Maria Montessori Was Right!

Over the years Maria Montessori’s worked has received a certain amount criticism for the lack of inclusion of creative play and fantasy. If you are in a very strict Montessori program, even the personification of animals is deemed inappropriate. Well, yesterday I was working with a group of young children on the climbing wall at my school when her idea of having children do real work instead of fantasy showed itself to me very clearly.

One of the children has been bringing small leaves and flower petals to class for about a week now. What I noticed was that every time that he was supposed to climb, he began obsessing on the flower petals and then making up stories about their magical powers. The result is that his muscle development and risk taking abilities are extremely weak. Besides the fantasy, he also uses blaming others if the slightest thing goes wrong like someone else going before him in line.

Yesterday I took away his magical leaf, told him that the magic was in his limbs, and that he was going to climb. So during the climb I went with him every step of the way giving him a certain amount of physical support, but I was there mostly to make sure he stayed on the wall rather than bailing. The result was what Maria Montessori must have often observed. When this young boy was faced with fear on the wall, he wanted to jump off the wall and begged me to let him stop many times. His dialogue with me was about how scary climbing was, but every time he made it to new rocks his dialogue changed from fear to achievement. It is as if he had two voices going in his head, a fear voice and a courage voice. When I was there making him do the experiences, the voice of courage was allowed to start coming out even when the fear was very great. The more he climbed the greater the voice of courage. Given the choice, however, the magic leaves are a much easier route for him because they provide some mild comfort to ease the fearful thoughts. As Montessori put it, the fantasy becomes a defense, a coping mechanism for dealing with the real issue.

Children and adults learn best from real life experiences. Facing fear is an important part of life no matter what age we are. Besides this boy I have had several children begin to cry when the fear was extremely strong on the climbing wall. By keeping them on the wall they push through the fear and then develop strength and courage so that the next times they can do the tasks independently. While they are in the fear it is as if they become different people, but they all love it so much when they get to the achievement and happy that they went through it.

So many adults have just seemed to give into their fears these days and then allowed their children to follow. Of course with adults the fantasy is a whole way of life which includes all kinds of sophisticated strategies of avoidance which people call living. The center of the fantasy seems to be anchored by alcohol and sex. Women also seem to go for shopping and men seem to go for obsessing on their teams winning to get away from facing life. Children have TV and video games, but the real life story of the boy on the climbing wall shows that the fantasy life is a way of coping with fear that is very temporary at best. Maria Montessori was right. Let’s get real and go after our fears.   We just need some support to stay in the experience.

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