In Part I of this article, we talked about the importance of offering reality to the young child during the first six years of his life, when he is building impressions of the world around him. If these impressions are accurate, they will strengthen his intelligence and allow him to continue learning effectively. We discussed how fantasy could confuse young children, and why it didn’t lead to the development of their own imagination.
Before we go any further, let’s consider the difference between fantasy and imagination. In our daily lives, those words are used interchangeably. But are they really the same thing? Absolutely not!
The definition of fantasy is: “ideas that have no basis in reality”. Fantasy can be a great tool for escape and entertainment for those of us who have a strong grip on reality. However, young children (before the age of 5 or 6) are not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality; a phenomenon that has dire repercussions on their ability to learn and problem-solve.
“Pretending is largely assimilation of reality to one’s own thoughts, rather than adjustment of one’s own ideas to fit reality,” writes Dr. Angeline Stoll Lillard in Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Our goal as parents and educators is to give our children a firm grounding in life, so they will be able to deal with whatever challenges come their way, instead burying their heads in the sands of a fantasy world.
How is imagination different from fantasy? Let’s look at the definition of imagination: “1. The ability of the mind to form new and original ideas that have their basis in reality. 2. The ability to be creative and resourceful”.1
Why does imagination have two definitions? Because there are two types of imagination! When the child is young (before the age of 6), he uses reproductive imagination. Simply put, this is the ability to see something, close your eyes, and continue seeing it in your mind. Reproductive imagination plays a huge role in the early formative years of a Montessori child. It allows him to develop math and language skills, and permits him to understand abstract concepts such as colors, shapes, and other aspects of the world around us.
We use reproductive imagination to help the young child expand his horizons. If we want to talk about the desert to a young child who has never experienced it, we use concepts he is familiar with to help him build a mental picture of an unfamiliar place. We tell him the desert is hot during the day; hot like the heat that comes from a fireplace. At night it gets very cold; cold like the air inside a refrigerator. The desert has hills, like the ones he’s climbed; but they’re made of sand, like the sand he plays with at the beach.
The child begins to develop an image in his mind (literally, he’s image-ining). This image’s accuracy depends on the precision and variety of his experiences. If he has never been allowed to get close to the fireplace and feel its heat, he will not be able to imagine the heat of the desert. If he has never been allowed to play in the beach (or heck, even a sandbox), he will not understand the grittiness of the desert sand.
Young children can certainly use their imagination, but their main focus is the reality around them. They want to touch everything and are driven by Nature to orientate themselves with their immediate surroundings. However, around the age of six, the child begins to question how everything around him works. He’s no longer content with learning through his senses: feeling, seeing, tasting a fruit, and finding out its name, for example. He wants to know where it came from and how it was made!
At this point, Nature, in its infinite wisdom, sends the child’s ability to imagine into overdrive to satisfy his burgeoning curiosity for the Universe (just like in the previous stage of life it drove the child to learn through his senses). In the Montessori Elementary classroom, we meet the six-year-old child in this new stage of his life and offer him Cosmic Education.
Cosmic Education presents the inter-relatedness of everything around us. Just like in the Children’s House environment, we use materials that transmit concepts concretely, but these materials are only the starting point in the Elementary child’s learning process. The child uses the Montessori materials to understand certain ideas, but will then use his powerful imagination (well-prepared by real experiences in the earlier years) to reach accurate conclusions. This new type of imaginative ability, called creative imagination, will allow him to understand the wider implications of his new knowledge, and he will use it as an agent of creation and problem-solving.
In the Elementary classroom, the Universe comes to life through the child’s imagination. He time-travels to ancient Egypt to discover triangles with the help of a magic rope, and before that to Babylonia to learn how to measure angles by following stars. He studies grammar, where the Pronoun becomes a rocket that orbits the Sun (the Verb). Math – that most dreaded of subjects – becomes delightful when the divisor in long division turns into an ancient Roman troop leader, and squaring and cubing are viewed as a story of a monarchy. The subjects explored in Elementary are as wide as our knowledge in our world and the child’s imagination takes center stage.
In Elementary, all subjects “must be presented so as to touch the imagination of the child, and make him enthusiastic, and then add fuel to the burning fire that has been lit,” Dr. Montessori explains. “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.”