Real vs. Imaginary Play for Young Children!

Posted on by Helena Eddings

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“[The young child] cannot distinguish well between the real and the imaginary,
between things that are possible and things that are merely ‘made up’.”

—Maria Montessori, Times Education Supplement, 1919

The young child believes what he sees, hears, and experiences. The young child cannot distinguish between what’s real and/or make-believe. Remember, everything – virtually everything – is new and amazing to children. Observing and discovering nature is fantastic enough for a child under the age of six. Watch him explore his surroundings. You need not seek out the extraordinary or make up fantastic stories to entertain little children.

We want to provide the best foundation possible for our children as their brains are developing. Children readily believe what we tell them, so it is important to be aware that they only learn to conceptualize after the age of six or seven. Before this time, it is not possible for them to distinguish between what’s real or imaginary.

Real vs Make-Believe

When Maria Montessori opened her first school in 1907, she supplied it with dolls and toys and entertained the children with fairy tales. In one instance, she observed children leaving the story time to watch a worm crawling in the garden. In another, she noticed the children preferred to serve refreshments to a visitor rather than play in the doll corner.

Montessori discovered that children, as imitators, love to do what adults do – not just pretend to be doing those things. Her observations inspired the creation of the Practical Life activities, such as slicing bananas, polishing silver, cleaning windows, and pouring water or juice. Montessori brought reality into the classroom and grounded all the activities with furniture and equipment sized to suit children. She observed that children develop their intelligence, creativity, and imaginations by hands-on experience.

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A child’s “natural” fantasy play is based on what he knows. If you watch children under the age of seven, their play is very imaginative. You’ll probably observe them recreating a scenario from everyday experiences – taking on the roles of real-life characters with whom they have come into contact. Whether they are “playing house,” or “going to work,” or “becoming a doctor, teacher, or trash collector,” they are enacting what they have learned or observed in their daily life.

Using the Imagination as They Grow

Recognizing that children need a firm footing in reality, Montessori waited until the elementary school years to introduce myths, fables, and fairy tales. These stories present ideas not necessarily based on the child’s reality. Montessori’s Five Great Lessons are stories that introduce children to the cosmos and the history of Earth. More than just learning facts, stories encourage a child’s curiosity and imagination. In To Educate the Human Potential, Maria Montessori says, “By offering the child the story of the universe, we give him something a thousand times more wonderful and mysterious to grasp with his imagination, in a cosmic drama no fable can rival.”

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What Children Need

Young children enjoy books and stories based on real life and the things they know. They love to hear about other children doing things they recognize and can relate to. They also learn to understand the world – expand their intelligence – when concepts are presented in a clear, realistic, and precise form. Fantasy to a child under six is confusing, because it is not part of his concrete experience.

For example, a young child may be told stories about elephants, bears, and unicorns. Some of these live in the real world and can be seen at the zoo, but others are make-believe. “Can we go to the zoo to visit the unicorns?” one little girl asked her father. How do you explain this to a three-year-old who has seen books about unicorns as well as those about elephants? Which one is real and which is not?

Storytelling about real children doing everyday things helps ground young children with a sense of security and self-assurance. A child may not be able to tell the difference between the big bad wolf and a real wolf. Even when an adult tries to explain rationally, the lesson in the story may be understood in part, but the big bad wolf will still be real!

Keep It Real

Keep it real to help children make sense of the world around them. With your guidance, they will discover what’s important to know, and eventually will be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The world is fantastic just as it is.

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“Imagination relies on a solid foundation of real-life experiences, accompanied by ample opportunity for exploration and experimentation – this includes exploration and experimentation through pretending or imagining alternative outcomes.”
—Sarah Werner Andrews, “The Development of Imagination and the Role of Pretend Play”, 27th International Montessori Congress

Source—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

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West Side Montessori is an independent, accredited Montessori school educating children 13 months through 8th grade (preschool, kindergarten, elementary and middle school) with locations at 13587 Roachton Rd in Perrysburg, Ohio, and 7115 W. Bancroft Street in Toledo, Ohio.