Waldorf and Montessori on Play, Fantasy, Toys, and the Social Life of the Classroom

An article on The Magic Onions, a beautiful Waldorf blog that I subscribe to, recently caught my attention. While I’m not an advocate of Waldorf education, per se, I certainly find ideas and inspiration, both in the philosophy and on blogs like The Magic Onions, that I appreciate.

The article was shared from Why Waldorf Works and while it was put forth as a simple comparison of Waldorf and Montessori, I feel that (however intentionally or unintentionally) it wrongly painted Montessori in a negative light. I began writing a lengthy comment on the original article, which you can read here, but then decided that my detailed comments may be more appropriate for my own space. I do not feel the need to go into every aspect of Montessori philosophy that the author presents, but I feel compelled to comment on her discussion of fantasty, play, and toys, as well as her thoughts on the social life of Montessori classrooms.

Fantasy, Play, and Toys in Waldorf and Montessori

An example of extension work with the Pink Tower and the Broad Stair. Photo courtesy of Jojoebi ofA Bit of This and a Bit of That, A Montessorian who fully embraces her son’s imagination ;)

Regarding play, fantasy, and toys, the author rightly explains that Montessorians believe, “fantasy should be postponed until the child is firmly grounded in reality.” It’s important to note, however, that we would never discourage or reproof a child who is engaged in imaginative play of their own design. It is not the allowance of fantasy that is postponed. We simply take care to avoid the planting of fantastic ideas in children’s heads. Remember that Montessori herself asked:

How is it possible for the child’s imagination to be developed by that which is in truth the fruit of the adult’s imagination?

Imaginative play is a wonderful thing, but I don’t believe that children need adults to give them fanciful stories or objects in order to encourage them to use their imaginations. They do this quite well on their own.

The author also talks about the set purpose, or the aim of each material in Montessori classrooms. As she puts it, “Math counting rods…are not to be transformed into castle walls.” This is true to an extent, but not entirely. Every Montessori material is designed with a specific purpose in mind, but children are allowed, even encouraged, to freely explore a material that they have mastered. We call these explorations “extensions and variations.” The ever-popular pink tower, for example, is meant to be built with one cube on top of another, all ten stacked from largest to smallest. There are many variations on this layout, however, and I have seen children turn the graded cubes of the tower into anything from a snake to a sunburst. The pink tower also coordinates beautifully with the material known as the Broad Stair or Brown Stair, and children often create fascinating connections when they join the two together.The opportunities are limitless.

She goes on to explain that, “Montessori said that it is a mistake for children to amuse themselves with toys…” This is, in my opinion, an incorrect interpretation of Montessori’s words. She never called play with toys a “mistake,” and truly many of the Montessori materials are virtually indistinguishable from that which we would call toys. Rather than add another person’s (my) interpretation to the mix, I’ll include exactly what Montessori did say about children and “toys.” This from The Secret of Childhood:

Although the children in our first school could play with some really splendid toys, none cared to do so. This surprised me so much that I decided to help them play with their toys, showing them how to handle the tiny dishes, lighting the fire in the doll’s kitchen, and placing near it a pretty doll. The children were momentarily interested but then went off on their own. Since they never freely chose those toys, I realized that in the life of a child play is perhaps something of little importance which he undertakes for the lack of something better to do. A child feels that he has something of better moment to do than to be engaged in such trivial occupations. He regards play as we would regard a game of chess or bridge. These are pleasant occupations for hours of leisure, but they would become painful if we were obliged to pursue them at great length. When we have some important business to do, bridge is forgotten. And since a child always has some important thing at hand, he is not particularly interested in playing.

Because a child is constantly passing from a lower to a higher state, his every passing minute is precious. Since a child is constantly growing, he is fascinated by everything that contributes to his development and becomes indifferent to idle occupations.”

Montessori had tremendous respect for the freely chosen work of the child, and if that work involved happy play with dolls or play silks, I simply do not believe that Montessori would have viewed it as a “mistake.” This attitude is completely contrary to everything she taught.

Clearly Montessorians and proponents of Waldorf education methods have very different views of play, and I have no desire to prove one’s correctness above the other. I believe that both come from a place of respect for the child and for childhood, and from a desire to provide children with every benefit.

Barbara Shell, author of the article in question quotes Joseph Chilton Pearce as saying,

The great rule is: play on the surface and the work takes place beneath. For the child, the time is always now; the place, here; the action, me. He has no capacity to entertain adult notions of fantasy world and real world. He knows only one world, and that is the very real one in which and with which he plays. His is not playing at life. Play is life.

I do not disagree with this statement at all. Often the child’s activity appears trivial to adult eyes, but is actually important, formative work for him or her. It would be easy to get caught up in semantics, and I think it really is these words work and play  that make it feel as though we disagree, but I believe Montessori and Waldorf educators and parents alike are in agreement when it comes to wanting to allow for and protect the spontaneous activity of the child. In many cases, upon seeing the same child at the same activity, a Waldorf educator might say he or she is “playing” and a Montessori educator that they are “working.” It comes down to which aspect – that which takes place on the surface (play), or that which takes place underneath (work) – we take notice of.

The Social Life of the Classroom

Children happily enjoying a snack together at their Montessori school in Bangalore. Photo credit: Nagarjun on Flickr.

