Is It Still Work If It Is Not Freely Chosen?

As practitioners we need to protect the children’s need to make spontaneous choices and engage in activities which are meaningful to them and demonstrate their inner need, and which will contribute towards the construction of the human being they are going to be.

Isaacs, 2020

Revisiting the Integrating Montessori webinar about what we, as Montessorians, consider to be the work of the child has provoked many thoughts and reflections.  The first question asked explored what we understand by choice?  We prepare a beautiful environment to entice the child, we offer the Montessori materials to provide an optimum way of learning new concepts – but what about if a three year old arrives at nursery proclaiming “I need to climb trees!”

We usually consider the child’s choice to be a cognitive task; bringing our brain and hands together when selecting an activity. We have also witnessed choice being guided by preferred activities of beloved or admired friends where the social and emotional aspect play an important role in the decision-making process. In the Integrating Montessori discussion, Dr. Laura Flores-Shaw highlighted the importance of the sensori-motor urge, identified by Piaget (1972) as the first stage of the child’s development. We witness this urge when we observe babies engaging with treasure baskets, developed by Elinor Goldschmied more than 30 years ago.

Following a deep unconscious need

When observing babies engaging with the treasure basket, we witness what Montessori (2012) describes as the “Horme” – the inner urge – that drives the child towards a specific action or activity or behaviour.  The baby uses their hands to search for an object which feels just rights, which meets the unspoken need of the moment. The baby continues to search for the same object day after day and then, one day the same object is not picked and a new object is discovered.  It is examined in minutest detail, until the child comes to know it and fulfils the need to touch, taste, hold and explore it.  None of us knows when or how the child makes this decision – it happens – this is what Montessori (2017) describes as the child’s secret.

“A child does not know why he is interested in a particular object or movement at a particular moment – the important thing is that he is interested, and that it is natural for his mind to grow just as his body does, therefore what interests him at the moment is appropriate for his needs.”

Montessori, 2017

As Montessori teachers we recognise this need in the babies and toddlers and afford them the luxury of time and of our patience to engage with these objects spontaneously.  We are happy to talk about the child’s work – about the construction of the man or woman the child will become (Montessori 2012).

Do we afford the same luxury of time to the child who needs to climb the tree?

For me the “horme” continues to be as evident in activities of the older child as it witnessed in the baby’s actions.  In my example the urge of the child is to learn to climb trees – it is her work! She learns to navigate the branches, to develop muscles to support the body, to take the risk when not feeling 100% safe, to persevere and to find a way to the next branch.  All this can be achieved when the child is given the time and space to focus all her attention on the task. As adults we need to support these efforts and give help if and when asked for; only then can we witness and marvel at levels of deep concentration, determination and ultimate sense of achievement. We need to ask ourselves do we really see this as the child’s work?  Do we articulate it effectively to parents when they enquire about the child’s day?

To be able to witness this achievement adults need to be able to hear the urge in the child’s voice when asking to climb the tree, and find a way of facilitating it.  I have used this example because I am keen to reflect on the learning taking place at this particular time in our history.  At a time when so many under-fives have been given more opportunities to spend time outside, in their forest schools, in the nursery gardens or in local parks.  As practitioners we need to protect the children’s need to make spontaneous choices and engage in activities which are meaningful to them and demonstrate their inner need, and which will contribute towards the construction of the human being they are going to be.

I look forward to discussing this topic further as we come together engage in the first Challenging our Practice Webinar on Wednesday 15 July at 7pm.

Barbara Isaacs, 10/7/20


The International Centre for Therapeutic Residential Care (2009) Elinor Goldschmied : Pioneer of Treasure Baskets, Heuristic Play and the Key Person System, available from (date accessed, 10/7/2020)

Piaget, J (1972)  The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books

Montessori M. (2012) The 1946 London Lectures. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Montessori M. (2017) Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents: A Selection of Articles Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

One thought on “Is It Still Work If It Is Not Freely Chosen?

Leave a Reply to Susanne van Niekerk Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s