Imaginative Play is at Work in Montessori Environments
Most people would agree that children naturally love to pretend play and use their imagination to create alternate worlds. Most people would agree that this imaginative play is a natural part of human development. What most people don’t agree upon though, is whether pretend play should be used as a catalyst for learning, or not, and if so, when and how.
Montessori pedagogy is pretty clear in recognizing that pretend play is at work in the young child as evidenced by the common occurrence of practical life basic exercises used as “tea time”, or the knobbed cylinders that become a “family of cats”, or the bead chains being worn as a golden necklace. Yet Montessori practitioners wait until the second plane of development, around six years of age, to use the child’s imagination as a tool for learning as the first plane child does not yet understand the difference between real and pretend.
“(The young child) cannot distinguish well between the real and the imaginary, between things that are possible and things that are merely ‘made up’.” – Dr Montessori, Times Education Supplement, 1919.
Child development theorists have hypothesized about the impact of imaginative play on children’s development for years: Sigmund Freud thought pretend play reduced stress in children, while Lev Vygotsky thought it developed symbolic abilities. Other pedagogues have hypothesized that play allows children to work out real-life problems in a safe, make-believe space.
This is where Dr. Angeline Lillard of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius fame sets us straight. In her research paper The Impact of Pretend Play on Children’s Development written in 2013, Dr. Lillard does not validate the hypotheses outlined above, rather, her research points to the idea that imaginative play supports all those hypotheses and more. Like the function of the mouth is to talk, eat, sing, taste, breathe, and more, imaginative play functions on many levels of a child’s development.
“Imagination is the real substance of our intelligence. All theory and all progress comes from the mind’s capacity to reconstruct something.” (Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World p.48).
Executive Functions are Cultivated by Imaginative Play
Before I go any further, let’s take a look at the famous Stanford marshmallow study that measured delayed gratification in children. Researchers gave children a marshmallow and told them that if they waited a certain amount of time, they would get two, but if they ate it, they didn’t get the second one.
As it relates to the imagination and self-control, when children were told to imagine just how tasty the marshmallow is, the child’s resistance decreased. And when told to imagine it was a photo of a marshmallow, the children’s ability to wait increased. This shows a direct correlation between delayed gratification, an executive functioning skill, and imagination.
How does this play out in Montessori classrooms? When it comes to self-control, Montessori practitioners often employ role-playing to highlight classroom norms and grace and courtesy. Role playing taps into the student’s ability to imagine the possibilities which they can then incorporate into their own behavior. In other words, their imaginative play ignites their self-control!
Additionally, In 6-12 environments, children are exposed to rich stories that set the stage for all areas of the curriculum. These stories are told year after year and provide the student with the spark of an idea they can visualize, furthering their understanding of the topic at hand whether it be the evolutionary adaptation to a specific environment or the handwork of the earliest humans.
I distinctly remember an Upper Elementary student complaining about having to place all the pegs onto the pegboard to work out a trinomial equation, giving us both the opportunity to talk about the power of being able to take a picture with their mind so they can lean on this visualization down the road when meeting an equation abstractly. This ability to create a visual representation is yet another nuance of our brain’s ability to imagine and my student was further empowered with the metacognizance of this super power.
QUICK TIP to Nurture Imaginative Play
So how do we nurture the imagination as a learning strategy in Montessori environments?
- Storytelling is already embedded in the elementary curriculum; however, consider expanding this essential tool for learning to jumpstart your student’s imagination across the curriculum. I can highly recommend Michael Dorer’s book The Deep Well of Time that jumpstarts our own imagination and motivation to include stories in our practice.
- Consider how imagination plays into the social-emotional climate of your classroom and emphasize role playing with students to explore more optimal interactions that generate self-control.
- Another tip I’d suggest is in guiding families of Montessori students to focus more on open-ended toys rather than one dimensional ones that take away from their imaginative play. For instance, imagine the possibilities a box of blocks can be versus an electronic robot? Or the endless possibilities of paper and crayons holds rather than coloring books? I can’t tell you how many crazy things my family has come up with pool noodles!
So now that you know more about imagination and how it can ignite self-control, what ideas have you come up with to emphasize imagination in your realm?
– By Tammy Oesting
Our ABCs of Learning: Montessori Edition is inspired by the work of authors Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair, Professors of Education at Stanford University’s book The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use which was reviewed on our Great Titles for Educators web page.