A Montessori Perspective on Reality & Imagination

by Barbara O’Brien, Ph.D.

A young child has many developmental tasks, but one of the most critical is his ability to orient to his own place and time. As adults, we need to be as helpful as possible to the child in understanding his world. This is a big responsibility; one not to be taken lightly. Children believe what they see and what they hear, so we must monitor the input carefully. For example, by reading a child a book about something real (i.e. the life of Capuchin monkeys or how a train works) the child has an opportunity to build a solid foundation in reality on which to base later creativity. There is so much for the youngest children to touch, feel and experience in the real world that adults must give them these opportunities.

Before the age of six a child has a very difficult time distinguishing between reality and fiction/fantasy. Referring to the young child, Dr. Maria Montessori said, “We alone imagine, not they; they merely believe.” This is why Montessori classrooms are full of real lessons that are useful aids in understanding the world. A child enjoys these lessons, which are called “work,” because she recognizes their importance. The atmosphere in the classroom is calm, peaceful and joyful. “Joy is not the opposite of serious. Serious business (like learning) can be joyful,” notes Adele Diamons, PhD, University of British Columbia. A recent study from the February issue of the journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development notes that younger children have a harder time with the fantasy-reality task than older ones, showing that the ability improves with age.

Around the age of six a child enters a new stage of development. He begins to question how things work. With a mind that has a strong base in reality, the child can now let the universe come to life through his imagination. Maria Montessori highly valued the imagination and worked it into the curriculum of the Elementary years. The impressionistic charts, such as The Work of the Leaf, are a perfect example of this. The leaf chart depicts cells as “workers” who take heat, light, water and carbon dioxide to “bake” the plant’s food. The child knows that there aren’t really small workers inside a leaf, but the drawings are used to help him imagine how a leaf works. Current research shows that children who receive a Montessori education solve problems more creatively than their non-Montessori school peers. This is likely because as a scientist, Dr. Montessori observed and honored the child’s natural developmental stages, giving the child exactly what he needed at each stage.

Barbara O’Brien is a Developmental Psychologist. To learn more about Montessori education at Chesterfield Montessori School, please call 314-469-7150 or visit www.Chesterfieldmontessori.org.