Your child’s imagination: why Montessori educators nurture it with real-world experience

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There’s a misconception that Montessori discourages the imagination during the early years. It is more accurate to say that Montessori is patient with the development of this high-level cognitive skill that develops in stages.

One of the first things parents notice when touring a Montessori school is the structure and order found in a prepared classroom. Rather than rows of desks, you will notice rows of open shelving with beautiful learning materials. 

Some areas might look familiar, such as the Practical Life shelf where pouring, sewing, and polishing feel reminiscent of home. Other areas may look new, such as the Sensorial shelf with items like the iconic Pink Tower, where children refine their senses as an important precursor to mathematics. 

As you make your way through the rest of the shelves — math, language, geography, cultural studies, botany — you will start to notice consistent invitations to learn about the world in a factual sense. You might feel like there is one thing missing — where is the pretend play? 

A distinct and purposeful emphasis on reality first

While some early education programs emphasize pretend or dramatic play, a Montessori environment supports the development of your child’s imagination differently. Instead of make-believe, toddlers and preschoolers have access to the real alternative.

While at Montessori school, your child will experience: 

  • Gardening with real plants
  • Food prep using real ingredients
  • Care of the environment using functional, child-sized tools 

This early emphasis on reality wasn’t an arbitrary decision by Dr. Maria Montessori when she founded the original Children’s House in 1907. In fact, there are stories of how she initially incorporated dolls and fairy tales but the children ignored it and persistently demonstrated a stronger desire to participate in real, everyday activities. 

By offering the real alternative, your child’s brain can grow more capable of imaginative thinking

From a cognitive development lens, this observation makes sense when considering the relationship between reality and imaginary —  they go together. When children are grounded in knowledge about what is real first, it informs and supports their ability to imagine next.

Adults don’t have to artificially construct imaginative thinking in kids — it will come naturally. What we can do is ground them in reality as a developmentally-appropriate means of support, similar to how we don’t teach handwriting by putting a pencil in the hand of a child. Instead, we are patient with the development of the hand, and we offer years of hands-on activities that build strength and dexterity first. 

A student carefully focuses on the leaves of a real plant, using a sponge to wipe the leaves. This is a part of Montessori curriculum to expose children to the real world as opposed to pretend or fantasy.

Fantasy is de-emphasized out of respect for the child’s capability

Montessori advocated for greater patience with the development of the child’s imagination so that we do not overreach, particularly with fantasy. Fantasy is one type of imaginative play that is commonly rushed in early childhood, yet it is actually an advanced cognitive capability that most child development psychologists agree doesn’t emerge until around age 4 or 5. Introducing it prematurely can be confusing and even scary for children. 

Montessori educators wait to offer fantasy, fables, myths until age six as part of the elementary environment. Montessori elementary is known as a time when students “explode into imaginative thinking,” and as such, the Montessori curriculum adapts to these new cognitive capabilities — it just doesn’t seek to rush them. 

Imagination is the essence of the human mind which builds and constructs. Imagination does not develop from what the child hears, but from his own efforts in the natural world.

Dr. Maria Montessori

Key considerations for parents at home

It’s common for society to underestimate young children’s physical capabilities, which can create a deficit in which they aren’t offered enough exposure to reality. It’s less likely for there to be a play deficit in which children have not been trusted to role play or pretend. Pretend play is everywhere, from the toy aisles we shop to libraries and other public play spaces designed for children.

If your child has plentiful access to open-ended and pretend play, then it can be a great advantage to enroll in a Montessori environment where they will make those deeper connections to the real world. 

Children who are new to the Montessori classroom show incredible satisfaction being trusted to experiment, gather facts, and immerse themselves in activities that demonstrate cause and effect. There is an unparalleled sense of confidence, motivation, focus, and joy that is activated when children realize they can do big work with real outcomes.  

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N4 Montessori delivers an authentic Montessori education for independence in North Texas. 

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