Fantasy and Imagination
Perhaps the most distinct difference between traditional early childhood programs and Montessori classrooms is the absence of fantasy characters in the Montessori prepared environment. Mickey Mouse doesn't live here. Power Rangers and Powderpuff Girls are left at the door. Montessori's discouragement of fantasy characters is part of the carefully prepared classroom environment, and the need to be ever mindful of the important learning that happens throughout young children's experiences.
Young children are credulous- they believe all that they are told. The world is a new and wonderful place for the young child, and one marked by an ability to absorb seemingly endless amounts of information from the environment around him or her. Think about the three-year-old child you knew who could name twelve different types of dinosaurs, or the child who could identify a variety of flowers at the supermarket. The world as it is is remarkable enough. There is no need to offer a seven-foot-tall singing purple dinosaur if you can offer examples of real dinosaurs instead.
Fantasy characters are not only unnecessary; they can also be quite damaging. Because children believe what they are told, and because they lack the experience to fit new information within accurate beliefs about how the world works, they will accept our fantastic explanations with as much legitimacy as if we offered realistic ones. Are angels really bowling when it thunders? Do acorns and caterpillars really sing? These are images that confuse children's sense of what is real and reliable. Providing children with information that is truthful and real, however, establishes a critical foundation for their cognitive development. Simply put, we don't teach children lessons we will have to unteach later.
For many parents, this is a difficult lesson to implement. Children are inundated with fantasy characters, from Disney Princesses to Fairly Odd Parents to talking sea sponges. When adults offer children false information to encourage fantasy, however, children learn that adults can't be trusted, and there will inevitably be a day wen your child learns, "the truth" and wonders why you weren't the one to provide it to him.
But don't children love fantasy?
Fantastic characters are more reflective of adults' misunderstanding of children's needs than of children's inherent interest. In much the same way that adults think children enjoy loud, raucous environments, they also believe children prefer pretend characters to real ones. Look to yor child's drawings, though: very young children tend not to draw imaginary characters. They draw Mom or Dad, or their siblings, or their homes. How many of your children cried the first time they saw, "Santa?" How may hid behind your legs when the 8-foot-mouse tried to greet them? Children develop a sense of confidence in the world by their repeated experiences with reliable situations. Fantasy characters undermine their expectations by attributing skills or powers that are inconsistent with children's perceptions to individuals with whom they can never truly interact.
Don't children like to pretend?
Yes, of course! In their pretend play, children are trying out new roles, experimenting in a safe environment with new experiences and building their social repertoire. Many of the Practical Life materials take advantage of this natural inclination in children, by offering the same types of skills that they would otherwise simply pretend and allowing children to develop them with real tools. But this natural inclination to pretend should not be confused for a desire for fantasy. Children want to know what the world is really like and they use pretending to experiment within that world.
How will children develop their imagination in environments without fantasy?
Fantasy and imagination are simply not the same thing. Fantasy offers children impossible scenarios that can never come true, and contradicts the child's developing understanding of how the world works. Imagination is just the opposite. Imagination draws on the child's understanding of the world and tends that toward deeper reasoning. The Montessori classroom is filled with opportunities for imagination. Consider the beautiful pictures of children around the world in the Cultural materials, or the globes symbolizing the continents of the earth. These imaginative opportunities to see similarities and relationships in the environment around them offer children a detailed understanding of how the world works and of their unique role within it.
Understanding the world is one thing- what about children's creativity?
Some argue that fantasy engages children's creativity. Think about the great artwork of theatre, music, visual art or dance that has spoken to you. What is universal about great art is that it speaks to the human experience, even when we can't define that experience. Artists are able to create because they are able to imagine, not a world that reflects mass-produced fantastic impossibility, but one that includes the human experience and builds upon it. This is true in all creative endeavors, from music to scientific advancements.
Indeed, an active imagination is necessary regardless of whether your child is destined for artistic greatness. Complex cultures have more words, more detailed metaphors and more descriptive language. These qualities, in cultures and individuals, reflect the ability to imagine and define what's in our thoughts in ways we can communicate to others. Initially, these are quite simple- as instinctive action to explore the environments that builds a store of mental images. As the mind develops, those mental images are given names, ordered, associated with other images and emerge as powerful thoughts. An infant may smile at any woman's face, but eventually will come to prefer the distinct face that he or she labels, "Mama." From this in-born curiosity about the environment comes a drive to gain real knowledge and the develop language that shapes that knowledge and allows us to communicate it to others.
So, what, NEVER?
No, no, not never. Dr. Montessori was very clear about the inappropriateness of fantasy for young children, but she certainly didn't oppose it as entertainment of the older child. A general rule is that children are able to access whatever entertainment they are able to read and understand independently. Some of the most popular modern children's books are terribly frightening for young children, but enjoyed without anxiety by older children. Typically, after about the age of 6 children are able to understand the difference between what's real and what's fantastic, and they're no longer confused by it.
How does this affect me?
Remember: children learn from their experiences, regardless of whether or not adults label those experiences, "Educational." While you may have chosen a Montessori environment for your young child, it's equally important that you make your child's experiences outside of school as thoughtful as the ones he or she will have during the day. Avoid the TV as much as possible for children under 6 If you do have screen time, do it as a family, and be sure that you use it as an opportunity to talk with your child about what he or she understands about what you are seeing.
Cartoons are generally inappropriate, even thought they are the most heavily marketed to your children. Look instead for videos that show children engaged in real activities. Likewise, select books that describe experiences that could happen or provide photos and information about the world in an accessible format for young children. These are opportunities for you to connect with your child in a meaningful way, to share family stories, videos of your travels, or photo albums of aunts, uncles and cousins. Offer literature that elicits questions like, "How do you think she felt when that happened?" or, "What would you do in that situation?" to engage your child's understanding of the world and of how he or she can affect it. Draw attention to that which is wonderful in our reality, from images through a microscope to the night sky. You'll find the world to be wonderful enough, just as it is, and you'll be building a trusting relationship with your child in the meantime.