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Creativity, Imagination and Fantasy in Montessori



I found myself so many times having conversations with other parents about the role of imagination, play and fantasy in the early years that I decided to take the time to try untangle the topic and write a post about it, hoping that it can be helpful.
How should we measure out the 'amount' of reality that we offer to our children through books and through the environment at home and at school?
The selection of books on this blog mostly comes from my position on this, which is another reason to explain it better.



I reckon this is a hot topic because most of us will have our own thoughts and information and above all we will be influenced (more or less consciously) by the memories of our own childhood, and when it comes to educating our children we might struggle a bit at seeing things under a different light and move away from what is familiar to us.

There is a common misconception that the Montessori method, being grounded on reality-based activities and stories, doesn’t encourage children to be imaginative and creative, which I would also like to debunk here.
Montessori does indeed celebrate imagination (not fantasy), but this is cultivated in respect of the child's developmental needs.
Art and music find a large space in the Montessori classroom, but traditional toys don't, as these are replaced by items conceived to serve the developmental needs of the child.

Understandably, many parents believe that childhood is the time for fantasy, the time for unconditional freedom of the mind and that focusing on reality-based activities means to deprive somehow their children of the magic of childhood.
By doing so, we define the real world as something dull, which is for adults only, as opposed to the exciting world of make-believe.

So we create a fake world populated by creatures that do not exist: Santa, elf on the shelf, fairies of any type, imaginary princesses, unicorns, gods and human beings with magic powers. Some of these  stories are based on such long-lasting and well-conceived lies that it's really difficult for a child to overcome the sense of disappointment and deception when the parents decide that the game must be over.

Yet, we expect this world to burst like a soap bubble ten years later when children enter the adolescent age without leaving any trace.
The effects of encouraging fantasy spread throughout the teenage years and become walls difficult to dismantle.
Adolescents are ultimately like big toddlers aren't they? Confrontational, often confused by a body that's rapidly changing, busy trying to belong a community and yet often struggling to adapt to reality, to develop the language that will take them to the next level, the adult life.
So you see where this is going.
We feed them fairy-tales as preschoolers, and we want mindful, concrete adolescents with their feet on the ground in return, visionary enough to imagine to change the world, to be in charge of their own life. Critical thinking comes from education,  education is our responsibility.

Personally, as a parent, I set myself two main goals: 
- to gather as much knowledge as I can about how the mind of the child develops, in order to serve his developmental needs
- to establish a relationship of trust with my children that can grow through life. I believe that trust is very much linked to the stories that we decide to tell them.



Reality, Imagination and Fantasy: 

Let's make some distinctions and try to think long-term


Children in this first plane of development (birth to age 6) are grounded in concrete reality.
They explore and learn about the world through the senses. Their ability to determine what is real and what is not real is not yet in place. It's not, seriously!
This means that everything we tell them is very real and true to them. They trust the information that we give them entirely.
Maria Montessori discouraged the use of fantastical play until the child enters into the second plane of development (6 to 12 years) and is capable of more abstract thought.
Reality is studied in detail, then the whole is imagined. The detail is able to grow in the imagination, and so total knowledge is attained.
The true basis of the imagination is reality.
Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence

Imagination and fantasy are often confused and lumped together but there is an important difference among them which we shouldn't ignore as parents of preschoolers as well as, in the near future, as parents of teenagers:
Imagination is based on reality and makes changes in reality, fantasy doesn't.
Imagination is what characterises us as human beings, it's the basis of innovation, it's what made progress and all manmade wonders possible.
Fantasy on the other hand asks the child to hide in a small place that cannot exist.
In this sense, I see video games pretty much as an evolution of fairy-tales for grown-up children.
'Fantasy and reality are opposing forces, but imagination and reality are not in opposition: Imagination goes towards reality, shapes and evokes it.'
Norman Fischer


That's why the Montessori curriculum is well grounded in the reality of the universe, intended as a beautiful creation. The main task of the teacher is to present all its wonder to the child, for the first six years of his life.
This is well enough to stimulate their interest and creativity and it's the basis of comprehension of abstract images that will happen in the Elementary classroom.
The role of the elementary teacher is then to lead the child along this path from concrete to abstract, towards higher realities that can be grasped through imagination.
Children also show greater interest in abstract topics when they get there through a manual activity.
Imagination is the real substance of our intelligence. All theory and all progress comes from the mind's capacity to reconstruct something.
Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World

As opposed to this, traditional schools ask young children to memorise abstract concepts that they cannot understand yet, thus separating 'intelligence' from manual work and from the senses.
They acknowledge the importance of imagination, but they would like to cultivate it separately. School should offer dry notions while imagination is left to fantastical play and fairy-tales.
Maria Montessori called traditional educators 'the vivisectionists of the human personality'.
It is true that Fairy-tales quickly strike children, arousing fear and amazement, but they are in no way related to the reality that surrounds them.
A mind used to be stimulated through fantasy and to only find pleasure in fairy-tales will slowly and inevitably become lazy, unable to find interest in reality.
Fantasy borders intelligence behind walls instead of amplifying it.
Fairy tales are very important literature. If I could I would make a collection of all the fairy tales in the world, so that grown-ups could know them better. 
Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World

Instead, by offering the child the history of the universe, we give him to reconstruct with imagination something that is a thousand times more stimulating and mysterious than any fairy tale.
The secret of a good education is to consider the intelligence of the child as a fertile field in which seeds can be thrown, which sprout in the flaming heat of the imagination. 
Our aim is not simply to get the child to understand, let alone force him to remember, but to strike his imagination in order to spark enthusiasm. 
We do not want students who are complacent, but passionate.
Maria Montessori, Educating the human potential, p.29


Work vs Play, Pretend Play and Open-ended Play

Around the age of 2, 2 and a half years, children tend to begin with pretend play. This is a sign of them processing and reviewing reality rather than a need for fantasy.
They play families, bake us cake, and pretend to be fruit&veg salespeople. Parents (I did the same, at first) often tend to respond to this by purchasing (loads of) toys for pretend play. Or in some cases they directly encourage pretend and fantasy before the child has even started to show any interest in more structured play, because they 'should be doing something'.
However, up until the age of 2 and often 3, a child will usually be happy just watching us cooking and exploring everyday objects from the house that they see us using.

