I’ve been reading an article by Dr. Mario M. Montessori, Fantasy and Reality in Children’s Games.
Here are some excerpts I’d like to share.
Montessori education has always sparked debate. I think this article clarifies the role of play and fantasy in the Montessori classroom.
In the past school critics believed that the children were allowed to do whatever they pleased and that as a result they played freely all day. Today’s critics believe the contrary: that in a school applying her system, the children are compelled to do only what Maria Montessori allowed, thereby having no free play.
Dr. Mario Montessori goes on to explain that when Montessori started her approach, schools for small children were rare.
Children were either segregated from adults in a nursery with toys and a nanny to watch over the children, or in poorer families children were left to fend on their own.
The toys one could buy were generally beautiful and ingenious but not sufficiently adapted to the child’s developmental needs. Toy manufacturers were inspired mainly by the “child that is in the man” (das Kind in Manne). In other words, the creation of toys was determined by the adult’s reaction to them rather than by their suitability for the child in his play activity. The adult considered child’s play to be an aspect of infantile expression rather than the very important fundamental expression of man’s behavior during the first stage of his development.
Montessori studied children in their own world. She would observe a child’s expressions and reactions to toys in the environment.
Dr. Mario M Montessori gives more insight to play and work in Fantasy and Reality in Children’s Games.
He explains that a child’s spontaneous expressions and behavior in his environment can be divided into two main areas.
1. Autoexpression. Here events develop themselves, from the inner to the external. The child uses play materials as tools to express the results of his inner experiences, the products of his imagination or fantasy. In other words, the child’s inner feelings are exteriorized through use of play materials and games which give meaning to these feelings. This what we generally call the free game.
The less the materials are complicated, organized, or linked to specific differentiations, the more appropriate they are for the goal. Therefore, clay, sand, water, little pebbles, colors, paper (preferably in large sheets) paints, and so on provide excellent opportunities for playing free games, when fantasy is uppermost in the child’s play.
Fantasy play is a normal part of childhood. A fantasy box is a great way to provide items for creative play. An old hose becomes a snake or a fireman's hose. Craft sticks become an airplane or a doll. Your child can create any part or object in this world.
For example, a child with a stick between his legs indulges in the fantasy that he is a strong cowboy ….If, instead of the wooden stick he were to have a wooden or real horse, the dream would not become more realistic to him.
The real horse might be more exciting to him, and the child might try to have contact with him, to feed him, to caress him, or to ride him; however, he would be no longer a cowboy, but rather a child in the presence of a big animal, absolutely conscious of their respective proportions and also conscious of his weakness in comparison to the animal.
When real elements are introduced into a child’s fantasy play, the child is really pushed out of fantasy into reality. The wooden stick is anything the child wants it to be. In this case the stick (horse) is the transition between fantasy and reality. It keeps the world of reality and fantasy together in the child’s mind.
Whenever a child, alone or in company of other children, is engaged in a game of fantasy, the adult can offer little help. Only the child who plays in this world of fantasy knows exactly how it must be organized and the specific meaning he wants to give each item he uses. The play materials can give his fantasy an aspect of reality without disturbing the imagination with specific qualities: therefore this type of play material must not be distinctive in itself, must not represent reality.
In all the games involving fantasy several aspects of child development can be studied, especially with regard to the emotional components. The child creates such games as a result of his personal experiences, and he proceeds consciously toward their elaboration. However, this type of activity does not provide the child with a precise view of the world in its objective qualities, such as the characteristics of things in the environment and their interrelationships, or the rules of his environment. Through fantasy the child himself gives shapes to everything and fits reality into his make-believe world.
This last passage reminds me when Christopher Robin was leaving the 100 acre wood, Poo Bear, and friends of his fantasy world because he growing up and entering the world of reality. I always thought it was sad he had to leave when he grew up.
The second type of play behavior is based on Montessori’s research and materials. It is called the organized game.
Here is what Dr. Mario M Montessori has to say about this type of play.
