Montessori’s View on Pretend Play, Imagination, and Creativity


Although it’s not commonly practiced in public school systems, the Montessori method is a very popular form of education among private and charter schools across the United States. It’s an educational paradigm that encourages students to drive their own learning, but it’s the Montessori view on pretend play that makes it controversial.

Montessori educators discourage children from engaging in fantasy play, eschewing it instead for play based in reality. It recognizes, however, that imagination is a critical part of a child’s ability to learn and grow as well as being a foundation for human creativity.

Many parents and people cringe when they’re first exposed to the Montessori philosophy because fantasy and childhood are so intertwined in our culture. However, this reaction usually changes when the actual philosophy is explained by a passionate practitioner. Keep reading for a better understanding of this interesting teaching paradigm.

What is the Montessori Approach to Pretend Play?

Many people think Montessori education discourages pretend play and imagination, but this is somewhat of a misunderstanding. Montessori practitioners discourage the introduction of fantasy (think unicorns or pretend kitchen play sets) with very young children because of their inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Younger children are often more fascinated with what they discover in the real world, so a Montessori school environment will give a toddler a real, appropriately sized broom and dustpan to teach them how to clean up a mess, rather than a pretend set.

Another great example is having a functional Montessori kitchen instead of a pretend play kitchen.

These practices change by developmental plane, a brief summary of which is listed in the table below.

Developmental PlaneBrief Description
1st (Toddler-6 yrs.)Child’s mind is absorbent, ready to learn, strong desire to be physically independent
2nd (6 yrs.-12 yrs.)Child is moving towards mental independence, ready to start understanding more abstract concepts
3rd (12 yrs.-18 yrs.)Adolescent begins to understand their place in the world and to take more control over their life
4th (18 yrs.-24 yrs.)Adult ready to move on and take charge of their own life, developed a life-long love for learning

In each of these planes, the child is encouraged to direct their own discovery of the world and their place in it, and to develop real-world skills and knowledge. As the child gets older and is better able to distinguish reality from fantasy, toys, books, and games that land more solidly in the fantasy camp can be made available.

Montessorians (as practitioners call themselves) do not discourage pretend play. They understand that pretend play is a crucial component of developing a child’s imagination, the center of their creativity. However, pretend play should involve things that are grounded in reality.

A Brief History of the Montessori Educational Paradigm

Before getting too deep into the Montessori take on fantasy, imagination, and creativity in children, it will be helpful to get brief overview of the history behind this educational method. It was started in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century by a physician named Maria Montessori, who happened to be Italy’s first female doctor.

Dr. Montessori started a children’s school where she learned that teaching children according to their individual stage of development and allowing them to direct their own learning by exploring what fascinated them worked better than traditional methods. She published a book about her experiences and the international movement was born.

The first Montessori experiments in the U.S. were largely unsuccessful because of significant backlash from educators in the United States against Dr. Montessori’s teaching methods, and from 1920 to around 1958, there were no Montessori-based schools to be found.

However, this all changed when an educator named Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch opened the first Whitby school in the U.S., which used Montessori theories to educate children.

Today, there are dozens of Montessori schools around the world, and the theories and practices are largely the same as they were in its beginning days; child-centric teaching model where the teacher focuses on getting each child to develop a self-driven, disciplined approach to learning.

What is the Montessori Method?

The Montessori method has evolved since it was first introduced by Dr. Montessori, but in many ways, it remains grounded in her insights and methods. The main goal of the Montessori educational method is to help children develop a life-long love for learning.

Montessori holds that children learn best when they’re self-motivated to learn, rather than having subjects given to them to study. Anyone who’s tried to get a kid interested in learning rote math skills or memorize dry historical dates can sympathize with this idea, but Montessori seeks to provide children the freedom to pursue what they want to learn.

A Montessori education is also designed to help each child reach their full potential by recognizing them as an individual, and helping them develop their own unique skills. Instead of a more teacher-centered approach to the classroom, Montessori classrooms are child-centric in that they encourage each child to learn, develop, and grow at their own pace.

The Montessori method is not completely determined by the child, however. Teachers act as guides for the kids, helping to focus their attention and find out what truly inspires them. Formal lessons start when a child is about 6 years old, and they involve introducing new, abstract concepts in a way that helps kids see how interconnected everything in the world is.

