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The Montessori School Myth

Many parents have heard that Montessori schools discourage the use of creativity, fantasy, and imagination. This is an unfortunate and inaccurate generalization of what Maria Montessori was actually teaching us. To clarify, we must first take a look at these concepts individually, as their meanings are similar but not actually synonymous.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of fantasy, creativity, and imagination are as follow:

Human consciousness comes into the world as a flaming ball of imagination.
Human consciousness comes into the world as a flaming ball of imagination.

Fan·ta·sy /ˈfan(t)əsē/ The faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable.

Cre·a·tiv·i·ty /ˌkrēāˈtivədē/ The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

Im·ag·i·na·tion /iˌmajəˈnāSH(ə)n/ The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.

Fantasy is the use of imagination to conjure up the image or ideas of things that are not real. Maria Montessori did not actually discourage children from engaging in make-believe play. Rather, she observed that children under the age of six preferred “real” to fantasy when given the choice. She watched as, time after time, young children chose cleaning, cooking, and other practical life activities over fantasy play.

The Montessori Actuality

Dr. Montessori continued to observe young children and discovered that they were especially interested in distinguishing between real and imaginary. They frequently asked for clarification. “Is that real?” they wanted to know. Montessori realized that young children have an innate need to understand what is fantasy and what is reality. They are trying to make sense of the world around them. Therefore, Montessori’s educational method focuses on helping young children discover as much as possible about our actual environment and existent world.

However, this is not to say that children are not supposed to use their imaginations. In fact, Montessori knew that the imagination is essential to humankind’s ability to understand that which is real, but not readily visible.

Human consciousness comes into the world as a flaming ball of imagination. Everything invented by human beings, 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 the imagination can be of use to us? I consider it a crime to present such subjects as may be noble and creative aids to the imaginative faculty in such a manner as to deny its use, and on the other hand to require children to memorize that which they have not been able to visualize[…]. The secret of good teaching is to regard the children’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 children understand, and still less to force them to memorize, but so to touch their imagination as to enthuse them to their inmost core. We do not want complacent pupils but eager ones; we seek to sow life in children rather than theories, to help them in their growth, mental and emotional as well as physical. ~ Dr. Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential

Listen to Mary Ellen Maunz and Irma Rodriguez, Age of Montessori Elementary Teacher Training Program Co-Developers, discuss the importance of imagination to intellectual growth in Elementary-age children.


“Intelligence grows through the use of the imagination,” explains Irma Rodriguez. “How else would we be able to picture the way the earth formed when we were not there? We have to make use of the [child’s] ability to imagine, in order for them to see what no longer exists.”

Through using the imagination, the child literally enhances his ability to see images in his mind. As Mary Ellen Maunz notes, the word imagination comes from the Latin root “imago” which means “images.”

Im·age \ˈi-mij\ Latin imago: a mental picture, the thought of how something looks or might look.

If you’d like to know more about the Montessori Educational Method, we welcome you to visit Age of Montessori at ageofmontessori.org.






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  1. “Montessori… observed that children under the age of six preferred “real” to fantasy when given the choice.”

    No basis for her observation to become a teaching tool. It has certainly not been my observation.

    1. Thank you for responding to this blog. Certainly, we all have different experiences with children and we observe different things in their development depending on the child, their temperament and their environment. Although in your experience and observation, you have not found that children under the age of six prefer real to fantasy there actually is basis for this and is a foundation of Montessori philosophy. Even though children can be afforded opportunities to engage in fantasy play, here are some of the reasons why Montessori believed that real-life experiences were more beneficial to this stage of development rather than fantasy play:

      • The “absorbent mind” of the young child is taking in everything of the world around them, without question, and realizing that everything is possible. When the child is inundated with fantasy play, this can become their reality requiring more effort to come back to reality.

      • Before the age of six, children are mostly not yet in the stage of the logical mind, meaning they have difficulty discriminating between true (real life) and false (fantasy).

      • Many psychologists agree that the majority of phobias trace back to early childhood and may be due to exposure to fantasy that has increased.

      • Children who “play” by imitating real life experiences (such as being a doctor/ vet, baker, store clerk, etc.) helps the child feel empowered, independent, and joyous by being a part of real, simple daily tasks that matter.

      • Montessori states that “The true basis of the imagination is reality.”

      I hope that this response gives you greater insight into the foundations and philosophy behind the Montessori Method as it applies to early childhood education and the topic reality vs. fantasy. — Karen Walton, M.Ed.

      Sources: The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori (pp. 266-7)
      Age of Montessori: Blog: “What’s wrong with a little fantasy before 6?”
      AgeofMontessori, http://dev.ageofmontessori.org/fantasy-before-6/
      The Advanced Montessori Method by Maria Montessori (pg. 196)

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