Montessori and toddlers: staying rooted in reality

Let’s talk “reality” versus “fantasy” as it relates to the Montessori philosophy, and toddlers.

Halloween was upon us when I originally wrote this post; and many parents were torn between “should we celebrate, or will it scare our toddler? Is it worth it?”.  Another thing some allegedly Montessori programs do is include a lot of dinosaur-themed things in the classroom (figurines, puzzles), even though dinosaurs aren’t necessarily real anymore.  And how are you supposed to explain “prehistory” or “extinct/ dead” to a toddler?

What does Dr. Montessori have to say about fantasy and imagination?

The word “imagine” comes from the Latin imaginari, “to form a mental picture unto oneself.” The study of imagination overlaps with anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, with each discipline contributing to a greater understanding of how imagination develops.
1Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, “Through Culture and Imagination,” p. 176-177, 9th ed. Kalakshetra, (1949).

In 1918, “The true basis of the imagination is reality, and its perception is related to exactness of observation. It is necessary to prepare children to perceive the things in their environment exactly, in order to secure for them the material required by the imagination. Intelligence, reasoning, and distinguishing one thing from another prepares a cement for imaginative constructions”18



With that, in the Montessori tradition, for children ages three and under, we do NOT purposefully introduce anything fictitious or fantasy-based into the toddler classroom or the overall agenda.  Not even dinosaurs.  Why?

The reason for this is because infants and toddlers are brand new human beings who are working really hard to adapt to their very short life here on earth so far, outside of the womb.  In order to do that, they need to learn about their present reality.  Except they’re doing all of their learning from the lens of a very limited cognitive development, and an extremely limited collection of life experiences to draw upon for comparison.

Dr. Montessori talked about these distinct phases of development across the lifespan which she called “The 4 Planes of Development”.  A very young child is in the first plane.  During the first plane of development, you can basically summarize the developmental goal as “Introduce your child to their new world”.  I’ll try not to go too deep into Montessori theory.  But in the first plane you can conclude that the child is constantly absorbing concrete impressions of every single facet of their reality.  This allows them to organize and quickly start to understand the reality which they have so recently been born into. Their survival depends on quickly learning how their postnatal life works.  I cry, the adults help me.  I sign “milk”, the adults bring me milk.  This is food. That’s my mom.  That’s our dog.  That’s where I sleep.  Etc.

In the first plane the young child is a literal, concrete, sensing, feeling being.  There is very little logic happening beyond cause-and-effect, memorizing simple sequences, and memorizing patterns.  They are very emotional, and  want to experience as much safety & joy as humanly possible for a toddler, basically.

Because of this, the young child has no clue, should they encounter something in life, whether it is a real thing, or a fictitious thing.  They don’t even understand the concept of “fake” or “pretend” like we do.  They haven’t experienced enough reality yet. So they are just going to automatically conclude that everything they experience must be real because “everything” is real to you if its you’re first time experiencing it, ever in your life.

If you give the young child a beverage, they’re going to drink it without thinking twice until it hits their tongue.  If you tell this child a new vocabulary word they’re going to accept it without questioning whether the sounds they hear are even a real word.

So we do the young child a favor  in the AMI Montessori toddler classroom, and try to keep them as rooted in honest, appropriate, concrete reality as much as possible.   We want them to learn as much as possible about the unarguable,  concrete, directly-experience-it-and-see-for-yourself aspects of life before we confuse them with the abstract notions of fantasy, pretend, and made-up.

One way we help them start to inch their way towards eventually utilizing “imagination” is through our systematically introduced language lessons.   During our language lessons we move from real things, to real things paired with the exact matching picture to show the child that we can move from concrete to abstract expression.  Other than language replicas, which represent things that are still real in our reality, (never things that are fictitious or extinct), we don’t use “fake” toys in toddler Montessori programs.  We don’t use a fake toy mop or broom when the children can use real mops or brooms in their size.  We don’t use cutting fake wooden fruit when they can cut real fruit with real kitchen tools.  Does that make sense?

Upon approaching age three, young children will naturally start pretending in the form of mimicking and re-enacting what they’ve experienced in their direct but past reality.  What this looks like is they will be at the sandbox and start pretending to make “ice cream”, because they’ve had ice cream in real life before.  Or I once had this kiddo in my classroom who watched one single episode of ghost busters, and from that day forward the child proceeded to pretend that every possible cylindrical or long thing he could hold in his hands was a gun.  This went on for almost the entire time this child was in my classroom! The kid obviously had some serious processing to do around the notion of guns.

You have to understand that the toddler, AKA a young and impressionable “new” human who literally has no clue what’s possible and what’s impossible until they’ve lived it out, is very confused by fantasy.   Fantasy images, certain kinds of kids toys, and people in costumes aren’t processed the way an adult just “knows better”– it’s real to them.  They don’t realize a person climbed into a life-size mickey mouse outfit.  They might not even be aware yet that people can “transform” their external presentation by putting on costumes, wigs, or face paint when everyone else isn’t looking.

They’re so little they’re just barely wrapping their heads around the concept of “object permanence” (just because I don’t see it doesn’t mean it disappeared forever); and “If we read this book right here in this spot yesterday, but today we moved four feet from yesterday’s spot, it’s not the end of the world”.

OK.  All that being said,  enter halloween/ holidays, fantasy, certain kinds of toys, and the Montessori toddler program.  

Because we strive to keep the young child as rooted in reality as possible, in the AMI tradition, and in my personal experience, we do NOT introduce halloween costumes in the classroom.    I personally avoid introducing any books or any materials whatsoever that suggest or introduce the concepts of ghouls and goblins, or anything from halloween that isn’t real. Same for christmas, and for dinosaurs.

