About fifteen years ago, Montessori programs and children’s museums had the phrase “Play is FUNdamental” all over their marketing materials. It was an obvious and easy play on words, but there was an emphasis there that really took away from the real message: Play is fundamental.
What really made this interesting on the materials from the Montessori programs is that Montessori doesn’t actually support play as we think of it. Because the curriculum is strongly geared toward allowing a child freedom to explore lessons and tools in the classroom, fantasy play doesn’t have much of a place. Instead, children complete real-world tasks with real-world, child-sized objects. They do it as practice for a Practical Life lesson, or they do it in service to their classroom. They may even do it at home to help their family.
A child outside the Montessori environment completing the same actions in his child-sized kitchen with his child-sized cooking tools and dishes would be considered as engaging in fantasy play, even as he is learning and pretending to accomplish real-world tasks he’ll undertake several years down the road. The child engages in mimicking what he sees the adults around him are doing, learning how to become a productive adult through example.
Children’s museums have long honored the way young children (those under the age of seven) learn through play, providing themed opportunities to explore skills, concepts, and ideas through experiments and dramatic play. Even if the child gains nothing more than exposure to the concepts presented, he’s in a position to carry the concepts with him beyond the museum’s doors and into the real world, to use them to build more skills from.
Corny marketing messages aside, play really is fundamental to a young child’s development. Providing opportunities to become engaged through play with the skills and concepts a child will need to understand allows the child to connect with the skills and concepts on his own level and make it part of his world.