Is Dramatic Play the Best Way for Children to Learn?

A few days ago, I stumbled across a parent asking for information at Yahoo! Answers about the benefits of Montessori education. One of the replies they received echoes a concern Montessori teachers and parents are very familiar with:

Children learn best through play and the Montessori method does not offer a chance
for dramatic play – playing house, doctor, fire fighter, school, etc. – where children learn much of the dialogue and problem solving skills they will use for the rest of their lives.

I spent some time thinking over this person’s response, and while it is quite true that most Montessori schools do not feature dramatic play as part of normal curriculum, I find I cannot agree with the sentiment that make-believe is the best environment for developing conversation or problem solving skills. Let’s take a closer look at this noteworthy issue.

Was Dr. Montessori Down On Dramatic Play?

The Montessori Method exhorts instructors to create a learning experience for children that is based in reality instead of fantasy. The truth of cause and effect, action and consequence, is what the method strives to impart to students. Dr. Montessori believed that children were not being well served by artificial games, fairytales or pretend conversations. Rather, she recognized in children the strong, innate need to have real work to do and real activities in which to participate so that their full potential as contributors to the human family was recognized, honored and utilized.

Lest this paint a stark picture in your mind of the original Montessori program, The Montessori Method is full of scenes of children playing on rooftops, in gardens, dancing and singing together. The image is one of children enjoying themselves tremendously, to the point where living and learning happen naturally because the adults in charge have put such care into preparing a place for the children to be. Maria Montessori believed in joy.

Montessori children know that they are happy in their classrooms and may not ever give much thought to what their teachers know – that all of the activities taking place, as playful as they might seem, have a useful purpose.

So, where a traditional kindergarten class may spend a large portion of time playing dress-up, house, grocery store or running a pet shop, Montessori students might be given the option to help cook a meal, sweep a floor, make choices at the supermarket and take care of classroom pets. Rather than receiving a message that the only activities they are fit to participate in are pretend ones, Montessori children get to prove to themselves that they are quite ready to take part in the real pursuits of life.

In the process of learning real life skills, and interacting with the other children in the classroom, the Montessori child is most certainly developing language skills as well as social skills like communication, cooperation, and empathy. You do not need to create a “pretend” situation for children to learn these very real skills.

The Science of Childhood

Please remember that Dr. Montessori was a scientist. One of the things I admire most about her was that she was able to keep her own preconceived notions out of her observations. She didn’t come to the first Casa already assuming that children prefer real-life activities and that dramatic play is a lesser option. She discovered that children desired to learn how to do real household chores rather than play house; that they wanted to learn about the plants and animals of South America rather than pretend to visit South America.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, is wrong with playing house or pretending to visit South America. I did all these things as a child and my children do too. The questions I’m attempting to answer are these: what is the best way for children to actually learn? Do they learn as much from dramatic play as traditional educators would like us to believe? And is that the only way to be creative and imaginative?

In my experience, Montessori children are more creative and imaginative than children in traditional education. How can this be? I think it’s because they have such a wide breadth of knowledge. They’ve read more books, have bigger vocabularies, and are quite naturally very independent and competent. They know where to find information if they need it. All of these things combine to give them a sturdy base to build on when they do decide to create or imagine something.

But Kids Are Naturally Imaginative, Aren’t They?

Absolutely. Imagination is a gift that sets humans apart. We have the ability to envision things (songs, poems, stories, buildings) that do not yet exist. How marvelous! The world’s greatest authors, artists, humanitarians, architects, and composers have employed imagination to enrich the lives of people for centuries.

For me, the question about dramatic play should never be confused with whether children should be discouraged from creativity. Keep this in mind: when people are critical of Montessori in this area, they are confusing dramatic play with imagination and creativity. Dramatic play is but a small subset of these larger human tendencies, and both imagination and creativity can be nurtured in many other ways.

Let’s do a little comparison: let’s say that a traditional preschool and a Montessori 3-6 class have decided to study butterflies. Both classes might start the day with a children’s book about butterflies. The traditional class might sing a song about butterflies, and the Montessori class might too.

Here’s where the similarities end. In the traditional class, the kids might make butterfly wings and then fly around the classroom wearing them. In the Montessori school, the children might do some nomenclature cards and learn the parts of the butterfly or the butterfly life cycle. Then they might trace the butterfly drawing and make their own booklet of the butterfly parts.

Can you tell me which class has learned more about butterflies? Well, most likely the Montessori students have. And you might find those same Montessori students running around the playground later, pretending to be butterflies. No one will stop them; there’s nothing wrong with it. But the salient point of the day’s studies was to learn about butterflies, and dramatic play doesn’t always provide the kind of concrete knowledge that young children yearn for. It’s more about experience than information.

In Conclusion

Humans come with creativity built right in! Even if the Montessori method tried to squash children’s creativity, which it doesn’t, I don’t believe it could. The question we need to ask is whether students’ work time will be better spent mastering actual tasks or pretend ones. I would assert that the best use of class time will be when it is spent giving children the chance to acquire the skills of real living. With a good understanding of these things, the imaginative play that may be part of children’s free time can be all in good fun without being confused with the job of life.

P.S. I would love it if some of you would jump in with examples of how children have taken the Montessori materials, mastered them, and then used them as a springboard to create something completely new and different. I know it happens every day, all over the world. I think those kinds of examples would help people who are struggling to understand the “Montessori vs. dramatic play” issue.