The young child may have just barely brushed up against the concept of “scary”, or maybe they never have at all.  Some of the kids in my class are only 18 months old.    So if I make the mistake of introducing something fictitious and frightening, I understand that I could essentially confuse and maybe even traumatize that child.

I’m aware that different children and families handle different situations in different ways.   I am also very aware that some parents are absolutely going to dress their child up, and expose their young child to Halloween festivities.   In America, we celebrate Halloween.  Other countries have other holidays that introduce some rather mature cultural concepts.

But as an AMI trained Montessori guide, I care to much to think “Oh well!  They’re inevitably bound to see humans in costumes all over the place on halloween day.  Let’s just dive into a Halloween “unit” of sorts.  We’re all dressing up on Halloween day because I think it’s fun!”.  Or “who cares? All little boys love dinosaurs!”.

Nope.  It’s not about me.  And a good Montessori teacher will always put the needs and best interest of her students above her own preferences and personal thoughts.  I’m at work to promote, protect and serve the growth and development of a very young child.  Just for the record, I have baby boys in my class that run to me scream-crying because other kids are chasing them around with the lion replica, making it fake roar.

Furthermore, as an AMI trained Montessori guide I wasn’t trained to do units of any type within the 0-3 curriculum.  I don’t theme my classroom or the materials on the shelves really ever, save for seasons and the corresponding flora and fauna that might go with them.   (More ideas coming in a paragraph or so for fall/ autumn).  So if I’m going to choose even slightly “themed” things in our room, which is totally fine for the sake of vocabulary, I’m always going to choose real things.  I’m not going to choose ghosts and monsters, or any fantasy-based stuff.

I’m going to choose things like maybe…

~ pumpkins (not jack-o-lanterns, regular pumpkins from the vine kind of pumpkins).  Actually every year I introduce a baby pumpkin, pumpkin varietals and a magnifying glass. Spreading trader joe’s pumpkin butter on crackers. De-seeding a pumpkin with tiny tongs.  Putting an unusual pumpkin on the shelf that’s ideally really big and bumpy. These things are all real; and pose the question “what is a pumpkin?  What does a pumpkin taste and smell like, look like, and feel like?  What’s inside of a pumpkin?  what’s a seed?  What’s a vine?”.  If you really wanna have some fun, bury last years pumpkin in your garden and by fall of the upcoming year you will have more pumpkins!  Sing pumpkin songs.  Maybe I offer some orange playdoh scented with pumpkin spice.  Another fun outdoor introduction is bales of hay for a DIY pumpkin patch and some gross motor fun.

~ Spiders.  Maybe I create an art opportunity with a spider rubber stamp, and the song “itsy bitsy spider”.  I will NOT EVER introduce spider replicas of any kind, because young children need to be trained to never think they ought to touch insects.  Especially black spiders, which can be deadly in some regions of the world.

~ Anything related to fall produce, like getting a variety of gourds that will eventually dry out and become shakers.

~ Apples. Maybe I introduce some apple-related activities like slicing apples, apple variety tastings, making or serving apple sauce, spreading apple butter on crackers.  Apple peeling/slicing/coring.

~ The leaves falling from the trees.  Offer some leaf-shaped stamps and fall-colored paint.  Maybe some eye droppers, fall colors and leaf-shaped watercolor papers from discount school supply .  There are some great circle time songs about fall leaves and autumn winds.  And it’s awesome busting out the rakes outdoors!

But none of this is so “halloween”-ish that it’s necessary to reserve any of these ideas exclusively for or because of Halloween, if that makes sense.

Because the young child is a concrete learner, if you wish to start explaining what is about to happen on halloween, be sure to use accurate descriptive language that keeps the child rooted in reality.

“People are going to dress up in clothes that look like a.. “.  

“That’s a hair style that looks…” .

“That person put paint on their face!”.

 “That person is pretending to be a…”.  

… and just be prepared for any confusion and in theory, potential trauma that is going to come along with celebrating halloween full-on with a very young child.  The closer they get to three, the more fun halloween becomes for them.  But under 2.5 really is a confusing age for certain things.

HOWEVER… I, too, am a human.  I’m a 0-3 AMI guide, but I am a human being.

(and this is fully hypocritical of me, but… ) I happen to LOVE dressing up in costumes for halloween.  So although I will NEVER dress in costume to work, let it be known here and now that when I have a kid one day, I have every intention of taking full advantage of dressing them up for halloween.  Because it is too cute not to enjoy.  Even if all we do is go to the house of a family friend for a daytime party, I’m dressing my baby up, OK? I don’t have to dress them in anything that is fantasy.  I saw a baby bjork swan outfit that was just, too darn cute.  And that little baby will never even realize she was in a costume.

I also want to advise all parents that  the fun of dressing your child up will be fully within your control until they turn about 2.5, at which point you may not have a say anymore about what they’re going to be for halloween.  Once they have passed what Dr. Montessori calls the “crisis of affirmation stage”  where they realize they are their own person who has the autonomy to make their own decisions about stuff, and once they become aware of popular culture (aka paw patrol, PJ masks, and whatnot), be assured–  they are going to start demanding their own halloween costume ideas.  Or they might start to refuse to dress up.

At this point you should honor what they desire they want to be for halloween since they ought to be in control of their own clothing choices and body.  When your child starts to demand what they’re going to be for halloween, know that they have reached a developmental milestone in life; and they are officially leaving the realm of early childhood territory, and heading into just, straight childhood.

So that, mamas and papas, is why we don’t do Halloween in a Montessori toddler classroom.  But what you choose to do at home is completely up to you.

Here is some fall inspiration.


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For more Montessori parenting or teaching inspiration for infants and toddlers, check out my instagram @wwmt_montessori!




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