How Maria Montessori Can Help Us Get Past the False Debate Between Work and Play

Mar 7, 2016 12:00:00 AM


A false debate rages among parents and even educators these days: play versus academic content. While there’s no question academic expectations for our youngest learners have risen over the last 20 years, there are lots of good questions being asked about how we’re changing their classroom experiences to meet the new demands. We all know that kindergarten is the  new first grade and we’re arguing over whether Common Core is appropriate for the youngest students. But those arguments can get pretty muddy. Charges that increased academic demands crowd out time for free play, get mixed up with the criticism that we’re teaching young kids with worksheets rather than hands-on learning experiences. Both aren’t good, but they are different problems, with different solutions. What’s real in all this is bad classroom practice— testing kindergartners, pushing down sit still, kill-and-drill worksheets as the way to learn reading and math. But what’s false is to say that play is separate from mastering academic knowledge and skills.

From Patients to Students

Just in time for International Women’s Day, there was an inspiring woman educator whom we can look to in order to help us reframe our thinking about play and learning:  Maria Montessori. Montessori, Italy’s first woman doctor, became deeply interested in children’s learning after observing firsthand the native intelligence of poor and working-class children whom she treated as a doctor and whose abilities Italian society seriously underestimated. She began to develop her methods while running a school for developmentally disabled children and closely observing their progress. In 1907, the Italian government supported her in opening a school for 60 working-class Italian children ages 1 to 6. Some people might be surprised to hear Montessori referenced in a discussion about play. There’s a common misconception out there that the Montessori method discourages pretend play because Montessori classrooms don’t contain play kitchens or toys or dress-up areas. The reality is much more complicated. First off, why pretend to cook in a play kitchen when you can work with real food in a real one? Chopping vegetables, caring for plants, cleaning windows, washing dishes—preschoolers and early elementary students find these activities deeply interesting and fun. And they can do them, given appropriately-sized tools. They are essential parts of the “practical life” component of the Montessori curriculum. As one Montessori teacher/blogger has  described her classroom, she sees constant examples of dramatic play going on while children are engaged with books, a real stethoscope, even cutting paper. Interestingly, in Montessori’s view, imagination becomes even more important when children reach elementary school. By then they have achieved sufficient understanding of the real world to allow them to better distinguish imagination from reality and to use imagination to help them  understand abstract concepts from the Big Bang to plate tectonics and more.

What's Our Problem?

If Maria Montessori were alive today, I bet she’d say our biggest problems aren’t arguing over how much time students should have for recess. She’d wonder why we draw such a bright line between what happens in preschool—where experiential, hands-on learning still has a fighting chance—and what happens in those kindergartens where they not only took the toys out, but also made the teachers the center of the action, not the children. She’d wonder why so many of our elementary classrooms aren’t set up for children to choose their own learning activities, including moving around to take them out and put them away. She would decry our age-in-grade lockstep and wonder why we were so inflexible about multi-age groupings. In an age when we’ve gotten better at teaching our children the basics of reading but haven’t yet put as much energy into increasing their general knowledge—especially in  science and social studies—Maria Montessori’s methods and materials offer a useful third way between inappropriate, didactic instruction and calls for more unstructured play as a panacea for all the bad practice evident in young children’s classrooms. For those who think Montessori’s choice of the word “work” rather than “play” to describe children’s activities meant she was a killjoy, she also left us an interesting benchmark by which to evaluate the quality of our practices: “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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