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.

What Are Executive Functions? And Why Are They So Important For Your Child?

As a parent, how important would you rate the following skills for your child?






Critical thinking

Creative thinking

Mental flexibility

Good organization, planning, prioritizing


Good judgement

Pretty important right? 

All of these important skills belong to a complex set of skills called executive functions and they are a direct indicator of your child’s future success in academics, employment, and life! These skills define an intelligent, balanced, motivated person who is self-disciplined, innovative, and doesn’t give up. The good news is these skills can be nurtured during the early childhood years. Interestingly, Montessori is one of the only curriculum models that researchers have proven can improve these skills in children.

Research has shown that early development of executive functions is a better predictor of later academic performance than is early acquisition of academic skills. These capabilities are essential for ensuring rewarding life outcomes. – Dr. Steven Hughes, PhD, ABPdN 

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University defines executive function as the mental processes that support students in their ability to plan, focus their attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully (2016). Crucial for learning and development, these important skills also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our loved ones.

Executive function skills are revered by colleges and CEOs as imperative for success, and targeted by leading edge companies when looking for leadership and innovative qualities. The bad news is that children are not born with executive function skills.

The good news is that children are born with the potential to develop executive function skills and will develop them if provided the proper support. If, however, children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and their environments at an early age, then their executive skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired.

The great news is that Montessori education is superior in fostering executive function!

One of the only curriculum models that has been empirically shown to improve executive function in children is the Montessori curriculum (Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006). In fact, the very essence of a successful Montessori classroom is characterized by the term “normalization,” which showcases the development of executive function in young children.



Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2016).

Lillard, A., & Else-Quest, N. (2006) The early years: Evaluating Montessori education. Science, 313, 1893-1894.



Independence and the Montessori Child

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” -Maria Montessori

Benefits of Cultivating Independence

You may already know that Montessori educators value and encourage independence in even their youngest students. We believe that nurturing this valuable character trait is both empowering and necessary.  In short, giving a child the gift of independence lets them know we value them and know they’re capable.  Children can grow up feeling empowered and safe in their abilities to make sound choices.  When we trust them, they learn to trust themselves, ultimately becoming happy and productive members of their communities.

Of course, this looks different at different ages.  Children birth to age six want to do things by themselves, while elementary aged children want to think for themselves.  Adolescents seek both physical and social independence while they tread the waters between childhood and adulthood.  It’s important to remind ourselves of these developmental stages, both as teachers and parents.

What Independence Means at School

In the earliest years at school, children focus on what we refer to as practical life skills. This may include learning to prepare simple snacks, putting on their own shoes or coats, or caring for classroom plants and animals.

Children are given endless opportunities to practice these skills both on their own and helping their friends.

Another facet of independence at a Montessori school involves choice within limits.  Children are able to decide what work they are interested in.

Teachers carefully prepare the classroom environment so that all choices are safe and desirable, but within those boundaries the child is free to explore.

As children get older (the elementary years and beyond), they must meet certain academic expectations.  Teachers use a variety of tools to help students work independently while still meeting their goals, including work plans and time management strategies.

Research becomes of great interest at this time, and children are given ample opportunity to deeply explore topics they choose.

How Parents Can Support This Work at Home

How can families continue the cultivation of independence in the home?  It all starts with a shift in the way we view our children’s capabilities.  They are often able to do much more than we realize, and with a little bit of modeling they tend to eagerly accept a challenge.  After all, our children want to do what we do, and if we give them the proper tools and support, they can begin practicing.

The chart below highlights some of the possibilities.  Think of this as an inspiring guide that highlights what children of various ages are typically capable of.  Giving our children tasks such as these builds their confidence while helping them learn how to be contributing members of a community – in this case, their family.

Looking Forward

One of the easiest ways to encourage independence in our children is to be more aware in the moment.  Though it can be a challenge to slow down and let them move at their pace (like when they insist on zipping up their own coat while we’re rushing out the door to get to work), it’s going to benefit them in the long run.  Building a little extra time into our schedules can help!  Some little changes we can make to embed this value into our days:

  • Send your child to put their shoes on 10 minutes before you’d like to leave.
  • Leave child-friendly cleaning supplies within reach.
  • Put pre-portioned or easy-to-prepare snacks on low shelves.
  • Turn spills and messes into opportunities.
  • Let your child pick out their own clothes. For younger children especially, some weather appropriate guidance is just fine. Enjoy the creative fashion statements that ensue.

See It in Action

The very best way to learn about Sunstone Montessori is to see it in action. We encourage you to visit our beautiful and spacious campus, take a tour, observe briefly in classrooms, learn about Montessori education, our programs, who we are, and what we do. Time is set aside at the end for questions and answers.

We look forward to sharing Sunstone with you!

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