Imagination and Creativity in the Montessori Setting

By Roxana Haloiu, June 2021

Defining creativity is a never-ending merry-go-round. In the early years, we can’t apply the grand understandings, those of innovating a particular field, producing seminal works of art or composing a symphony that will permeate the soundtrack of our lives. Yet, early childhood, for most people, is remembered as one of the most creative stages of life. Perhaps because of the unique capacity of the child to experience things for the first time with the sense of wonder, the aplomb with which she/he makes her/his own discoveries that have such value for the individual (Bruce, 2011).

I embrace the idea that, in the early years, creativity can be understood as ‘transformational learning’ which refers to the personal and unique interpretation of actions, events, experiences (Beghetto and Kaufman, 2013).  This doesn’t just manage to offer possibilities to the children to truly grasp new information and later apply it, but also creates a habit of mind, a disposition and a love towards learning that is going to be carried over in later life (Katz, 1994).

For this, I believe, we need to spend some time revising what creativity is and enrich the definitions we may have attached to it.

If I was to think of what creativity is not, the first thing that comes to mind is, sadly, the art corner in nurseries where there is always an enthusiastic practitioner who found something on Pinterest and decided to have fun reproducing it and, worse, decided that children would be happy to do the same. In a conversation with my former tutor, she mentioned a phrase that describes this type of endeavour as “the tyranny of the paper plate” (Compton, 2021). I am far from being against art projects, however I believe they should be planned in such a way that children have freedom of expression and they represent their own reality and not that of others.

 It is my belief that deep engagement with the environment and others tends to lead to high levels of creativity, regardless of what occupation the child/ children might choose. This engagement can happen through what Malaguzzi famously called ‘the hundred languages of children’ (Edward, et.al., 2012).

In Reggio Emilia, the child is seen as a producer, and creativity seems to be seen as an outwardly generative force, where exhibitions of children’s creations are celebrated in the midst of the community (Edward, et.al., 2012). Montessori’s discourse, on the other hand, focuses more on an internal creative process. She speaks of the human being as being a work of art her/himself (Montessori, 1967). The way this is achieved is through the human tendencies as people have innate tendencies that drive individuals to choose from their environments what benefits their evolution (One Tree Montessori, 2020). This takes us to discussing how the environment can help children flourish.

There are some characteristics for the environment that is conducive to optimal expressions of creativity for young children, regardless of the ethos to which it adheres.

  • A spiritual environment where both children and adults feel a great sense of love and belonging.

Alison Gopnik (2017) believes that early childhood is an optimal time for developing creativity and considers what loving children may mean. She concludes that the purpose of loving children is not to change them or give them a specific aim but to offer nourishment in order for them to craft their own journey. By offering them a stable and rich environment where play is valued “variation, innovation and novelty can blossom” (Gopnik, 2017:10).

  • A shared understanding that trial and error, repetition and regarding “mistakes” as opportunities, is a very potent attitude towards creative thinking, where new ideas and ways of doing things are welcomed and celebrated.

Sir Ken Robinson (2007) says it simply: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original!” (TED, 2007).

Fisher (2014) outlines the characteristics of a supporting adult needed in order to create a climate that invites creativity. A focus on the child’s thinking, a non-judgemental attitude where the encouraging adult sees learning in mistakes and focuses on independence, who allows time, shows genuine interest and assumes that things can be done, who listens and respects children’s decisions, are some of the few attributes listed. Not surprisingly, it sounds very in line with Montessori’s view of the role of the teacher.

  • A physical environment which promotes a richness of embodied experiences.

Montessori advocated education though the senses and was able to see how the mind is intimately connected with the body. She was often misunderstood when it came to her views on imagination as she was not promoting fantasy in her schools. Her ideas were much more sophisticated than that. The richness of sensory and embodied experience was ultimately going to lead to a richer and more grounded imagination (Standing, 1957).

She understood that a child’s mind works in harmony with movement and concrete experiences and not in isolation (Standing, 1957).

