One of the big “concerns” or “criticisms” of Montessori is that Pretend Play is not encouraged in the classroom. Generally, I believe that pretend play is based in reality.
So, if we expose children to real-life through meaningful, productive work and experiences and allow them to open their eyes to the great big world around them, they will, in turn, incorporate these experiences into their play and their imaginations will be richer from it. (Sorry that was a long sentence.)
Therefore, the hope is that the play will have a more deeply ingrained impact on their development. I suppose it is like anything in life (going to business school and learning about management as opposed to actually having the experience…for example).
Montessori Thoughts on Pretend Play
So here are a few thoughts on this extremely controversial topic in Montessori land:
1) The issue is not with the “pretend play” but with the materials. Dr. Montessori wanted the child to gain an experience through the actual experience of cooking, for example, not pretending to cook. She believed that pretend play often comes from watching older siblings and adults. So, the child would act out the process of making soup if he sees his father making soup one day, rather than making the soup on his own. That is why preparing the environment with materials suitable for a child (e.g. a small broom to sweep, a low sink to wash, a small bed to put baby to sleep or building blocks that actually build a tower instead of pretending to build a tower) in order to have these experiences is key.
2) I believe AMS (American Montessori Society) gives a little on this issue whereas AMI (…International) is the more hard core, crack open the vaults for Dr. Montessori's original notebooks, type of school (so look for that in your tours and reading. There will be a slight difference.). Montessori Controversy is a good book to consider reading for your journey. The author (a guy who actually lives in Seattle and happens to be a Montessori expert. Very convenient.) says that even if a classroom excludes all “pretend play” or “fantasy” materials like dress up, blocks, etc a child will still find a way to incorporate this type of play into his development. So a box, cabinet or shelf becomes a cave or a boat, a blanket or mat becomes a cape, a piece of paper even becomes amazing things…I see this point with my sons. They pretend play with things that we cannot even see. So, I find myself crawling on the ground to get a closer look at the “teeny, tiny brontosaurus eating from the pond” and when he asks me, “see him, mama?” I say, “yes”.
3) I'd be concerned about any school that “discourages fantasy play”. Doesn't seem like it is a good fit for you guys. So just remember that not all Montessori schools are alike…a friend of mine wrote in an email recently on this topic that ‘”fun” doesn't always equates to “fantasy play” and “Montessori” does not always exclude “imagination”‘. I couldn't agree with her more…
4) Remind the child that myths are myths. My older son is mildly obsessed with Greek Mythology. He makes up mythological creatures among many other self driven activities that leaves my mouth gaping every day. I am in awe, really. So, what do I do? I won't squash that passion but I will remind him that Poseidon cannot really hover above the sea and stick his trident in the water to create a storm: I remind him that these adventurous stories are myths.
5) Lastly, I try to incorporate “real” objects into the Pretend Play. So, for example, if my sons are “cooking dinner” or “grocery shopping”, I'll slip in some real carrots, pepper, pasta, etc. I have been known to also place real money in their Wooden Cash Register.
I have a lot more to write on this topic but I'll stop here and wait for another day.