2. The Organized Game. When the child’s fantasy is interrupted by external resistance or reality refuses to be adapted, his attention is recalled, the situation becomes fundamentally changed, and the child’s attitude toward the exterior world changes accordingly.
Dr. Mario Montessori goes on to explain that while a child is in fantasy play he or she can be distracted by reality. Such as a child playing cowboy outdoors can be distracted by birds singing or a fire engine going by.
Thus, if the child encounters a specific interference or obstruction which requires intelligent attention, if he discovers something new and interesting, either in the external world or in himself, he forgets his world of fantasy and directs his curiosity toward the real situation.
When the child is attracted by specific, concrete qualities of some material with which he wishes to “play,” either on the basis of its specific use or because it is part of a collective activity in which he wants to participate, he must summit to the disciplinary “rules of the game,” and as a result he is working unconsciously at the inner construction of his personality. In this sense we are discussing “autorealization” rather than “autoexpression.” The child must develop within himself the kind of behavior he will need in order to move independently and logically in his world; this, of course will develop in relation to his innate nature, his intellectual and physical capacity, and according to his own rhythm.
So the child starts to move from the internal to external in his expressions to a more concrete understanding of his world. The impressions of his life are beginning to be categorized into intellectual building blocks. This occurs within the realm of reality.
Montessori used her materials in a mathematical way to help a child put together all his or her sensorial impressions within a concrete reality.
The initiative to adhere to real things now comes from the child himself as he explores and experiments with reality. Real things in the environment have their own meanings, their own characteristics, value, and possibilities of application. The world shows a definite structure in which there are different principles of order and well as different, distinct forms with their specific laws and mutual relationships.
A child starts to define his world. The stick that was a horse is now a piece of wood, and wood comes from trees, birds live in trees, and so on. The world has it own rules-day and night, less and more, big and little. heavy and light, sweet and sour, and so on. Math and science come to the forefront.
Different situations in life require different forms of behavior and social relations. In order to belong to a group, one must accept the rules and the customs which govern that group. When the child voluntarily directs his attention to his environment, he no longer tries to externalize his own feelings or imagination but instead tries to learn and know about things as they really are. He now has the impulse and need to become one with his world.
To no longer think the world revolves around you, and wanting to be a part of the world brings to mind how many people believe during the process of normalization children become obedient. It’s an obedience that is internal, and not egocentric.
Caring and love are a part of this obedience. With this intellectual change there is a social change. Some would even say that a child is beginning to understand morals, what is good and bad, and right and wrong.
Montessori calls this aspect of the child’s behavior “work,” and we will designate this with term organized play. The direction of events in organized play is now reversed: it is addressed inwardly by the child. While in the free game the child’s creativity is manifested in conscious representation which can be verbalized or expressed by actions or with concrete and visible results, the creativity in organized play is unconscious, proceeding in an abstract and invisible manner.
Montessori first developed concrete materials for preschool children to use with rules and methods. During this time a child becomes normalized and develops an internal knowledge of rules of behavior, laws of nature, math, and so on. She felt that this transition from fantasy to concrete learning was essential for later abstract learning.
Under these circumstances, in organized play the adult can help. Along with guidance, understanding, and love, during this period of his development the child needs to be given those “organized toys” which we call materials.
The Montessori material is designed to provide the child with a key for his future discoveries of his world. This, however, is possible only when the material is presented correctly and when the child has reached the right stage of development to receive it.
Maria Montessori was concerned about concrete learning for a preschool child. For example, if a child doesn’t understand the concepts of large and small, larger or smaller, it is difficult for them to understand math. Fantasy play does not involve this type of concrete thinking. Concrete learning is based on reality, whereas fantasy play belongs to the universe of the child.
Because Maria Montessori first worked in mental institutions, she may have been concerned about children not wanting to leave the world of fantasy and shunning the world of reality. It seems like her grandson, Dr. Mario M. Montessori, understood that fantasy play is a part of a child’s development that eventually passes into reality.