Multi-Age Classroom Groupings

Another interesting component of most Montessori programs is that older children and younger children are often grouped together in the same classroom. The reason for this is two-fold; younger children learn better when they’re observing and imitating older children, and older children retain information better when they’re teaching it to younger kids.

Pros and Cons of Montessori

As with any controversial teaching method, there are a number of pros and cons that have been identified in connection with the Montessori method. These are described below:

Pros:

  • Children are able to pursue what’s interesting to them
  • Children are given uninterrupted blocks of time to develop their ability to concentrate
  • Things are grounded in realism so kids are constantly learning about the world around them
  • Teachers typically have smaller classroom sizes so kids can get more one-on-one time

Cons:

The Montessori View on Fantasy

For very young children, there isn’t an inborn ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. For this reason, Montessorians generally discourage fantasy stories, shows, and play. The following things are examples of what might be discouraged for young children in the first developmental stage:

  • Stories with talking animals
  • Movies or TV shows with superheroes
  • Play kitchen sets with wooden food
  • Toys that move or act on their own
  • Fantasy-based stuffed animals (like unicorns)

The Montessori method fully acknowledges that young children’s imaginations are extraordinarily active, and they’re not trying to suppress it at all. On the contrary, the real world is so brand new to young children that it’s just as fantastic as many fictional stories.

Fantasy is less discouraged as children age. In the Montessori educational model, when children are in the second developmental plane they’re much more capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy, so fictional books aren’t necessarily discouraged. However, practitioners do believe in presenting children plenty of options for real-world learning and exploration as well.

As children get older, Montessori advocated the use of stories to illustrate the real world, although these stories are grounded in reality. These stories are called Montessori’s Five Great Lessons, and they’ll be covered in more detail later.

Learning Through All the Senses

Another crucial component of the Montessori model is encouraging learning and exploration of the real-world through all the senses, not just through sight and sound (which are traditionally the most catered-to senses in other educational models). Children are encouraged to explore nature and learn in the classroom through touch, taste, and smell as well.

Therefore, some of the best toys for parents wanting to use the Montessori method are those made from natural materials that encourage kids to manipulate them by hand and engage multiple senses.

Montessori classrooms are set up to encourage frequent movement and exploration as well. At first, they may seem chaotic, but eventually an observer realizes that there is an order to the chaos as children move freely about the room to explore and concentrate on what fascinates them.

Montessori and a Child’s Imagination

The Montessori model has built into it a child’s imagination in a structured way. Montessori recognized that children interact with the world and act out what they see adults doing through the use of their imagination, and that a healthy imagination is the seat of creativity and intelligence.

Therefore, Montessori-based educational programs, and Montessori parenting techniques, encourage the use of a child’s imagination in reality-based play and exploration. At very young ages, children’s play is very imaginative, as they carry out pretend scenarios and interactions that they see the adults in their lives do.

Dr. Montessori’s Five Great Lessons

In the second plane of development, Dr. Montessori realized that children were ready to start understanding larger, but still very real, concepts about the world around them. To that end, she developed her “Five Great Lessons” to introduce children to the concepts of the world and the cosmos. These five lessons are:

Lesson NumberNameDescription
1st Great LessonComing of the Earth and UniverseDescribes the formation of the Earth and the mysteries of the cosmos
2nd Great LessonComing of LifeIntroduction to biology and the study of life
3rd Great LessonHumans Come to EarthStudy of human evolution and history
4th Great LessonCommunication and WritingIntroduction to history, mythology, and communication
5th Great LessonNumbersIntroduction to math and numbers

Because of the huge, abstract concepts each of these lessons introduces, an engaged and active imagination is essential as students begin to grapple with these questions and theories. It is especially important because these lessons all attempt to illustrate how everything on Earth and in the universe is ultimately interconnected.

Imagination and Its Role in Learning

At its core, the Montessori model is intended to help children develop a life-long love of learning. Too often, a more traditional public-school setting has kids memorize long lists of dates, facts, and data for tests, only for them to be forgotten as soon as the test on them is over. Montessori educations are designed to help kids learn about what they love.

