Friday, January 23, 2015

Playful Learning and Montessori: Play is Developmentally Appropriate

NAMC Montessori playful learning environment girl with paint on hands

A child’s play is not simply a reproduction of what he has experienced, but a creative reworking of the impressions he has acquired.
— Lev Vygotsky, 2004.

My six-year-old niece started kindergarten this year. She was thrilled! But then, within the first few days, something terrible happened. She was no longer the happy child who was enthusiastic about learning. She cried at the drop of a hat and refused to go back. When asked why, she told her parents, “It’s too much work. The day is too long. I’m too tired.” She also told them that she couldn't play anymore.

Sadly, this is happening all over the world. Accountability by means of high stakes testing has mandated that playful learning be replaced by volumes of disconnected fact-based learning. Today, memorization has replaced true learning, with success being measured by test scores.

Since when does sitting still and silent equal learning?

Dr. Montessori tells us that how we learn makes a difference to what we learn.

... Does Nature make a difference between work and play or occupation and rest? Watch the unending activity of the flowing stream or the growing tree. See the breakers of the ocean, the unceasing movements of the earth, the planets, the sun and the stars. All creation is life, movement, work. What about our hearts, our lungs, our bloodstream which work continuously from birth till death? Have they asked for some rest? Not even during sleep are they inactive. What about our mind which works without intermission while we are awake or asleep?
—Maria Montessori
What you should know about your child, 1948

Why Play in the Montessori Environment Encourages Better Learning


Using today’s vernacular, Montessori would tell us that it is not developmentally appropriate to force children to sit still all day. In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Rae Pica of BAM radio shared modern research that says “the brain is far more active during physical activity than while one is seated.” (Pica, 2014)

Conventional education uses the direct instruction model, with the teacher relying on lectures, textbooks, and worksheets to teach and assess content knowledge. Children are expected to sit and listen all day, with very little movement. Behavior problems such as inattention, restlessness, and “wiggling” can occur as a result. Without room to explore and discover on their own, the children’s confidence in their ability and self-worth plummets and they no longer enjoy challenging tasks. The long-lasting effects of direct instruction can be “poor study habits, achievement, greater distractibility, hyperactivity, and peer aggression.” (Hirsh-Pasek, 2014)

Developmentally Appropriate Direct Instruction
Active learning Passive learning
Whole child approach Children seen as "empty vessels"
Playful learning (guided play) Paper and pencil; worksheets; test taking
Integrated curricula Learning is compartmentalized
Discover and explore (teacher as guide) Teacher as sage

The Montessori environment is developmentally appropriate. It embodies “… a metaphor of learning that is more playful in which children are active and less passively involved in learning.” (Hirsh-Pasek, 2014) In 2006, Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest published research that compared the outcomes of Montessori children at an inner-city public school with those receiving direct instruction.

The Montessori children at age 5 did better academically and socially, scoring higher in reading, math, and executive functioning. At age 12, those same children liked school more, wrote more creatively, and continued to excel in reading and math. They also had more positive social skills.


Lillard and Else-Quest concluded that “… Montessori fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools”. (Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006)

That still leaves us with the question of how Montessori’s ideas of “work” can be viewed as playful. We will explore that in the next article.

Works Cited
Hirsh-Pasek, Kathryn. “The power of playful learning: How guided play sparks social and academic outcomes.” Early childhood investigations.
Lillard, Angeline, and Nicole Else-Quest. “Evaluating Montessori education.” Science, 5795. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/313/5795/1893.full?ijkey=3UWZqF01vQgbY&keytype=ref&siteid=sci
Montessori, Maria. What You Should Know About Your Child. Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications, 1948.
Pica, Rae. “Why does sitting still equal learning?” Huffington Post. October 3, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rae-pica/why-does-sitting-still-equal-learning_b_5922430.html
Vygotsky, Lev. “Imagination and creativity in childhood.” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 42, no. 1. January–February 2004, p. 7–97.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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 Friday, January 23, 2015.

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