Keeping It Real – Part I

October 23, 2022

In our increasingly competitive world, the key to professional success is said to lie in our ability to be creative.  Even more importantly, we know that in the future our children will be faced with huge technological, social, and ecological challenges; providing them with an education that supports their creative problem-solving skills is therefore essential!

We are all aware that creativity stems from a well-developed imagination.  You have to imagine something before you can create it, right?   We also rightly assume that the capacity to imagine is formed in early childhood (a time when children read fantasy stories and are encouraged to participate in pretend play).  And yet, you won’t find a single fairy tale, doll, or talking animal in a Montessori Children’s House classroom!

While this approach might seem counter-intuitive at first glance, Montessori’s focus on reality actually has a proven positive impact on creative development: Current research shows that children who received a Montessori education solve problems more creatively than their public school peers, even beyond elementary school.

It turns out that fantasy – ideas that have no basis in reality (such as fairies, talking animals, or talking trains), has no place in education and is not what strengthens imagination and creativity.  Children develop their imaginative and creative powers through hands-on experiences in the real world.

Following the Child

When Dr.Montessori started her first school in 1907, she believed the same thing most adults do – that children love fairy tales and pretend play.  She was amazed to discover that, when given freedom of choice and the opportunity to have real-life experiences, the children under her care became passionately attracted to reality. Her little pre-schoolers walked away from a teacher who was telling a fairy tale in order to examine worms and insects in the garden; they shunned a group of pretty dolls for the privilege of serving real tea to adult visitors; they ignored an expensive dollhouse and instead chose to sweep and tidy the classroom.

Dr. Montessori observed the children’s natural drives and developed an approach that satisfied their desire to interact with the world around them.  She realized what scientific research now confirms: A child develops knowledge based on impressions fixed in his mind by his experiences in reality. (These perceptions are absorbed into the child’s mind without a filter during the first six years of life; a phenomenon Dr. Montessori termed the absorbent mind.)

The impressions that form the child’s new knowledge can then help him understand new and more complex concepts, which is how intelligence develops.  Here’s a simple example: Through hands-on work with precise learning tools (materials), a child understands the quantity represented by each number from 0-9.  When he is introduced to addition, he will be able to focus on the process of putting numbers together (and not worry about the concept of the numbers themselves).  He will have an easy time mastering the operations because the initial concepts were clear in his mind.  If precision is maintained throughout this learning process, the child will easily understand more and more complex mathematical concepts (the same process holds true for all areas of knowledge).

The child will be said to be “intelligent”. But intelligence unfolds seamlessly only if the initial impressions were clear and precise. A precise impression is one that does not contain any concepts that might confuse the child and create an incorrect image in his mind, and this is precisely where fantasy becomes an impairment.

Credulity is NOT imagination

One of the main reasons why fantasy is not a part of the Montessori curriculum is because it disorients young children.  This might be difficult for us as adults to understand, but research has shown that most children before the age of five are unable to differentiate between real and fictitious characters and situations.

I once heard about a mom who wanted to follow the Montessori approach with her young daughter, Jenny, but also wanted to share with her several lovely fairy tale books.  She thought she would solve the problem by letting the three-year-old child know when a character was not real.

When mom read about fairies, she gave Jenny a knowing look and said: “Jenny, we know that fairies don’t exist, right?” Jenny replied with a smile: “Noooo, they don’t exist.”

When she read about a dragon, she gave Jenny a wink and said: “Jenny, we know dragons don’t exist, right?” Jenny replied with a smile: “Noooo, they don’t exist.”

This went on for a few days.  Then one day, they read a nature book about giraffes.  Halfway through, Jenny gave her mom a wise and knowing look, and said: “Mom, we know giraffes don’t exist, right?”

Credulity is NOT imagination.   Children will believe what we tell them (or show them on TV) and it will form part of their foundational knowledge; this huge responsibility cannot be taken lightly.

“How is it possible for the child’s imagination to be developed by that which is in truth the fruit of the adult’s imagination?  We alone imagine, not they; they merely believe.” -Maria Montessori

Author’s note:  In Part II of this article we will discuss:

  • The difference between pretend play and creative imagination
  • How Montessori encourages the child to develop a strong and useful imagination
  • How Montessori uses imagination as a POWERFUL TOOL FOR EDUCATION and for the continued development of intelligence

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