Because of the strong link between imagination and intelligence, there is no reason why Montessori schools would discourage imagination. Indeed, Montessori advocates contend that children develop their imagination best through hands-on experiences with things found in the real world.

Using Imagination to Understand the World

Montessori models emphasize the use of imagination to help children understand the world around them, but imagination that’s grounded in reality. Consider trying to explain how a plane works to a young child, who might be able to see a plane in the sky but doesn’t understand the science.

A Montessori educator might help a child understand the concept through things that are a little simpler to understand, like using a paper airplane to illustrate the concept of thrust or lift. Helping a child take an image and apply it to other concepts helps them to develop concrete understandings of abstract or complex problems or parts of the world.

Creativity’s Role in the Montessori Paradigm

Closely related to imagination is a child’s ability to be creative. Imagination allows a child to come up with alternate ways to understand the world around them, and to visualize new ways to solve problems, so it logically follows that an imaginative child will be creative as well.

When kids enter the second developmental plane, their imagination is prepared to help them understand abstract or advanced concepts that they couldn’t experience as a younger child. Since children at the age of 6 are better prepared to understand these advanced concepts, largely due to their well-developed imagination, they’re ready for the Montessori great lessons.

These great lessons have already been described, but it’s useful to explain the role that creativity and imagination have in the Montessori view as related to education. A healthy sense of creativity allows children to apply real-world experiences to abstract concepts more effectively than if they’re confused by years of exposure to fantasy.

In the words of Dr. Montessori, in order to light a fire of excitement for learning, the instruction must touch their imagination. Since a Montessori education is intended to create a life-long love of learning in children, it’s necessary to get kids excited to learn. This is done through imagination and creativity in the Montessori model.

Creativity and Self-Directed Learning

Since kids are largely responsible for choosing the direction of their own learning (within wide boundaries set by their teacher), they must be in touch with their creative sides. This creativity allows them to think about things in new ways, come up with new approaches to problems, and to think outside the box.

Creativity helps children imagine what could possibly be so they actually become interested in what they’re learning. A Montessorian would say that public schools or other schools that teach in a more traditional way stifle a child’s creativity because they keep them all in the same small box of instruction. There isn’t any room for a child to explore things that interest them.

Creativity in a Normal School Setting

In a generic public-school setting, there isn’t much opportunity for a child to be creative outside of a few elective subjects, like art (and even then, projects are assigned to all children and they have little ability to choose their own directions). There’s a set lesson plan and even a set way to arrive at the answer, and children aren’t able to explore at their own pace.

According to a recent Gallup study, children who were placed in classrooms that encouraged creativity and used technology to help facilitate that creativity scored higher on five cognitive abilities than kids who were in environments that didn’t encourage creativity. These abilities were:

  • Engaging in problem-solving
  • Demonstrating critical thinking
  • Retaining what they have learned
  • Making connections between different subjects
  • Having deep learning of subject matter

Clearly Montessorians are on to something with their emphasis on creativity; creative kids are able to better demonstrate critical thinking and exhibit problem-solving behaviors than less creative kids, and form connections between topics that leads to better learning and material retention.

Montessori-Approved Toys, Games, and Books

So, if you can’t buy plush toy monsters or get fantasy books for your kids, what sorts of toys and games are approved by the Montessori method? There are plenty of buying guides online, but a general set of guidelines are:

  • Based in reality: Books for young kids should be about situations that exist in the real world to promote a healthy ability to separate fantasy from reality
  • Made from natural materials: Montessori toys should have a multitude of different textures from real materials, like wood, metal, and natural fabrics, not plastic
  • Functional: Montessori toys should have a point to them, a concrete thing about the world that they teach young children.
  • Toys are simple: they don’t have a lot of complicated pieces. A puzzle with three shapes helps a child learn through small bits of easy-to-understand information
  • Limited choices: toys that are overly complex, or a simple overabundance of choices for toys, leads to kids feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

Ever wonder why kids will usually just play with the box a new toy came in? It may be frustrating for the parents who spent all that money on the new toy, but when viewed through a Montessori lens, it’s perfectly understandable. Kids are drawn to simple toys that they can learn about the world with; like a cardboard box.

