Big Work Leads to Big Ideas
by Rachel Larson, Elementary Montessori Guide
Right away when you start working with children in those first elementary years who have so much energy and purpose within their small bodies, you realize that no room could ever contain them. Like animals in a cage they will burst forth when you swing open the gate — and so, we often leave “the gate” open for their big work and big ideas to flow!
The classroom where my energetic students spend their days is small, yet perfect for a starter group of a handful of six year olds. It works as a fitting environment for the first years of a new class to grow and explore the subjects of academia, while still providing some close, natural boundaries to help their bodies move appropriately through it, and direct their energy toward a purpose. Yet, even a large room full of many more shelves, tables, and books wouldn’t seem quite big enough to hold the elementary mind. The only thing big enough for children of this age is the universe — and even that still inspires questions to pursue.
Expanding out into the long hallway outside our room is an option for this age group to give them privacy for either personal space or dedicated large project work. Physically, they need to stretch their lanky limbs, unroll long timelines, lie on their stomachs and investigate pages in books, or sit on the floor with clipboards on their laps and small chowki tables next to them as they are collecting information. Mentally, they are ready to expand their thoughts and abstract ideas as far as their minds will take them, trying to understand the world beyond what they have already experienced. Adults guide that undertaking, introducing processes and tools of the work to establish boundaries, rather than leaving that job to the four walls of a classroom.
For this new class, the expansion of ideas that led to larger size work all started with a simple number line.
I had been giving lessons that depicted the passage of time in a linear form. Timelines are a mainstay of a Montessori elementary class. We tell a story and unroll a prepared timeline just a little bit at a time, together taking a peek at what is depicted on it and talking about how it relates to the story. Young children are fascinated by the mystery that each timeline exposes and in awe of the length of the line itself.
One day, soon after a group timeline lesson, the children became interested in the World Atlas and searched for very large numbers related to elevation. They wanted to find the “biggest” number they could and write it down on a strip of paper to explore how many categories it might have. This strip of paper soon became a longer line of numbers written successively with sheets taped together to create even more “bigness.” The students designated jobs for one another so that they could extend the line of numbers to be even longer. One child asked if we could hang it up to see if it had become “higher than the ceiling.” Another asked if they could make it wrap around the room. One even thought that they could make it longer than the length of the school.
As they continued to explore length, the number line was soon put up high on the wall so that the children could study it and admire their work. It stayed up for about a week, and then they told me it was okay to take it down. They had moved onto another grand project by that point. It was a long line of geometric designs made with different colored papers taped together end to end. After this second, independent study of length and fascination with creating a line, they produced a timeline of clocks with the hours labeled on it.
Big work like the timeline spills out beyond our classroom into the hallway, where the children can enjoy their effort with pride and gather inspiration.
I can only encourage big work, because what I see is passion for learning and the desire to make what they do as grand as possible. The impulse to produce something enormous is a normal characteristic of elementary children. It will come in handy as their years in the class progress, particularly when they become enamored with doing the “biggest” long division problem possible, or perhaps want to collect the most note cards on a topic to write the longest report ever written in the class.
These children are just six years old. Think of what they will create in the years to come.