The Three-year Cycle

The three-year cycle refers to an essential element of Montessori education. Children from 3- 6 years are able to stay in the same classroom, with the same teacher, the same classmates and as a result are able to build a strong, cohesive community. They move through the stages of development experiencing different roles, responsibilities, and lessons and having their developmental, social, intellectual and emotional needs met at each stage they pass through.

The physical changes that we witness during this time are obvious but the mental and emotional changes are visible through close observation of the child. This ‘metamorphosis’ of a 3 year old to a 6 year old is so dramatic that it can be likened to the caterpillar, changing from a pupa into a butterfly.
In this paper I will be specifically looking at the changes that occur in the third year or the Kindergarten year that child experiences in a Montessori classroom and how these changes represent the fruits of the child’s labor, and the formation and perfection of traits that will serve the child throughout his life.

It’s easy for everyone to understand how the child of 3 benefits from working in a community with older children. The child is able to observe the more advanced work the older children do, something the child will be aspiring to do some day. He can witness the grace and courtesy modeled in regard to how to resolve a dispute, how to express frustrations and how to use our words effectively. If the child struggles with work he has chosen, then an older child will be ready and eager to help. What’s not so easy to see immediately is how the older child of 5 or 6 benefits from the mixed-age community. Parents have asked me why their child would benefit from staying in their Montessori classroom for the child’s Kindergarten year. I tell them, you have built a house with strong foundations, an excellent structure, and a beautiful interior. You wouldn’t decide to finish you work without building the roof, would you?

It is during this third year that the fruits of all the child’s labor begin to grow.

  • Repetition with the materials have led to perfection of skills
  • Ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
  • Perseverance from working with materials that require the child to follow a lengthy sequence and complete a cycle of challenging work.
  • Problem solving skills from the child’s interaction with materials and situations that allow the child to resolve a situation independently.
  • Making positive, independent choices.
  • Long term practice of constructive, purposeful work.

The practical life exercises that engage and fascinate the younger children, for example folding, washing, polishing, the dressing frames, evolve into a way of contributing and caring for your community for the third year child. The third year child will be folding the napkins and placemats so they are ready for snack, preparing snack and sweeping up the crumbs left behind after snack. The third year child is taking conscious responsibility to perform tasks that keep the classroom beautiful and modeling this for all to see.

In the area of language, all the work he did during the first two years with the sandpaper letters, learning the sounds and the symbols of the letters, and building words with the moveable alphabet by breaking them apart into individual sounds, now forms the foundation for reading. And it’s not just the
task of acquiring fluency and comprehension in reading that occupies the third-year Primary child. There’s also work with nouns, articles, adjectives and verbs, etc, the foundation of grammar, perfecting cursive handwriting and writing one’s own stories and so much more.

In the math area, the work that the child of three and four has done to count first from 1 to 10, then to 100, then to 1000, and her concrete experience with the decimal system prepares her well for the beginnings of abstraction in the third year of Primary. Now she can work with the four operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in a variety of ways and she can memorize math facts.

We all know your child will undoubtedly learn to read and write and will learn to do the mathematical operations and these are all important skills, but I believe that these are not the most important things a third year child will learn. The greatest skills or gifts that the third year Primary child receives are the qualities of character the child creates. Self-confidence, self-motivation and responsibility for the community among others. These character traits are practiced and perfected each day, practicing empathy, showing love and affection for others of all ages and for oneself, exercising leadership skills, and being a positive role model to others.

As a Montessori Primary guide, I feel sad when I hear that my third year children are leaving the community for traditional school. The third year is the opportunity to complete the full cycle of activity with the classroom materials and curriculum, and the chance to be the leaders that they themselves had looked up to those previous years. With your guidance, they have laid the foundations, built the structure, made their interior beautiful and now it’s time to put the roof on their house.

Polly Goode

Primary Guide in Thyme class