Thursday, October 28, 2010

Montessori and Imagination: the Second Plane of Development

NAMC montessori second plane of development and imaginationThe Montessori elementary child is exposed early to the story of the universe. Notice, I said “story” and not lesson. This is because the explanation as to the creation of the universe and every living and non-living thing is told to them in a series of imaginative stories we call the “Great Lessons”. Usually told during the first eight weeks of school and for all six years of the elementary cycle, the Great Lessons are the catalyst for learning and discovery throughout the Montessori elementary years.

With the Montessori teacher in the role of the story teller, not lecturer, the First Great Lesson unravels the great mysteries of the universe. Abstract concepts such as The Big Bang, stellar nucleosynthesis, gravity, magnetism, composition of the earth and other planets, and plate tectonics all come alive through the power of IMAGINATION! Using impressionistic charts and simple experiments, the Montessori teacher-story teller weaves a story which spurs the imagination of the children around her and lays the foundation for physics, astronomy, physical science, chemistry, and physical geography.

Pretty heavy-duty stuff for a first grader! But Montessori believed, that at this sensitive period, we are to give children the keys to unlock their potential. We do this by grounding them in reality while allowing them to imagine things that are bigger and more abstract than the world around them.

Montessori and Imagination: the Second Plane of Development

Some people believe that Montessori was against imaginary thought and play. Quite the contrary! She believed that a child could not develop and progress without the use of his or her imagination. She saw the ability to imagine things that were not truly present as a higher order thinking skill. So strongly did she believe this, she went on to say that imagination was the foundation of intelligence and that no modern scientific thought would have been possible without the power of the imagination.

Human consciousness comes into the world as a flaming ball of imagination. Everything invented by man, physical or mental, is the fruit of someone’s imagination. In the study of history and geography we are helpless without imagination, and when we propose to introduce the universe to the child, what but imagination can be of use to us?”…”The secret of good teaching is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core. (Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential)

What Dr. Montessori did not agree with was the use of fantasy before the child was able to think abstractly. Fantasy play and stories are based on unreal objects – dragons, fairy godmothers, and toys which serve no purpose other than to entertain for a few brief moments. During her early work, Montessori provided the children with toys and fairy tales, but her own scientific observations brought her to this conclusion: children want real things that serve a real purpose.

Though the school contained some really wonderful toys, the children never chose them. This surprised me so much that I myself intervened, to show them how to use such toys, teaching them how to handle the doll's crockery, lighting the fire in the tiny doll's kitchen, setting a pretty doll beside it. The children showed interest for a time, but then went away, and they never made such toys the objects of their spontaneous choice. And so I understood that in a child's life play is perhaps something inferior, to which he has recourse for want of something better... (Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood)

The Montessori elementary environment is full of creativity. Children rush to discover that which truly excites them. They research the planets and write creative stories of their adventures in space. They immerse themselves in marine biology and write songs of the humpback whale. They explore the use of simple machines and construct a ramp at the entrance to the school. They learn about the Middle Ages and design, sew, and present a medieval fashion show. All of this stems from the interest and the imagination of the child.

Even dramatic plays are performed in the Montessori elementary environment, usually with one important difference: the subjects are real. I had a Montessori upper elementary classroom that enjoyed writing, acting and delivering weekly plays based on the ancient civilizations we were studying at the time. There were numerous performances of ancient Egypt and conspiracies theories! We also performed a play for the entire school community based on the creation of the universe and the timeline of life.

The Montessori environment is a place of imagination, creativity, and dramatic play. It differs from traditional education in its view of reality versus fantastical concepts. The strength of Montessori lies in building concrete realities and allowing students to move toward more abstract thought as they become more developmentally prepared and ready.

For further reading:
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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 Thursday, October 28, 2010.


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