We mustn’t limit sensory education to the apparatus, as this has the purpose to refine the senses, a variety of first-hand experiences is necessary. Also, an effective environment would have a good balance between open-ended materials and materials with an inbuilt control-of error.

  • Discipline and playfulness, not as opposite, but as complementary forces

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) links creativity and the state of flow, with a combination of discipline and playfulness.  When describing free-flow play, Bruce (2004) remarks that children “celebrate what they know” (Bruce, 2004:132). The way I think of this is that children’s creative application of what they know, which comes to manifestation through play, is really about making knowledge one’s own, internalising it and becoming it, therefore a real transformation is taking place within their sense of self. When children pursue their own interests, they are very likely to show high levels of perseverance and diligence (Carr, 2001).

Artists maintain this connection to a deep sense of purpose when they create and they manifest high levels of intuition in deciding what course of action they should take. They also have a different understanding of what discipline is.  David Bowie says:

“Discipline doesn’t mean that you make sure that you have breakfast at 8:00 in the morning and you are out of your house at half past 8. Discipline is that if you conceive something, then you decide whether or not is worth following through. And if it’s worth following through, then you follow it through to its logical conclusion and do it to the best of your ability” (Nacho Video, 2019)

As opposed to sheer obedience, discipline, in the sense that Montessori speaks of also has elements of what Bowie explains above: children acquire authentic discipline by exercising free choice in an environment that invites active exploration and is fuelled by an intrinsic motivation (Montessori, 1988a, 1988b, 1967). 

  • Deep observation and the adult’s internal world

Montessori developed a wonderful curriculum but throughout her writing she makes us aware that this is not there to limit the child’s experience, instead, it is up to the directress to remain curious about where the child’s interest might take her/him.

This attitude of curiosity works best when paired with the trust in the child and the unique way that the universal human tendencies manifest in each child.

Katz (1994) gives us a hint on how educators influence children’s attitudes towards learning by exhibiting attributes themselves. It is important therefore, that if we want children to become curious, creative or imaginative than we must reflect on how often we are truly curious, fascinated or puzzled alongside children (Katz, 1994).

So, I would say, let’s bring a grain of inspiration in every interaction. And if we need permission, here goes, from Montessori herself:

” I will not extinguish any fire, any greatness, any enthusiasm. On the contrary, I wish to illuminate the whole of instruction so that every little particle of knowledge is received with understanding and enthusiasm

(Montessori, 2012: 191)

References

Beghetto, R. A. and Kaufman, J. C. (2013) Fundamentals of Creativity in Educational Leadership, Feb 2013, Vol. 70 Issue 5, p10-15. 

Bruce, T. (2011, 2nd Ed.) Cultivating Creativity London: Hodder Education

Carr, M (2001) Assessment in Early Childhood Settings: Learning Stories London: Sage

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention New York: Harper Collins Publishers

Compton, J. (2021) Personal communication (24/05/2021).

Gopnik, A (2017) The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship between Parents and Children London: Vintage

Edward, L. & Gandini, L. & Forman, G. ( 2012 3rd ed ) The Hundred Languages of Children Praeger Publishers Inc 

Fisher R. (2014) Teaching Children to Think Oxford: Oxford University Press

Montessori, M. (1988 a) The Absorbent Mind Oxford: Clio Press

Montessori, M. (1988 b) The Discovery of the Child Oxford: Clio Press

Montessori, M. (1967) The Secret of Childhood New York: Ballantine 

Montessori, M. (1991) The Advanced Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to the Education of Children From Seven to Eleven Years Oxford: Clio Press

Montessori, M. (2012, 3 rd Ed.) The 1946 London Lectures, Amsterdam: Montessori Pierson Publishing Co

Nacho Video, (2019) David Bowie- Discipline- 27 November 1975 [online] available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEGSN79V-1w (date accessed 17/04/2020)

One Tree Montessori (2020) Human Potentialities Available from : https://www.onetreemontessori.com/child/human-potentialities#historyoftendencies (accessed 05/10/2020)

TED, (2007) Do Schools Kill Creativity/ Sir Ken Robinson available at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY&t=271s  (accessed: 26/09/2020)

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