Following you’ll find some examples of Montessori-approved toys, games, and books available on Amazon. If you follow the guidelines above and try and find things that fit within them for your child, you’ll be helping them learn about their world and develop their imagination and creativity.

Toys

Wooden Reading Blocks: A simple toy that teaches kids how to make a variety of three-letter words, these blocks are made from wood, feature only a couple moving parts, and have limited bright colors to help toddlers and young kids learn about shapes and letters.

Carrot Size Sorting Puzzle: This toy will teach children how to sort items based on shape and size as they try and get the carrots back into the correct slots. Made from wood and painted with a limited variety of water-based paints, this item is perfect for a parent trying to buy Montessori-approved toys.

Toddler Sensory Busy Board: This board, while providing a variety of hands-on activities and textures for a busy toddler, will also help them learn and master important skills for dressing. This board includes belts, buttons, and zippers to help young children develop fine-motor skills that will let them dress themselves.

Games

Guess in 10 Game: This game teaches kids about the world in a fun series of questions. It’s based in reality so they’re learning all about animals while having fun.

MathDice Game: This simple dice game will help kids learn basic addition and subtraction.

Beads and Pattern Card Sets: This set of beads, thread, and pattern cards will keep little ones occupied for hours while teaching colors, three-dimensional shapes, and pattern recognition skills.

Learning Cards Set: This set of learning cards helps teach young children phonics and letters while using pictures of real-world items, making it a solid item for any Montessori parent.

Books

Set of 5 Nature Books: These books help introduce a variety of bugs and things that are found in nature in a way that young kids will live, but is completely in line with Montessori ideas on reality for young kids.

My First Book of Feelings: Kids can easily relate to stories about other children, and this book helps them learn about their emotions in a Montessori-approved way.

My First Book of Numbers: This book uses fun illustrations of realistic things to teach kids all about numbers.

Shades of People: This book provides young children an early introduction to all the different races and colors of people in the world.

Do-It-Yourself Game, Toy, and Activity Ideas

Of course, you don’t need to spend a ton of money on games and toys off the internet or a store to give your kid fun, Montessori-approved activities. Any activity that teaches through hands-on activities is a great way to bring your child some Montessori-based fun. Here are a few ideas:

  • Water-pouring: kids love pouring and transferring water from one container to another, so filling up several different sized containers with water will help them understand volume as well as build fine motor skills.
  • Washing activities: filling a bin with soapy water and giving a child a variety of toys to wash gives them different textures as well as teaching them real-life skills.
  • Fill a small tray with decorative rocks to help little ones learn how to write letters and numbers.
  • Use Velcro and a piece of felt to create sorting games with realistic pictures for little ones to sort; i.e. vegetables vs. fruits, living vs. non-living things, etc.
  • Kids are naturally drawn to museums and zoos where they can see concrete example of history and real-life animals. Both places are set up for excellent educational experiences.

See also: Montessori Activities for Every Age

Further Reading

There are a number of excellent books designed to give parents an idea of the Montessori method, as well as give them concrete ways to incorporate it into their parenting techniques. A quick search on Google will return a vast array of options for the curious parent, but here are a few of the best-reviewed books on the Montessori method for parents:

Final Thoughts

A Montessori education isn’t necessarily designed for every parent to like, but most kids who are brought up with at least some aspects of the Montessori method benefit from it. While it’s still controversial even to this day, a multitude of public schools have at least tried to incorporate it into their curriculum.

The Montessori method discourages exposure to fantasy for younger kids, and encourages parents and teachers to make sure that everything in the educational process is solidly grounded in reality. However, it recognizes and embraces the fact that creativity, imagination, and intelligence are all closely integrated and that all are necessary for a good education.


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Stacy Jones

When I became a foster mother, I started researching different parenting and education ideas. Learning about the Montessori Method has been intriguing and fascinating, and I have enjoyed watching the little ones in my life learn and grow from incorporating Montessori elements into our family's lifestyle. Montessori For Today was started to provide answers to my own questions, which will hopefully become a great resource for others to learn about the Montessori Method, Montessori Schools, and how you can incorporate elements of Montessori into your own home and lifestyle.

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