the three hours, is a base line of no activity. The line above illustrates the length and depth of involvement in constructive activity. The numbered comments below correspond to the numbers in the illustration.

  1. Many children will enter the class and choose something relatively simple and stay with it a short time, almost as if they are re-establishing feelings of competence.
  2. Their next activity is generally more difficult and they stay with it a little longer.
  3. This is followed by “false fatigue”, a time when many children have put their work away and have not as yet selected another activity.  (This is the time when adults often take a coffee break.)
  4. If the teacher allows the children to take the time they need to experience the restlessness of the false fatigue, they will soon settle into their most difficult work choice of the cycle and stay with it the longest period of time. During this time their concentration is the deepest and they make the greatest strides in the development of skills and in the acquisition of knowledge.

Dr. Montessori called this the ‘Great work period’.

  1. As the cycle nears its completion, the children put away their work and they appear to be refreshed and relaxed as they talk with one another.

When the time available is less than three hours, the great work period does not occur and the work cycle does not complete itself. To protect themselves from the frustration of having their great work period interrupted, the children either do not choose any work after the false fatigue or they choose something that involves only superficial involvement.


Teachers, who are faced with a time frame that does not allow for a full work cycle in the preschool, generally respond by shortening the children’s work time to the approximate length of time that occurs before false fatigue. This is achieved by having the children begin and end the class session with long group times. Dr. Montessori believed that children of this age learn best through individual work that involves sensorial manipulation of objects; therefore, these large group times do not follow true Montessori principles. In, addition children who have difficulty sitting still, may begin to feel like failures because they cannot manage large group times. Children unable to finish their work cycle may exhibit their frustration by showing unwillingness or a disappointment in having to put their work away.