Montessori and Play

By Gina Murray, Casa Lake Head Guide – 

I have recently noticed the vast amount of information being published on the topic of play and its importance
to healthy development in young children. As a Montessori educator, I have been asked by friends, family members, and even fellow parents how a Montessori Casa can truly provide for this important need.

After much reflecting, I have come to believe that the crux of this dichotomy—school vs. play—comes from a misunderstanding about what these two experiences end to a child’s development, and in the end, I have come to conclude that a true Montessori education simultaneously provides the child with the best of both.

A Montessori environment is a space created and designed with an explicit purpose: to help the child to fall in love with learning. Both play and imagination have an important role in this process.

In looking at how a child engages with the world and learns from it, we must first take a moment to consider how learning happens. I recognize that the terms we use to describe the learning process in the Montessori approach differ, sometimes drastically, from the terms used in traditional education.

Now, as Montessori parents, we hear a lot about our child’s experience in terms of “work.” Guides talk about “work” being done in the environment, sometimes the materials themselves are referred to as work. We are even encouraged to ask our children about their day, and to frame the question not “what did you play with?”, but “what did you work on?” And, for adults, when we hear the term “work” for our children, it conjures up images of didactic instruction that is focused and centered with an adult. This is just what Montessori education is not.

The term work, in Montessori education, was originally intended to refer to the child’s engagement in her own self-construction. In this sense, the term “work” may be understood as a term of respect for the child’s activity (in its full scope).

Play has a significant role in the child’s process of self-construction. We must then ask, “What makes play so engaging to the child?” Several factors are generally present: 1) Play is child-initiated, 2) Play is child-directed, and 3) Play is resolved by the child. Additionally, play can also be spontaneous, exploratory, imaginative, and joyful. And if we examine more closely, we see that it is precisely these same qualities that the child experiences when engaging with materials in a Montessori environment.

For example, a three year-old child sees the Pink Tower, and wants to use it. They take the material off the stand, and build with it for as long as they find satisfying, and when they are done, they put it away. In this way, the factors present in a child’s “work cycle” are identical to that of play. And here’s the best part…how the child builds the Pink Tower is their choice. Yes, an adult initially gives a presentation, but from there, the child is free to explore, imagine, and discover with the material for as long as she wishes. This is much akin to how a child
engages in play.

The child’s approach to learning in the Montessori environment embodies the same qualities of play, and it is precisely this aspect that inspires and fosters the child’s life-long love of learning.