Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Play and Work in Montessori Education

NAMC montessori education work and play boys playing checkers
Written by NAMC blog contest finalist, Dr. David Elkind, PhD

We are pleased to share this guest submission, the first of three finalists in the NAMC blog contest. We thank Dr. Elkind for his participation, and hope you enjoy this thoughtful article on early childhood education.

“Play is the Child’s Work” is perhaps Maria Montessori’s best-known aphorism. Unfortunately, this phrase is often misinterpreted to suggest that work and play are identical and that children should be working, not playing. But that is really not what Dr. Montessori had in mind. Montessori wrote, for example, that children might well use their imagination to think about a distant country like America, rather than a fairy tale land. In so doing she recognized that imagination or play was not the same as work. Montessori also appreciated that learning is most effective when play and work are united in a single activity. To appreciate this insight, we need to be clear about the difference between play and work.

Play and Work in Montessori Education

In the broadest sense, play is always a transformation of reality in the service of the self. Young infants, for example, transform every object they can grasp into an object to be sucked. Older children transform a stick and a piece of cloth into a doll or a piece of wood into a boat that floats on a puddle. When playing a board game like checkers, chess or monopoly, the pieces of each game are transformed and given an importance they would never attain outside of the game. It is important to distinguish transformations of reality from creativity. Creativity always involves a transformation of reality, but not all transformations of reality are creative. In board games and sports, for example, the players adopt pre-established, conventional transformations. Creativity always involves original transformations.

NAMC montessori education work and play girl brushing teeth
In contrast to play, work is always a transformation of the self in the service of reality. When a child learns to use a spoon to feed himself or herself, this is an adaptation to the demands of society. Learning to wash and dress oneself are other examples of work. Social skills such as listening to, and following instructions, are other ways in which the child transforms the self in the service of adapting to society. Acquiring the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic are social adaptations. In the same way, moral behaviors such as telling the truth and not taking things which don’t belong to you are other examples of work, of transforming ourselves to meet the demands of the larger society.

Although we tend to think of work and play as in opposition to one another, they are most effective when they are brought together. Therein lies the genius of the Montessori materials. Form boards*, for example, bring together both play and work. The child must mentally transform the form board, and the pieces to be placed within it, into a problem to be solved, the play component. Positioning the pieces into their proper places is the adaptation to reality, the work component. By bringing together learning tasks which unite work and play Montessori was able to mobilize the child’s personal motivation for the purpose of social learning. As Montessori’s curriculum materials make clear, a less misleading aphorism might be, “Play is the motivation for the child’s work.”

NAMC montessori education work and play david elkind just ask baby
* Form Boards are shape matching activities.
David Elkind PhD is the chief scientific advisor for Just Ask Baby, an online video membership service, which gives parents a unique baby’s eye view on how to effectively nurture their infant’s full developmental potential. 
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, May 12, 2009.

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