The underlying theme of all Montessori work and projects is respect. Learning about mathmatics, reading, writing, geography, science and practical life is all secondary to learning respect, and the reason I say this is that being the most educated individual on the planet avails you nothing if you can’t interact with your fellow human beings and your environment. No one will hire a smart guy who can’t follow directions without arguing. There are several things you can do to encourage respecting others, but one of the things that many other teaching philosophies don’t stress is respecting the materials. In Montessori, this means handling the works properly.
The First thing to teach your preschoolers is how to set up their work spaces. You should have place mats for table works and small rugs for floor works. The first step is getting a placemat or a rug and spreading it out. This defines the work space. It means that the work belongs in that space and nowhere else. I’m emphasizing that because you want to avoid the consequences that result in having a messy room with works spread out everywhere on the floor or all over tables intermixing with each other. Preschoolers want a clean environment, but you have to teach them how to compartmentalize, and how NOT to multi-task. The works belong on the mats or put away.
The second step is showing them how to carry the work from the shelf where it lives to the work area they have prepared. If a work has a tray, they set it up on the tray from the shelf and carry the tray with both hands to the mat. If the work has no tray, the child should carry each piece of the work individually from the shelf where the work lives to the mat with both hands. It doesn’t matter that the smallest part of the work can be carried with two fingers: the child holds it carefully with two hands. The child should be walking. There is never any reason to run in a Montessori classroom. We do that in a gym setup, romper-room or outside.
The Third step is demonstrating the work. There is a prescribed way that each work should be demonstrated, and before a child works with a material, he should be shown the demonstration, but after that, the child is free to explore the work within the defined work space and learn whatever he can from it.
The Fourth step is putting the work away. The child should put away his work so it’s ready for the next child to use. This means putting each piece back on the shelf in an organized and methodical manner. With works that have a tray, every piece should be put on the tray and carried back to the shelf from which the work was originally taken. If there is no tray, each piece of the work should be carried with two hands back to the shelf where the work lives. It doesn’t matter if the piece is small enough to be carried with two fingers: the child needs to carry each piece one at a time with two hands.
There are always children who do not respect the materials. If a child cannot respect the works, she should be kept from working until she’s ready to respect them. Set up a rug in the corner so she can see how she should be behaving during work time and how to work from the other children. If she’s not ready to carry a work piece by piece with two hands, help her hands carry them with yours until she’s willing to do it herself. When she does it right, clap and tell her how happy you are that she’s ready to work now. The works are not the children’s to play with; they are the classroom’s for the children to work with.
Maintaining the proper atmosphere during work-time can help kids stay on track with their work habits too. Try playing soft and calming music and encourage the children to use a whisper-voice if they need to communicate so they don’t disturb the other children’s work. Remind them to walk and use two hands if they need reminding. If they’re getting loud and wiggly, you can take them to do some activities to get the wiggles out. If they’re getting rambunctious, you can practice sitting silently all together with crossed legs in a circle until they’re ready to work again.