Keeping it Real – Fantasy and Reality in the Preschool Years

Keeping It Real – Part I
Fantasy and Reality in the Preschool Years

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 are 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 do 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 preschoolers 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.” – Dr. Montessori

From MariaMontessori.com – Author Pilar Bewley is an AMI trained Primary teacher.

Keeping It Real – Part II

In Part I of this article, we talked about the importance of offering reality to the young child during the first six years of his life, when he is building impressions of the world around him. If these impressions are accurate, they will strengthen his intelligence and allow him to continue learning effectively. We discussed how fantasy could confuse young children, and why it didn’t lead to the development of their own imagination.

Before we go any further, let’s consider the difference between fantasy and imagination. In our daily lives, those words are used interchangeably. But are they really the same thing? Absolutely not!

The definition of fantasy is: “ideas that have no basis in reality”. Fantasy can be a great tool for escape and entertainment for those of us who have a strong grip on reality. However, young children (before the age of 5 or 6) are not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality; a phenomenon that has dire repercussions on their ability to learn and problem-solve.

“Pretending is largely assimilation of reality to one’s own thoughts, rather than adjustment of one’s own ideas to fit reality,” writes Dr. Angeline Stoll Lillard in Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Our goal as parents and educators is to give our children a firm grounding in life, so they will be able to deal with whatever challenges come their way, instead burying their heads in the sands of a fantasy world.

How is imagination different from fantasy? Let’s look at the definition of imagination: “1. The ability of the mind to form new and original ideas that have their basis in reality. 2. The ability to be creative and resourceful”.

Why does imagination have two definitions? Because there are two types of imagination! When the child is young (before the age of 6), he uses reproductive imagination. Simply put, this is the ability to see something, close your eyes, and continue seeing it in your mind. Reproductive imagination plays a huge role in the early formative years of a Montessori child. It allows him to develop math and language skills, and permits him to understand abstract concepts such as colors, shapes, and other aspects of the world around us.

We use reproductive imagination to help the young child expand his horizons. If we want to talk about the desert to a young child who has never experienced it, we use concepts he is familiar with to help him build a mental picture of an unfamiliar place. We tell him the desert is hot during the day; hot like the heat that comes from a fireplace. At night it gets very cold; cold like the air inside a refrigerator. The desert has hills, like the ones he’s climbed; but they’re made of sand, like the sand he plays with at the beach.

The child begins to develop an image in his mind (literally, he’s image-ining). This image’s accuracy depends on the precision and variety of his experiences. If he has never been allowed to get close to the fireplace and feel its heat, he will not be able to imagine the heat of the desert. If he has never been allowed to play on the beach (or even a sandbox) and experience the texture, he will not understand the grittiness of the sand.

Young children can certainly use their imagination, but their main focus is the reality around them. They want to touch everything and are driven by Nature to orientate themselves with their immediate surroundings. However, around the age of six, the child begins to question how everything around him works. He’s no longer content with learning through his senses: feeling, seeing, tasting a fruit, and finding out its name, for example. He wants to know where it came from and how it was made!

At this point, Nature, in its infinite wisdom, sends the child’s ability to imagine into overdrive to satisfy his burgeoning curiosity for the Universe (just like in the previous stage of life it drove the child to learn through his senses). In the Montessori Elementary classroom, we meet the six-year old child in this new stage of his life and offer him Cosmic Education.

Cosmic Education presents the inter-relatedness of everything around us. Just like in the Children’s House environment, we use materials that transmit concepts concretely, but these materials are only the starting point in the Elementary child’s learning process. The child uses the Montessori materials to
understand certain ideas, but will then use his powerful imagination (well-prepared by real experiences in the earlier years) to reach accurate conclusions. This new type of imaginative ability, called creative imagination, will allow him to understand the wider implications of his new knowledge, and he will use it as an agent of creation and problem-solving.

In the Elementary classroom, the Universe comes to life through the child’s imagination. He time travels to ancient Egypt to discover triangles with the help of a magic rope, and before that to Babylonia to learn how to measure angles by following stars! He studies grammar, where the Pronoun becomes a rocket that orbits the Sun (the Verb). Math – that most dreaded of subjects – becomes delightful when the divisor in long division turns into an ancient Roman troop leader, and squaring and cubing are viewed as a story of a monarchy. The subjects explored in Elementary are as wide as our knowledge in our world and the child’s imagination takes center stage.

In Elementary, all subjects “must be presented so as to touch the imagination of the child, and make him enthusiastic, and then add fuel to the burning fire that has been lit,” Dr. Montessori explains. “Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core.”

From MariaMontessori.com – Author Pilar Bewley is an AMI trained Primary teacher.

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