We have a lovely new card-making work in the Primary classroom. The children glue hearts - punched out from their paintings - to cards and then write a message or have a teacher write a message inside. This work is almost never on the shelf because the second it is returned, another child snatches it up. Some mornings, one child will make card after card throughout most of our three-hour work period.
You can imagine the frustration of the young children who have to wait while one child uses this material for hours. These are three, four, and five year olds, after all. They are in a stage of development where they are still highly focused on themselves: When is it my turn?! I want to make cards!
In a Montessori classroom, there is only one of each material, and a child can use a material for as long as they would like during the work period. This is by design. In this scattered, distracting world we live in, the classroom is designed to help each child develop their attention skills. When we see a child fully absorbed by the work they are doing, that child is learning at the highest level.
The child who has to choose another material to use because their preferred material is in use is learning too. They are learning to respect the work of others. They are learning to delay gratification. They are learning to prioritize their choices and go along with Plan B is Plan A is not an option.
Sharing is certainly an important skill for children to develop, but they aren’t quite developmentally ready for it in the Primary classroom (ages 3-6). An adult would have to stand over them to negotiate and supervise the sharing (How long is fair for the first child to have the material? Will the second child simply hover until the first child is done?). And if an adult has to oversee the whole sharing process, the child can’t be independent. It is a much simpler situation to have the children recognize that a work is just not available if it is not on the shelf.
A Montessori classroom empowers to children to own their time. They get to choose what they work on and for how long, but sometimes those choices bump up against the choices of the other children. The teachers can further empower the children to own their work: I am working on this now. When I’m finished I will put it back in order for another child to use. I can see another child is using that work, and I have the power to choose something else. I don’t need to get stuck in disappointment. That work will be available soon enough.
This process of balancing one’s own needs and desires with the needs and desires of others is something that some adults don’t even do well. We’re helping build a better world when we guide children in this process even from a young age.