“Where’s the dress-up corner?” Montessori and Imagination

When you walk into a Montessori classroom you might notice something missing. There’s no dress-up corner or play kitchen. There are “blocks” on the shelves, but the children are “working” with them instead of “playing” with them, because they’re not “toys,” they’re “materials.” How does Montessori enhance a child’s imagination, if there are no toys in the classroom?

Imagination in the Three to Six-Year Old

Between the ages of three and six a child’s imagination is actively developing.

Three to Four:

Three-year olds are starting to sort out fact from fiction, reality from fantasy. Have you ever had a conversation with a three-year old in which you tried to convince them that, no, in fact, they actually can’t fly — even though they insist that they did it “this other time”?

They’re pretty hard to convince, because if they can see it OR imagine it, they can believe it. This is why three-year olds don’t tell lies: to them, it’s the truth, because they want it to be true. 

Child curled up on a tree stump, hiding. Imagination and Montessori
“You can’t see me!”

Four to Five:

By the time a child is four-years old, they’ve figured out that there’s “real” and there’s “make-believe,” and they know how to go back and forth between the two. Four-year olds love to dress up and play pretend. They imitate what they see and experience, so it’s no surprise that playing “house” or “school” are favorite activities.

Their world of make-believe might have spaceships and princesses in it, but don’t be surprised when those aliens have to take their spaceship to the mechanics or the princess loves making soup and ALSO likes being the teacher. It’s a blurred line.

Five to Six:

By five or six most children have a solid understanding of the real / pretend demarcation, but there will still be moments when the two blend together and they have a hard time figuring out which is which. It’s why sarcasm still goes over their heads (are you joking, because you sound serious…) and Halloween is more fun and less scary, but can still be pretty scary.

Take a six-year old to Disney World and they’ll be the first to tell you that it’s just a grown-up in a costume, while they happily stand in line to take a picture with Mickey anyway.

Grounded in Reality

So, how does Montessori support this facet of childhood? With no traditional toys in the classroom, how do the children find ways to engage their imagination? It might sound counter-productive, but if you want your child to have an active imagination, ground them in reality FIRST.

Montessori provides children with a solid, tactile, sensorial experience with the real world first, so that the world of make-believe has a concrete foundation. In a Montessori classroom there is no specific space designated for pretend play.

You won’t find a play kitchen or a tea-party set, because the entire classroom provides the real activities that children like to play. Children don’t need to play “house,” because their school is, quite literally, a Children’s House. 

Throughout their day, Montessori children actively participate in maintaining the classroom environment. They water plants, feed the fish or hamster, sweep the floor, wash the tables after lunch, scrub the chairs when they get dirty, and clean up their workspace when they’re done.

There are food-prep activities like apple-cutting, preparing a bowl of cereal, and carrot peeling (and eating!) and the children help themselves to a snack and sit down to chat with a friend.

Work IS Play

The Practical Life shelves are filled with materials that mimic life at home. Think about all the times your child sees you working in the kitchen: pouring, mixing, carrying, wiping, and sweeping. They see you carefully measure a teaspoon of sugar or a cup of flour and they watch you — intently — to see how it’s done. 

In the Montessori classroom, they transfer tiny beads from cup to cup with a delicate spoon or they carry a bucket of carefully measured water across the room to their scrubbing work. All without spilling a drop.

They are learning to control their movements and improve their hand-eye coordination while also having fun! It’s immensely fun to scrub a chair when you’re four-years old! (If you don’t believe us, visit a Montessori school and see for yourself.) 

In the Montessori classroom, the children don’t need to play “school” either. In a mixed-age classroom, children have the opportunity to teach and take on leadership roles within the classroom. A six-year old, who is working with a younger friend on learning sounds with the sandpaper letters, isn’t pretending to be a teacher; they’re being a teacher. 

Let’s Get Real

Many of the materials in a Montessori classroom are handmade by the teacher. You’ll find cards for sorting and categorizing, tiny objects for matching, and lots of science and geography materials to teach about different parts of our natural world.  There’ll be photographs of real animals and souvenirs and artifacts from different lands.

In a Montessori classroom you’ll see children working with glass dishes and ceramic bowls, because natural consequences provide excellent learning opportunities. Children learn to carry trays with care so as not to drop the contents. When things do break — and they will — the children learn to slow down, lift carefully, walk slowly, and place gently. 

The emphasis on what is real creates a classroom environment that is grounded in real experiences, which everyone can share. Because children in this age group are still learning to discern the difference between real and make-believe, giving them real touchstones helps them establish those boundaries.

If you stop and think about it, we enjoy the fantastical, because we understand that it’s not real. Adventures happening in a galaxy far, far away are real enough to feel real, but far-enough removed from our reality that we feel safe and secure watching from the comfort of our living rooms. 

For a child to develop a vivid imagination, they need lots and lots and lots (and lots!) of exposure to real experiences, real images, and real stories. After all, a purple horse in a story book is only funny when you’re 100% certain that horses aren’t purple. Otherwise it’s just another purple horse, talking to a pig in overalls; what’s so great about that? 

Ground them in reality, so their imaginations can truly fly!

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