Montessori, Fantasy, and Pretend Play in the First Plane (Age 0-6)

Montessori is often associated with a classroom or home environment that is all work and no play, and to some extent this is true (depending on what you consider work and what you consider play). In the Montessori classroom, the materials and activities provided are there to encourage the child to concentrate. When a child concentrates, they do not feel tired from this action as we do as adults. They feel energized and refreshed. Have you seen a child who is “in the zone” while playing, almost as if they are in a trance. When they finally come out of that concentration, they probably look at you and smile realizing you were there while they were focused. They are always so happy because they’ve just taken a step towards their own self-construction. A child, particularly in the first plane of development (ages 0-6) is following their inner teacher which leads them to the activities that will fulfill their specific developmental need in that moment. No teacher has that strong of intuition that they can present the child with the perfect material for them in that moment hour after hour and day after day, but they don’t need to. The child does this work for themselves, and the guide sets up the environment to allow them that freedom. This is the basic principle of the Montessori classroom environment.

Mirai and Taishi’s favorite activity at 16 months old, navigating stairs!

So what does this have to do with fantasy?

Well, if you walk into any kids toy store, what do you see? What grabs your attention even as an adult? At least at the stores here in Japan I can’t walk through the entrance without being bombarded with Anpanman plastered over every type of toy, from stacking cups to electric keyboards. Thomas the Tank Engine has an entire section of toys dedicated to it. Wooden toys are labeled “educational toys” and are hidden on a back wall. Why is this? I think everyone knows that characters sell merchandise. The child watches Thomas on TV and wants their toys to be Thomas too. Speaking of TV, can you think of a children’s show where the characters don’t have special powers or feature unrealistic situations such as talking animals? I think we would be hard pressed.

Dr. Montessori suggested through her observations of children that they could not accurately tell the difference between reality and fantasy until the second plane of development (around age 6). Modern brain science suggests children may be able to tell the difference slightly earlier, around age 5 or even 4 for some children, but their ability is also highly dependent on the situation. For example, one study asked children to say if a situation was real or pretend based on looking at a picture of for example, a woman picking an apple off a tree vs. a moose mixing batter in a bowl (Samuels and Taylor, 1994). The majority of 5 year olds could accurately categorize the photos where as the three year olds could not.

But even if a 4-5 year old can tell what is real or pretend, is it what is best for their development? I think Montessori would say no. The 0-6 year old child is desperately trying to make sense of their environment and adapt to their surroundings. They are exploring and categorizing and familiarizing themselves with their world. It’s quite an intense time and results in a lot of strong emotions to accompany the process. By giving the child access to real situations, real people, real food, real sensorial experiences, we help them build their understanding of how the world works clearly and concretely in order for them to have a secure base to work off of later in childhood when fantasy is more easily understood in an abstract manner.

But what about pretend play?

Myself and many other Montessorians agree that this really depends on the type of pretend play. Playing “pretend” is a natural and common aspect of childhood that is most definitely supported in Montessori as long as it is reality-based. This means children role-playing of flying in an airplane to visit their family abroad, or mailing a letter at the post office, or grocery shopping is all developmentally typical and helpful as well. But fantasy-based pretend play for the young child is a sign they may need some more experience with real life situations.

One of the most interesting topics Dr. Montessori brings up in her work is that of deviations. Deviations are simply aspects of the child’s personality that are holding them back from their development. One of these deviations she calls “fugues” and it illustrates the child who constantly runs away from a task, often starting it but then leaving it unfinished in favor of another. This child often has trouble focusing and achieving concentration and may also engage in a lot of fantasy-based pretend play. In Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents she speaks of this deviation:

“He prefers to live in the world of his imagination, he would rather give a fairy banquet with a few leaves and pebbles than explore the real world around him…Unfortunately, this deviation is often misunderstood by parents who believe that it is a sign of a remarkable imagination, the budding of artistic genius perhaps. On the contrary it is a method of escape from reality, one which disintegrates the character. When the child is eagerly fixing his attention on the world about him, only then will his imagination have a safe foundation.”

Maria Montessori Speak to Parents, 8-9

When I read this, it really struck me because I think as a culture we do tend to praise children who are imaginative without stopping to think if they are developmentally ready for that type of imagination. It’s possible in these cases the child is simply recreating an imaginary world they’ve seen through the media (and therefore it came from an adult mind) instead of coming up with their own original idea. Dr. Montessori attributes fugues to a lack of muscular coordination which prevents them from interacting with their environment in the way they want to. She suggests to give this child activities where they may practice control and coordination of movement, for example through practical life activities such as preparing food or sewing, and they will be healed from this deviation and able to develop as they are meant to.

Even in the city we find ways to spend time doing “real” things like watching trains pass by.

What can we do to encourage our children to engage with reality?

  • Limit screen time. I know I know, I said it. But the vast majority of children’s TV shows are too fast paced and stimulating as well as feature fantasy themes. Time spent in front of the TV is also passive vs active as well. Setting up your home in a Montessori way can help lessen the need for screen time. My Getting Started With Montessori post has some easy ways to start.
  • Avoid characters and fantasy themes in the objects your children use. This can be a gradual process, especially if you have a lot of character based toys already (I know I did!) You will still find the odd Mickey Mouse figurine floating around our house but the majority is reality-based. I talk more about how I choose toys for my children here and Montessori toys here. You may also want to have a look through your book shelf and pull out anything not reality-based to save for a later date depending on the age of your children.
  • Get outside as much as possible. Go to the park and let your child dig in the dirt. Pick up rocks and sticks. Splash in the puddles. Touch the smooth railing and then the rough bark of the tree. Getting outside is the ultimate sensorial experience and no toy can replicate it. For my city dwelling readers, even five minutes on your balcony to feel the fresh air puts money in your child’s sensorial bank.
  • Focus on practical life activities at home. Invite your child to cook with you, to sweep the floor, wipe the windows (my children’s personal favorite), push the button on the washing machine, sew a button that fell off a shirt…the possibilities for practical life are endless and can be modified to fit your family culture. Not only do they work on control and coordination of movement which is incredibly important to your child’s development, but it also builds self-confidence and is an opportunity to share language with your child. One controversial toy in Montessori circles is the play kitchen, a staple in many homes (myself included!). Montessori would say that real cooking is more fulfilling to the child than pretend cooking, and I would have to agree. I don’t think play kitchens are bad for your child but I would question whether they would be missed if you spent more time cooking together. In our home, a couple of months ago we moved our Ikea play kitchen to our real kitchen and it is now known as the “snack bar” where my children can get snacks and bowls, silverware, etc independently. It has worked great and the play kitchen isn’t missed at all.
  • If a fantasy situation comes up, explain it. This pertains to books, TV, or anything else your child encounters. If we see a fantasy situation, for example a talking cat in a book, we can ask the child, “Do cats actually talk in real life? Noooo. This is pretend!” and move on. It is important to point out the fantasy element when it comes up.
We are not screen free by any means (the news is often on at our house for example) but when the kids do watch something it is always reality based. They mostly like videos of trains and shinkansen!

One more aspect that I didn’t touch on here that you may consider with regard to fantasy is the prevalence of nightmares or strange behavior (often dangerous or seemingly lacking common sense) with children who are exposed to a lot of fantasy-based content. It is another complex topic that I won’t cover in this post but maybe I will write another one focusing on that.

Are you all reality-based or are aspects of fantasy incorporated into your family’s life? I would love to know your thoughts!

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