“[It] may be said that in order to develop the imagination it is necessary for everyone first of all to put himself in contact with reality.” -Dr. Maria Montessori
When Dr. Montessori opened her first classroom in 1907 in the San Lorenzo tenement housing in Rome, she had two cabinets of materials for the children’s use. One was filled with the materials she had designed and made for the children based on her earlier work in hospitals, and the other was filled with toys that had been donated to her by her friends.
Dr. Montessori found very quickly that the children in the classroom exclusively chose the materials over the toys. She was surprised, and went so far as to sit down with the children and show them how to use the toys. After sitting with the dolls and so on for a short time, the children returned to the materials and remained with them. This observation brought Montessori to the conclusion that the children preferred reality and real work to toys and fantasy. Her conclusion has since been supported both by Montessori’s own work and that of many educators the world over.
I have found myself wondering on occasion if such a scenario could still take place. Surely contemporary battery-powered toys with flashing lights and a different song for every button would attract attention away from our simple, orderly materials. But I have seen that it is not so.
A year or so ago, my school hosted a fundraising garage sale. We filled part of a classroom not being used for the summer with donations. We had all kinds of things – plastic play kitchen sets, a cat-shaped keyboard, toy cars, dolls, a bin of dress-up clothes, bikes, and the list goes on. The other half of the classroom still had Montessori materials neatly arranged on shelves.
I watched as a two-and-a-half year old girl walked into the room, looked at all the toys, even touching some of them, and went straight to the shelves of materials and took great delight in working with a cylinder block (one of the Montessori sensorial materials). She was not prompted in any way, nor did I put her in the room as a test or experiment. She was not a student at our school returning to the familiar joys of the classroom. She was a child entering into a room filled with choices and after seeing what was available, she chose what she wanted (or needed) most.
Often in Montessori, we speak of the materials calling out to the children, and we do our best to make sure that call is clear. That is why our classrooms tend to be simple and uncluttered, decorated to the point of orderly beauty, not to the point of distraction. The children want to engage in the classroom. They want the experience that the materials will give them because they will get more learning from that experience than from flashy toys or reasoned rhetoric from an adult.
I think this story supports several truths about children, but the thought I want to land on today is that children crave reality. They want to do real work with real things. Nearly every parent of a two or three-year-old child sympathizes with the image of sweeping the floor and having to drag the child along on the end of the broom. The children want to help, they want to understand their own power to do work, and they will be best satisfied in that quest when they have real things to do.