Busy Work vs. Meaningful Work


The first week of working at home with my children could be summed up as “survival mode.” Knowing what I value about Montessori learning, I went into the second week inspired to shift from reactive mode to responsive mode. How can I take control of this situation and restore a sense of calm for my family? Working to become a more prepared parent is not rooted in trying to achieve more than is possible, but it is rooted in optimism that – with a ton of grace – we can redirect what energy we do have to make the most of this situation.  

In shifting my energy towards this goal of preparedness, I found myself in the middle of two parental pressure traps (which have long been around for us parents of toddlers and preschoolers). On the one hand, having our young children “quarantined” at home full-time is an opportunity to slow down, be present, and give our children the beneficial breathing room to just play. On the other hand, there is a clear yearning for enforcing structure and supporting acquisition of knowledge in these foundational academic years. Then I remembered, this is exactly why I love Montessori.  

Academics are neither forced nor rushed; my children freely pursue their interests; but their desire to learn is not relegated to a world of pretend, and they are trusted to engage in meaningful work. There is no need to divisively choose between unstructured and structured, because children have a need for both – and Montessori solved for this a century ago on the basis that our children are capable. They are capable in the most holistic sense. They are capable thinkers, doers, creators, contributors, leaders, and learners.  

The days that I am prepared, treat them as capable, and guide them towards meaningful work are the days when we begin to replenish our cups. The days that I am not prepared, understate their capabilities, and shield them from meaningful work in place of “busy work” – or total abandon to any guidance – are the days that end up draining our cups.  

What is meaningful work? It’s work that gives our children a sense of purpose, allows them to more deeply pursue their interests, and directly answers their current developmental needs – whether they are academic or not. For my toddler, meaningful work looks more like mastering movement. For my preschooler, that looks like exploring a booming interest in mathematical concepts.  

I don't determine what is meaningful to them; they do, and I work daily to understand this through my own observations and intentional engagement. Our children are constantly sending signals to us that can cue us into the things that are meaningful to them. Even when my son made an enormous mess while I was in another room the other day, that was a mess that showed me an un-met need. The dozens of house items he dunked in a tub of water were a desire to analyze which items sink and which items float.  

Busy work is anything I toss at them in hopes of entertaining them without attempting to connect it to their current interests or developmental needs. It’s a well-meaning quick guess. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these “trial and error” moments, it proves worth the extra prep to distinguish their interests from my assumptions. When their inner-most needs are met, I can better meet my needs.  

Montessori at home and the concept of being a prepared parent is not about “doing it all.” It’s about finding our middle ground.  

Guidepost Montessori provides authentic, child-centered education for children ages 0 to 12. With over 80 campuses across the US and Asia, and at-home and virtual learning programs serving more than 5,000 families worldwide, Guidepost is the world’s largest Montessori network.

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