The Montessori curriculum is well grounded in the realities of the universe. This is not to say that Maria Montessori discouraged imagination. She was a big believer in the child imagining the greater truths of the universe. Indeed, the Montessori Great Lessons curriculum first presents the creation of the universe with having children close their eyes imagine the coldest, darkest place they can think of. This, Montessori says, can’t begin to compare to how cold and dark space was before the universe was created. Montessori stated that “Reality is studied in detail, then the whole is imagined. The detail is able to grow in the imagination, and so total knowledge is attained.” (Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence, pg. 18).
Montessori believed that the universe is a wonderful creation and the Montessori curriculum presents all its wonder to the child, from birth to six years. Children in this first plane of development are grounded in concrete reality. Their ability to discern what is real and what is not real is not yet in place.
Montessori and Imagination: The First Plane of DevelopmentMontessori discouraged the use of fantastical play and images until the after reality is established and the child enters into the second plane of development and is capable of more abstract thought.
Montessori states that “The true basis of the imagination is reality” (The Advanced Montessori Method, pg. 196). Further, research shows that intelligence is developed by critical analysis of perceived reality, not through fantasy and make-believe. Reality is perceived by the senses, something that is easily recognizable. Imagination is based on the senses and is firmly tied to reality. In order to construct oneself, the child must have real, multi-sensory experiences with real objects.
This is why Montessori refers to the activities of the child as “work” rather than play. These reality-based activities take on importance because they are respected as the work of adults rather than the fantasy play that has no grounding in reality. The materials used in the Montessori preschool classroom are also real. There is no pretend kitchen. If the children are hungry they prepare a snack using real utensils and food. Snack is served using real plates and cloth placemats. Woodworking tools are real and serve a real purpose – they cut, hammer, and pry. Plastic tools have no purpose and do not hold the child’s intent concentration for long.
This is not to say that there isn't dramatic or imaginative play in the Montessori preschool classroom. Think of the child who cuts a strip of zigzagged paper and turns it into a crown, now imagining that he is the king. This type of dramatic and imaginative ‘play’ occurs frequently and spontaneously. Children “conduct” the classical music being played on the Montessori classroom CD player; a real stethoscope is used to listen to heartbeats while children imagine being doctors.
Faced with the choice of providing toys and fairy tales or serving the developmental needs of children, Montessori chose to serve a higher purpose – that of the child.
Fairy tales are very important literature. If I could I would make a collection of all the fairy tales in the world, so that grown-ups could know them better ... They are beautiful little stories for children, but not in place of this concentration on work." (Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World. p. 46)