Last week I gave a presentation on Montessori education to a group of Early Childhood Education students at Naropa University. It is both exciting and challenging to engage an educated and curious audience of pre-service teachers. During that presentation we explored the essence of Montessori, highlighting the fundamental principles of the educational philosophy; and at the same time unearthing some of the major criticisms levied against Montessori education.
One of the major critiques of the Montessori approach to education has been that it underemphasizes ‘play’; and by default, overemphasizes ‘work’. In a Wonderful blog article by DAVID ELKIND by Dr. David Elkind, one of the leading proponents of play as an essential part of learning, he makes some very important distinctions between work and play in Montessori philosophy. He also explores the true meaning behind Maria Montessori’s often misrepresented and misunderstood statement: “Play is the child’s work”.
Dr. Elkind has this to say about play: “In the broadest sense, play is always a transformation of reality in the service of the self”. He cites examples of infants transforming any object they come into contact with into something to suckle, and as they develop into primary students [3-6 years old] objects like a stick become a boat or a sword depending on the context. Creativity, he states, is always an original transformation of reality.
Work on the other hand is “always a transformation of the self in the service of reality”. Now what does he mean by this? He seems to be saying that any activity that leads a child towards adaptation and enculturation, or the acquisition of skills and traits that are expected by the culture or society the child is living in is ‘work’. Now is this really what Montessori meant by work when she was developing her philosophy?
She was certainly a proponent of educating the child into their culture, knowing that a child who has developed the proper skills and traits to succeed in their existing culture, would be better prepared to shape and influence culture towards on its own evolutionary arc. She firmly believed that children were the shapers of culture and the hope for any forward progress in humanity. In her book, Education for a New World, she says this about the culture of post WWII Europe, and could be equally relevant today: “Our world has been torn to pieces, and is in need of reconstruction. In this a primary factor is education…If salvation and help is to come, it is from the child, for the child is the constructor of man [humanity], and so society. The child is endowed with an inner power which can guide us to a more enlightened future.”  Regardless of the historical context, this is something that is firmly believed and held in the world of Montessori educators.
Now back to this relationship between work and play. One of the most brilliant points of this article by Dr. Elkind is when he concludes that “although we tend to think of work and play as in opposition to one another, they are most effective when they are brought together.” He then goes on to highlight the genius of Montessori’s method and that is to bring play into the service of work, which is in essence into the service of transforming the self into the service of reality or culture and society. When a child works with the Montessori materials, they are naturally and instinctually bringing their passion to play and creatively interact with their world, but by the design of the materials, they are indirectly learning skills and traits that become the foundation for the great work of humanity. Creativity and imagination are not lost or squelched in the Montessori classroom, but more appropriately they are harnessed into the service of learning and personal self-transformation. For a Montessori child their work is really mixed with play and in essence leverages the child’s personal motivation for the purpose of social learning. Dr Elkind closes his article by saying this: “As Montessori curriculum materials make clear, a less misleading aphorism might be, ‘Play is the motivation for the child’s work.’”
I look forward to any and all comments and talking points.
Jarrow Head of School