One of the most commonly disputed aspects of the Montessori philosophy is her viewpoint on fantasy and young children.
Montessori found that children up to the age of six are oftentimes incapable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. After reading stories with talking bears or dogs driving cars, children might come to believe that these events could actually take place. She observed that if left alone, children will fantasize about realistic events, such as a trip to the grocery store or to the dentist. Adults are the ones who think up terrible monsters and aliens, then thrust them into the child's fantasy play.
Montessori suggested that we surround the child with reality, therefore, giving them a strong grasp on what is real. Once the child has reached the age of six and has entered the second plane of development, he is intellectually capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. This is when fantasy play and imagination truly soar.
Now, there are only so many non-fiction books you can read to young children. Yes, Montessori teachers have their fair share of National Geographic field guides tucked away in corners of the classroom. But we also read some fictional stories- my training suggests using something called realistic fiction. Realistic fiction, although untrue, could actually happen. Going Home is an example of realistic fiction. Also, in order to encourage imagination, we provide ample opportunities through art and music. Objects found in nature are always integrated into the classroom and are often used during fantasy play.
I have a story that relates to this post about a family I worked with years ago. They were a sweet, friendly family and I so enjoyed working with their child. This child, who had turned six mid-way through the year, had a fascination and almost obsession with the character Clifford. Anyone who doesn't know Clifford, he is a very large, red dog originally in children's books and now on t.v. Clifford talks and helps out his friends with daily tasks, humorously making more of a problem because of his enormous size. Anyway, one day this child was drawing a picture with her friend. She was having trouble drawing something and she said to her friend, "If Clifford were here, he could certainly help me." Her friend said "Yeah, too bad Clifford's not real." This child's face turned ghostly white as she looked up at her (now former) best friend. "How could you say that? I'm going to ask the teacher." She pranced over to me just knowing I would support her enthusiasm with the helpful Clifford and her friend would be proven wrong. I had to formulate a plan....fast. She looked up at me and asked flat out "Is Clifford real?" I said what I thought was best, "Clifford can be real in your imagination! What fun it would be to have a big dog help us with our drawings!". Well, that's not what she wanted to hear and she went back to her drawing in tears. Of course, later that day I received a call from mom requesting an urgent meeting. We met later and mom was not happy. She asked me how I could possibly tell her Clifford is not real. They've been spending the last six years dressing up like Clifford at every birthday and fantasizing about Clifford in daily play. After six years of this charade, the poor child actually believed that Clifford was real and came to visit her once a year on her birthday. I just thank my lucky stars this child found out in a peaceful, loving environment with a teacher and friends who care about her. Thank goodness she didn't find out in first grade with new children who may not have been as tactful. In the end, Mom did some research and realized that this is all part of the Montessori philosophy and it was said in her child's best interest.
Now that brings me to the issue of Santa Claus...I know, don't go there. I couldn't agree more with Montessori Mom in her post about Montessori and Santa. Santa is a part of our culture and introduces the spirit of giving to young children.
If interested in reading more information about this post topic, visit Montessori Mom's website here, here, here and here.