The author moves on to discuss social development and I’m afraid that her description of this aspect in the Montessori classroom is a gross misrepresentation. In Montessori classrooms, she says, “Each child works independently on a small rug, doing a different task from the other children. Only the teacher, as facilitator, may intervene if the child requests help. Socialization takes place in not bothering other children working, in helping a younger child learn to do a new task, or in waiting one’s turn if the child wants an activity already in use.” Certainly children in Montessori environments learn not to bother a child who is in the thick of some big work, and they absolutely learn by helping one another. They also learn that they need to wait for an activity to be returned to the shelf before they can use it. To say that only the teacher may intervene if a child requests help, however, is simply incorrect.

Montessori classrooms are vibrant communities in which each member is valued, and children learn to help one another. As a teacher, I witnessed younger and older children spontaneously offering help and support to one another on countless occasions. The role of the teacher is first and foremost as an observer, and any facilitating that he or she does is based on what is observed – on what needs are exhibited by the children. If another child helps to meet a friend’s need, all the better. The ideal for the Montessori teacher is that his or her presence in the classroom will be virtually undetectable – that the children will happily work together without the need for “intervention.” That is not to say, of course, that the teacher is not happy to intervene and to interact with the children if his or her help or presence is desired.

As a preface to Shell’s article, Donni of The Magic Onions discusses the common misconception that Montessori and Waldorf have essentially the same guiding philosophy. It is true that there are many differences, and Montessorians and proponents of Waldorf have very different ideas and practices, but I believe that this misconception has persisted for good reason: we are all passionate in our respect for child life. It is for that reason that I have tremendous respect for all of the Waldorf educators and parents I know, despite having different ideas philosophically. It’s all for the children.

What are your personal views on play, fantasy, and toys for children? On the Waldorf and Montessori views? How about models for allowing normal development of the child as a social being? I would love to hear from you!

9 thoughts on “Waldorf and Montessori on Play, Fantasy, Toys, and the Social Life of the Classroom

  1. Hope Leader

    Thanks so much for commenting on the post on Magic onions. I am a homeschooling Montessori mommy with a dabble of waldorf thrown if when it seems that the kids would like it! I too was a little unsure of the artical and felt that, while the author was trying to be equal, she tended to sound quite negative about Montessori. Your thoughts are well put. Thanks for sharing!

  2. The Work Plan

    Well said!! It is sometimes difficult to read some of the misconceptions about the Montessori Method when you have witnessed first hand how it just isn't true. Thank you for sharing.

  3. The Magic Onions

    I have read your post with great interest and come away with a deeper understanding of Montessori. Thank you for this discussion and your insight. I have added a 'Follow Up' note to my post and have linked to this article. Our children are so very lucky, Montessori and Waldorf, to have such passionate and caring people to guide them.
    Blessings and magic,

  4. Melissa Kemendo

    Thank you so much for reading, Donni, and for your thoughtful reply. I should say that I never thought for a moment that you were deliberately attempting to paint Montessori in a negative light by sharing the original article. Thanks for all that you do! 

  5. Annicles

    I teach  a child who has been kept iisolation from the real, physical world by his mother because she is scared of it polluting him. The upshot of this is that his first, nearly 8 years have been spent in front of the tv. We live 15 miles from the sea, but he has only seen it twice and never been in it. We live in a town that has docks, but he has never seen areal boat. We have parks and countryside within 2 miles and he is never taken, only by school. The upshot is that he is unable to distinguish reality from non-reality. He thinks that what he has seen on tv is real. Most of what he has seen is disney films and cbbebies probgrammes that are grossly too young for him.

    On the subject of Waldorf, I looked into it long ago when I was investigating alternative philosophies. There were 2 things that struck me. One was that it is not respecting a child to insist on a particular age for learning to read, regardless of interest. The second was how much disturbing information there was about the spiritual and religious side and how secretive the schllos were but how upset some adults who had gone through the system were.

    Waldorf ended up being something I couldn't be interested in, Montessori and many other methods and philosophies were.

  6. Terri

    I really enjoyed reading this Melissa and gained an even deeper appreciation for Montessori approach which I am strongly drawn to and doing my best to work towards within my home environment. I am also very much drawn to unschooling but I see this as compatible with Montessori in many regards, especially the child-led approach. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on unschooling and Montessori if you've contemplated such a thing?

  7. Melissa Kemendo

    Terri, I have contemplated that rather a lot, and I'm very much with you! I totally agree that unschooling is compatible with Montessori in many ways. I feel like Montessori is more like group unschooling in a scientifically prepared environment than it is like school. I have written part one of a post that looks at my personal experience with schooling and will come around to discuss my current plans for my own children and what I see as a Montessori/unschooling connection very soon :)

  8. Terri

    I'm looking forward to reading that post. I think with using Montessori in a home-school environment it becomes even more like unschooling. I am always eager to learn more about this approach which I think is especially valuable in the early years for providing a rich resource as a foundation for love of learning and self-led exploration. Will be checking back for the post! onelove

  9. emily

    I have read the quote from The Secret of Childhood before when I was in training, but you have shed new light on it. The more I though about it, the more I realized how my own children have little interest in their toys. We buy them all these toys, little wooden people, animals, barns, castles, dolls, play kitchens, and most of the time, the toys sit there, undisturbed! My oldest loved his trains, and now his legos. but, my younger two do not show much interest at all in toys. We always wonder what to get them for presents! I believe this is what Montessori was observing. They love to play together, they love to build forts and be involved with each others imagination. But, they mostly pick up sticks and stones as toys and use the couch cushion as a fort! In my Waldorf days, I saw children play together all morning, and their interaction is through play. I love that aspect or waldorf, because I really do believe unstructured play is vital to children. Is there a time during the Montessori work cycle where they have unstructured free play? Is this even something Montessori observed as a need in a child?


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