What the child is asking with pretend play is to experience and repeat reality, for real. 
He is asking to become competent, the drive towards independence is natural and compelling.


Maria Montessori refers to the activities of the child as 'work' rather than play and to the objects used by the child are 'materials' rather than 'toys' as they are real objects with a purpose.
These reality-based, purposeful activities take on importance because they are respected as the work of adults rather than the fantasy play that is conceived as a separate world for children.

In a Montessori classroom toddlers pour water, clean windows, scrub tables and floors, cut fruit, iron cloths for the class to use. Older friends wipe tables after lunch, sweep the floors, help younger ones to fasten buttons at home time. The basics of maths and geography are taught with the use of sensory, concrete materials which the child can explore with his hands.
How can a 4 year old understand how much one thousand is, without even having ever seen it?

Practical life activities help the child feel competent and helpful, with an obvious benefit in terms of self-confidence and increased sense of responsibility, as he sees himself as part of a community (his class, his family) to which he can and must contribute.

So in an authentic Montessori classroom, you will not see a pretend kitchen or a dressing up corner.
Instead you could find a real, child-sized kitchen area where children can prepare snacks for themselves or for their friends (developing social skills alongside motor skills), serving food on real plates, on real placemats. You will also find a self care area, a cleaning area and an art area where children can express themselves creatively.
Everything is conceived in order for the children to learn about the care for their environment (you see the importance of this, right?), to become independent and to experience real cause-effect relationships (think of the use of breakable items or woodcrafting, sewing and weaving).
Montessori materials are conceived to allow self-correction, rather than adult intervention and help.



Plastic tools have no purpose as they don't actually work and are of no sensorial interest either: plastic objects all feel the same and weigh the same (and are not sustainable either).
Therefore, they do not hold the child’s concentration for long and are not used in the classroom. Instead, children are offered ceramic and glass jugs and cups. And what attention and care they put when carrying a fragile item!

Imaginative play and creative work happen spontaneously in the Montessori classroom, with no need of toys, basically because children get used to imagine using real objects.

And at home? 

Even if we are homeschooling, the home is not the classroom. Even if your child is not attending a Montessori school, there is A LOT that you can do at home. Much of the work we are talking about here happens in the first years of life, when many toddlers are in fact at home some or most part of the day.
At home, some open-ended toys can be offered starting at the age of 2.5- 3 years, without instructing how they should be used:
A good set of blocks and wooden shapes, a basket with a  nice set of cloths of different fabrics, colours and shapes (they will love this more than their Elsa ready-made costume, I promise), a few little dolls (babies or dolls the child can identify with), some wooden or rubber balls, a set of boxes, some wicker easter shopping baskets, a sturdy, good-quality enamel bucket..
These will be 'toys' for years to come: without instructions, the child is left free to represent whatever she wants.





Which books?


After this long preface (I request the highest of fives if you got to the end of it:) it's clear why us Montessorians tend to choose books that give true information to the child and stories that have realistic depictions of characters and places, in order to facilitate identification and to serve the child's need for understanding reality.

So no talking animals (we love Curious George though, as he doesn't actually talk and his adventures offer real-life experiences), no fairies, no monsters, no dragons, no impossible creatures… all that is just not necessary.
Make space on your shelf for Shirley Hughes, Lena Anderson, Rose Lagercrantz, Margareth Wise Brown, Gerda Muller, Atinuke, Eileen Browne, Komako Sakai…there are so many authors and illustrators who have celebrated reality whilst also stimulating children's imagination. Choose picture books with realistic, detailed illustrations.
We really just need to remember that reality is enough.


With the best intentions, we forget that our child has literally just arrived on this planet, and this wonderful universe is enough to arouse his interest and to spark his imagination.

Try to imagine to land on a different planet tomorrow you know anything about, and be welcomed by someone who instead of just taking you around and explaining how things work would confuse you telling fictional stories… how would you feel?
To that, add that the child whom we ask to process and discern this confusing information still has a developing brain.

Staying true to reality is vital for children under 3, and often up until the age of 6, depending on the level of maturity of the child. To be on the safe side, I'd always advise to leave fairy-tales and mythology to the Elementary years. After 6, children are more proficient linguistically, have developed critical thinking and have a better understanding of figurative speech like metaphors and symbolism.  
The increased self-awareness and self-confidence also allows them to explore fears safely and to enjoy fantastic tale even more.

So just observe your child with humble eyes, count to ten and choose the right book at the right time. Choose good books.
If something doesn't feel quite right, it probably isn't.
The quality of the book might not be good enough, the book might not convey the right message or give the right language. In this case, if you can, return the book, our homes are too small to store unnecessary books.
If your child doesn't look ready, put it aside and wait. You might suddenly need it a year later at bedtime.
When in doubt, with books as well as with play, always go back to reality.





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