Angeline Lillard on Montessori and play
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Montessori transcends dichotomies
by David Ayer
A new article by prominent Montessori researcher Angeline Lillard (Montessori as an alternative early childhood education, in Early Child Development and Care, 191:7-8) delves into the perennial “work versus play” controversy in Montessori early childhood education, and comes up with a framing that shows how fully implemented Montessori resolves the apparent conflict.
All work and no play?
What’s the problem?
Historically, school has traditionally been characterized as work—a series of potentially unpleasant tasks undertaken for an extrinsic reward. Hence “schoolwork”, punishments and rewards, and Shakespeare’s “whining school-boy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like a snail/Unwillingly to school.”
Yet, as Lillard observes, “Although we do learn by being told things, this is not the primary way young children naturally learn.” “Sitting still, listening, and memorizing” has become the standard method for grade-level education, but is seen as developmentally inappropriate for children under six.
But as academic pressure in early childhood education has ramped up since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, as well as other school reforms, whole-class instruction and teacher-directed activity have become increasingly common in kindergarten and preschool classrooms.
It was not always thus. Educators have long observed that children, especially three- to-five-year-olds, spontaneously play (explore, experiment, pretend, etc.), and concluded that this behavior must be developmentally natural and necessary. So preschools should foster pretend play. Froebel’s kindergarten approach in the 1880s established this model, and it has been widely adopted.
Montessori, canonically, collapses this distinction between work and play. In Montessori classrooms, children choose much of their own activity, and explore and experiment with hands-on materials which are designed to teach academic concepts from shapes and colors to units and thousands, and even to nouns and adjectives. Montessori typically refers to this activity as “work” because it is the child’s work of self-construction and self-education. It’s just not the kind of work one dreads doing, or which one has to be paid or threatened in order to take it on.
Children pretend, too, in Montessori classrooms, and this is where the argument is really centered. Montessori is perhaps notorious for banishing fantasy pretend play from her environments. Her first classrooms did offer pretend materials such as a doll-house with pretend cooking and cleaning activities, but she soon observed that the children did not spontaneously choose them, preferring real cooking and cleaning instead. These activities became the basis for Montessori’s “Practical Life” curriculum area.
When it came to fantasy per se—things like Santa Claus, dragons, and fairies—Montessori did feel that such counterfactual stories were inappropriate for young children constructing themselves and their world from direct experience. This has extended to such activities as a play kitchen (when children could easily be given actual food preparation experience) or a dress-up corner (which might not be the most outlandish thing to include in an environment for young children).
For these reasons, Montessori has come to be seen as anti-play and not a “play-based curriculum” even though the developmentally powerful elements of choice, open-ended exploration, and experimentation are central to the approach, and it is only the fantasy which is constrained. Lillard’s insight is that Montessori actually collapses the play-work dichotomy, rendering it moot. As Montessorians like to say, “play is the child’s work.”
Conventional education struggles with another dichotomy that Montessori transcends: structure versus freedom. Conventional school is stereotyped as highly structured: desks in rows, teacher-directed learning, precise schedules—”open your textbooks to page 38.” Of course, many teachers, classrooms, and schools have moved beyond this model at least on the surface, but the underlying paradigm of adult-structured teaching and learning remains. And at least one study found an association between greater freedom and lower standardized test outcomes.
Montessori, in contrast with this strictly binary view, canonically offers a balance of freedom within structure and has been associated with good outcomes especially across family income levels. Lillard describes the familiar classroom with a specific set of materials and a code of behavior for using them, scaffolding a high degree of student choice, and makes an analogy to Diana Baumrind’s parenting styles: Conventional schooling is like authoritarian parenting, discovery learning is like permissive parenting, and Montessori is authoritative parenting, the approach associated with the most positive outcomes.
Finally, Lillard offers a third axis on which to place Montessori education: Is child development and education seen as linear or dynamic? Education has historically taken a linear approach since the early 1900s, seeing schooling as essentially a behavioristic, stimulus-response process of transmitting content sequentially from adult to child. But another approach that goes back at least as far is constructivism, which sees children as constructing their own knowledge through activities in the environment, and takes into account their individual contexts. Constructivism, Lillard notes, “has gradually become predominant in schools of education, but not in schools for children.” Montessori is avowedly dynamic and constructivist, and “there are recent signs that systems thinking is ascendant in education as it has already become in developmental psychology.”
Outcomes and social justice
Lillard also briefly reviews the history and current status of Montessori outcomes research. Briefly, studies in the 1970s and 1980s were largely deficient methodologically or in the Montessori implementation examined. More recent studies improved on these weaknesses and showed improved outcomes for children in high-fidelity Montessori environments, especially among lower income children. “These and other data suggest Montessori can address social justice,” Lillard claims, citing recent work (see “Montessori: More culturally responsive” in MontessoriPublic, Spring 2021).
Why so niche?
So why has Montessori spent more than a century out of the mainstream of the education conversation? Lillard cites incomplete implementation, constrained access to high-fidelity teacher training, and its general unfamiliarity. But the dichotomies of work versus play and freedom versus structure raised here represent a philosophical objection that may underpin resistance in the public sector.
Montessori is seen as too oriented to work, without enough play, but at the same time, both too structured and too free. The extreme ends of these axes have nor produced satisfying outcomes: Too much play falls short on content; too much work stifles creativity and exploration. Too much freedom is a free-for-all; too much structure leaves no room for context and adaptation. Montessori “collapses these dichotomies” in Lillard’s view, transcending them by being both playful and work-oriented, both free and structured—and manages to deliver good results! And, as a dynamic, constructivist approach, Montessori is slowly but surely being seen as more in line with changing education philosophy.
Lillard closes noting that change is hard, and behavioral change within established systems is harder still. But, “when demand is strong, change occurs.” It’s up to the Montessori community to continue making our case to schools, families, leaders, and policy makers, and build that demand.
Montessori as an alternative early childhood education, Early Child Development and Care, 191:7-8, 1196-1206, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2020.1832998
David worked in private Montessori for more than twenty years as a parent, three-to-six year-old and adolescent teacher, administrator, writer, speaker, and advocate. In 2016 he began working with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. David lives in Portland, Oregon.