Understanding the Roles of Structured vs. Informal Play
We need a better definition for “play.”
To define the term “play” within the rigid dichotomy of “play = fun” is limiting, to say the least. The opposite, which must be “work = not fun,” also doesn’t make much sense as a standard. Whether you are four or forty, your desire to have purpose in your efforts and meaning for your movement is a universal, human need.
In the age of work-life balance, our children, too, deserve a more nuanced understanding of what is behind their desire to act, to maneuver, to move…like when they insist on carrying oversized, burdensome objects or when they repeat the same activity over and over again.
Ask yourself, why does your child want to work so hard?
Defining Play in the Classroom
To better understand what motivates a young child to learn, we need to better understand how informal and structured activities complement each other, not compete for one’s attention. Both free play and guided movement in the classroom are essential for cognitive development. To label one “good” and another “bad” (or ineffectual) for your child’s education is to miss the point.
Work and play in the Montessori classroom are not exclusive. Rather, “work” can feel like play. A more productive question to ask might be, “Is there purpose behind the movement?”
Consider, within the false work-play dichotomy, the drive to structure early childhood curriculums around dramatic play. Understandably, this approach is often a reaction against adult-centered, traditional learning. Forcing a young child to sit for long stretches of time listening to an adult is rarely feasible and has ultimately been proven to be developmentally inappropriate. But to perceive play as the opposite of work is to equate creativity, innovation, and imagination exclusively with play.
A Child’s Inherent Need to Know
The reason our classrooms at The Montessori Schools do not make dramatic play, for example, central to nurturing creativity is because we believe that more effective learning strategies exist in purposeful, hands-on activities. “Pretend play” typically lacks opportunities for knowledge acquisition—a motivating factor for the young child yearning to successfully participate in the world.
Our hands carry out our solutions to life’s challenges, as we imagine them. The Montessori method recognizes that intelligence, imagination, and our ability to change our circumstances are all interdependent.
Free choice, peer interaction, and developmentally appropriate materials are all part of the Montessori child’s experience, but we recognize that without real-life application the “work” will feel like work to the child.
Example of Guided “Play” in the Classroom
Children are curious about the many types of living creatures that occupy our planet alongside humans. A traditional playschool setting will be sure to have pictures of animals prominently displayed throughout the classroom, as well as toys resembling various mammals, fish, reptiles, birds, etc. The children will learn the names of many of these animals and sing songs, read books, and draw pictures about them.
In the Montessori classroom, the children will also sing songs, read books, and draw pictures of animals, but their knowledgebase of the animal kingdom will extend far beyond that of their traditionally schooled peers. Nomenclature and classification cards, anatomically correct miniature replicas, and “parts of” activities contribute to this knowledge acquisition but, perhaps more important, the children have context for their learning. The class, order, family, group, and species of an individual animal is learned within the context of its home and an interconnected community of living things.
A more structured approach to learning is driven by the child’s own desire to place items of interest within the context of an orderly world. Exploring the “why” and the “how” is at the heart of making learning fun.
This kind of structured approached to learning naturally works its way into free play. Montessori children are just as likely to be running around the playground pretending to be tigers, perhaps, even recreating the dynamic between a mother cat and her cubs.
Movement’s Essential Role in Cognitive Development
A hallmark of the Montessori method is that children move freely about the classroom during their work periods. Movement is an essential component of many of the activities.
The overall impression of the Montessori classroom is one of continual movement that is purposeful. Children pick-up chairs, move tables and heavy materials across the room, and carefully navigate around their peers at work on mats on the floor.
Students may transition from activity to activity at their own pace, with support from their teacher. At different points throughout the day, children work on the floor and at tables, at times standing and at other times sitting in chairs. On a daily basis, they engage in both structured and free play—and in both indoor or outdoor play spaces.
This general impression of bustling activity is a direct result of the children continuously interacting with materials that require their sensory input. The children want to test their motor control, as well as their mastery of their world. Their desire to learn (“to know”) is intrinsically linked to their drive to explore and to change and adapt as they move through their environment.
This is joyful work. This is the Montessori classroom at play.