Intrinsic Motivation Lasts a Lifetime

Sunstone is not a place where children have to go to have information delivered to them; it is a place they look forward to going to because they are allowed to discover the world for themselves.


Combining three of the Constructive Triangle boxes, Abby discovered that two HUGE equilateral triangles form a parallelogram and the next day she transposed her discovery onto paper (above).

Well, she wasn’t ready to stop there. Over the course of the next week, Abby continued her exploration of Geometry producing a painted study of equilateral triangles. She then went on to identify and outline all of the different shapes she could find that can be made from combining or dissecting equilateral triangles. She learned the long and complex names of all the shapes, such as obtuse-angled isosceles triangle, parallelogram, and trapezoid, and she wrote and affixed identification labels (above) on her discovered shapes. She then went on to produce the largest parallelogram that she could by assembling hand-traced, hand-cut, equilateral triangles (below).

No one told Abby to do this. The desire to dive deep came from within. Imagine the level of understanding that Abby has gained from engaging the materials, exploring ideas, manipulating concepts, and discovering all of this on her own vs. being told the information by an adult. Intrinsic motivation! There is no substitute for life-long learning!

We are often amazed at the capabilities of Montessori children. They bounce to school each morning excited about what the day holds. They want to learn, want to discover, want to pursue more without being told they must. What is the secret? The key lies in the type of motivation utilized in Montessori education.

In most traditional education settings, teachers use systems of rewards and punishments to drive desired behaviors. These are extrinsic motivators, meaning they come from outside of the child and are imposed upon them, typically by an adult, to motivate or control a certain behavior.

Extrinsic motivation can be verbal or non-verbal. Any time an adult makes a statement to a child, or even uses a facial expression that conveys pleasure or displeasure with a behavior or action, they are utilizing external motivation. This includes commonly heard praise such as “Good Job!” and “Nice work!”

Non-verbal rewards include positive external motivations such as gold stars or good grades. Conversely, non-verbal punishments include negative external motivators such as the removal of privileges or bad grades.

While external rewards and punishments may work occasionally in the short term, research shows that they do little for long-term motivation or success and that intrinsic motivation is much more effective.

Intrinsic motivation doesn’t come from an outside source at all, but from within the individual. It is not something that adults can impose upon children, but it can be cultivated and nurtured.


The photographic print of the Lupine Room (above) is the result of one child’s intrinsic motivation. Wesley, in the Lupine Room, was allowed to follow his curiosity sparked in researching cameras. Supported by the Lupine Room Guide and Assistant, Wesley led himself down the creative path of producing photographs using working pinhole cameras. In the process, Wesley learned about silver emulsions and the different chemicals it takes to develop photographic paper. He experimented with lighting and exposure times and was very surprised to learn that the pinhole camera would not capture moving people, it only captured what was stationary during a 3 hour exposure time. The photo above was taken during class time and yet you can’t see any people. They were there, they just weren’t sitting still for 3 hours.

Children are born with a natural curiosity. They are internally motivated to learn, discover, adapt, and grow. Our job as Montessori educators is to honor these natural tendencies in every child and nurture their internal motivation.

We do this by providing beautiful environments full of enriching materials that speak directly to the developmental needs of the children and serve as an independent motivation.

We use materials that are typically autodidactic, meaning the learner is able to self-correct their work while they are in the process of completing it. These built-in corrections allow the child to work and learn directly from the materials without teacher input, essentially furthering the child’s independence and internal motivation.

Montessori guides are adept at utilizing children’s interests to help them succeed in areas that challenge them. A child who is reluctant to read but loves dinosaurs may just need a basket of books about dinosaurs. A child who resists math but adores their friends may need to work cooperatively to find success. Knowing what sparks a child’s enthusiasm is the key to opening a whole world of academic content.

There are structures built into the Montessori day that support intrinsic motivation as well. The three-hour uninterrupted work cycle is one, as is allowing for ample student choice. These strategies allow children to select work that is meaningful to them, and to spend time really getting deep into that work.

Meaningful work is key! When something is of interest to you, you don’t need to be told to learn it, you want to learn it. This is internal motivation and it typically takes children farther than a teacher ever could.

In the Montessori classroom, we allow students to fully explore their interests, which is where real creativity and lasting learning take place. Children feel empowered by their independence and accomplishments. This fuels their sense of confidence which in itself drives them to explore deeper learning all on their own. It’s a beautiful and powerful cycle. And one they will carry with them throughout the rest of their lives!

Sunstone is not a place where children have to go and have information delivered to them; it is a place they look forward to going to because they are allowed to discover the world for themselves.

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