It is a big question in Montessori education. When adults think about childhood, they often associate it with fantasy: Disney stories, fairytales, Santa Clause. But Maria Montessori had a different opinion.
From birth to 6 years old, the child is a human being in formation. He learns about the world around him. He wants to learn the reality of the world he lives in. The child has an absorbent mind and is not yet capable of abstract thought and the imagination that follows from it. Fantasy and many modern toys (e.g. a talking bear) are based on abstract thought. Therefore, Montessori advised against the introduction of the child to fantasy too early. By fantasy, we mean animals that pretend to be human beings (in movies and books), fairytales and other myths and legends. For a young child who has never seen a real bear, if you introduce him to a talking bear wearing clothes, he will think that a bear is supposed to talk and wear clothes.
In the twenty-first century it is very difficult to avoid all fantasy. The world around us is full of fiction: advertising on passing buses, television programs, children’s books and the culture of mass media. When your child is in their infancy you may think ‘why does it matter?’ but from about 3 years old your child will begin to ask questions such as ‘why is the bear talking?’ and ‘where do witches live?’ Avoiding fantasy does not mean a lack of imagination. Maria Montessori encouraged imagination to be based upon reality because until the child is fully formed (brain, body, emotions) everything he learns is part of his reality.
“Montessori recognized that children’s ability to imagine things that were not actually present demonstrated a special mental ability of high order. She saw that it was the foundation of intelligence itself and that it was responsible for the curiosity that underlay all scientific exploration of the environment. Imagination is the real substance of our intelligence. All theory and all progress comes from the mind’s capacity to reconstruct something.” (The Child, Society and the World, Chapter 3, p.48).
Maria Montessori saw that there would be no progress without imagination and that it was something that helped the child to constantly enlarge the picture that he held of his limited individual world. Children, she felt, were constrained by their own lack of experience in the outside world. By introducing concepts and images that had no basis in true reality the child could be misled into illusions and these illusions had nothing to ground them. Instead of extending understanding and learning possibilities fantasies could inhibit the child’s natural development. Again and again she saw that children were drawn to work purposefully, to activities that were meaningful to them, and that it was this contact with reality that had a transformative effect on their behaviour.
Early on in Montessori’s work she provided children with traditional toys and fairy tales. It was her subsequent observations of the children’s own choices of activity that made her question whether such things were actually serving their developmental needs.
“If I were against fairy tales, it was not because of a capricious idea, but because of certain facts, facts observed many times. These facts come from the children themselves and not from my own reasoning.” (The Child, Society and the World, Chapter 3, p.45).
When given free choice the children themselves turned away from pretend games and fairy tales to work in the real world. It was their own power of imagination, expressed as natural curiosity, that then led them to explore all the possibilities around the materials and activities that they were involved with.
“If the child cannot develop a sound foundation for a reasoning mind, one that can think productively about things, taking in ideas and manipulating these ideas in his mind, by the age of 6 years, he is handicapped in developing his powers of imagination and abstraction in his elementary school years” (Montessori: A Modern Approach, Paula Polk Lillard, p185).
As our world is so focused on fantasy these days, how can we limit the fantasy in our child’s world?
The subject of fantasy is a sensitive one. Hopefully this has shown that fantasy is not the only way to support the imagination.