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Imaginative Play in the Montessori Environment

You may have read that imaginative play is not encouraged in the Montessori environment. While it is true that children are not encouraged to dress up and play make believe, every material in the Casa allows for imaginative play. Imaginative play is the child’s constant attempt to imitate the models they see in the world. We give them this opportunity over and over again. We honor children by giving them complete and productive images that are safe and open-ended for them to incarnate the world in themselves. In other words, the child explores the world with their hands. They manipulate objects and use the sensorial messages in response to further their play.

Dr. Montessori said that toys are an imperfect and unproductive image of reality. Montessori Education strives to have objects/materials in the environment that are complete (perfect) and productive (show results) image of reality, meaning they reflect the real world. People can interpret her words in many ways. For example, children making mud pies are using mud instead of real ingredients to make a pie. But why not help them to make a pie? Or children having a tea party can make tea and then serve it. It is our job, as the adult in their lives, to make sure they have the materials they need to carry out what is in their imaginations.

Children learn through repetition and will be thrilled to do the same thing over and over again to master the skill. For this reason, it is not always practical to supply your child with real ingredients to fulfill their need of repetition and skill acquisition. My 28 month old son loves to cook and often helps out when I am preparing meals. He can cut, dump, peel potatoes and stir. We have even been working on cracking eggs and peeling potatoes. He loves this work and often wants to do it beyond the three meals a day. For this reason, I have provided him with his own kitchen complete with bowls, pans, fake food and a stove-top. He will prepare and serve us meals often experimenting with different food combinations.   

As a parent and a trained Montessorian, I have interpreted Dr. Montessori’s words as supplying toys that reflect the real world. We have trucks, airplanes, brooms, a kitchenette and a musical keyboard, all child sized. Until he was about 18 months old, our son never really showed interest in playing with toys that we received as presents. His favorite toys for the first two years of his life were the broom and dustpan. As he grew, he started showing interest in some toys such as cars and a kitchenette. He uses these toys to imitate what he sees adults doing. His current interest is racing cars, this interest started after we had taken him to a couple of stock car races. In addition to racing cars, he spends time “working on cars” as well, using whatever is near as a tool for tightening up car parts and “changing the oil.” Again, he is imitating what he has seen but he is in control. This work not only reinforces the things that adults do in our world but offers him opportunities for skill development such as hand eye coordination, pincer grip (for writing) and small motor control.

Because he is in control, all of this work allows him the opportunity to develop time management skills, develop a healthy concept of work, nurture concentration, develop his will and increase his self esteem as he sees that he can do things for himself and thus takes pride in what he does. Working with concrete abstractions at a young age is crucial to building imagination in the later stages of the First Plane and into the Second Plane. No wonder why Montessori Education is referred to as an “aid to life.” For more resources on Montessori Education, click here to browse through our resources or become a member of Edussori.