Perhaps the most distinct difference between traditional early childhood programs and Montessori classrooms is the focus on what is real, observable and natural in the Montessori prepared environment. Mickey Mouse doesn't live here. Pokemon and the Princesses are left at the door.
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. 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. Instead, we offer them beautiful and precise language, drawing equal attention to the pronunciation of Danaus plexippus as we do to the gold and orange markings on the wings of that butterfly.
It’s not that we’re trying to create robotic little dictionaries instead of children. Montessori defends children’s imaginations. She commends it, even. But 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, and providing the right language supports the child’s understanding of how complicated the world really is. Consider the beautiful pictures of children around the world in the Cultural materials, or the globes symbolizing the continents of the earth. Consider the three part cards or the child’s ability to identify the different types of leaves in their neighborhood by their latin names. 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.
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. Children learn from their experiences, regardless of whether or not adults label those experiences, “Educational." When we offer children real language, pronounced carefully, without dumbing it down or using baby talk, we satisfy their intrinsic desire to understand the world, to be able to name it, to have some agency because they are in a space they can classify. Would you rather live in a world that only had one name for “butterfly,” or one in which you could see the difference between the Atlides halesus and the Glaucopsyche piasus? When we offer children these beautiful sounds, seemingly magical incantations in honor of the diversity and elegance of the natural world, we enchant their imaginations. Their need for vibrant, real language is as powerful as their need for vibrant, real experiences, that fertile ground for the seeds of their intelligence and imagination.
* Response to Chapter 17, Speech The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori