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January 22, 2024

Montessori at Home: Pretend Play in the Preschool Years

Pretend play can be such an interesting and complicated topic within Montessori. While Maria Montessori found that children prefer real work in favor of pretend toys, children in Montessori environments still engage in pretend play. In fact, pretend play has an important role to play in the social emotional development of all children. 

Where Montessori often differs when it comes to pretend play in the preschool years is the role of fantasy based play. Fantasy is often avoided, or limited, until a child is older and has a firmer understanding of reality. While every family will take their own approach in this area, Montessori principles would suggest less fantasy and more exploration of real life. In our society things like talking animals, superheroes, fairies and mythical creatures are common in the preschool years, often making them difficult to avoid. 

Don't miss part 1 of this series: Montessori at Home: Pretend Play in the Toddler Years

Building with mirror blocks (and holding an action figure.) 

In our house, the more children we have had, the harder it has been to avoid fantasy with our younger children. Fantasy and imagination play a huge role in the second plane of development and keeping that away from preschoolers is nearly impossible. So I find that being alright with a balance and providing more open ended materials (that could be either reality or fantasy based play) really strikes the right balance for us. 

Pretend Play in the Preschool Years

When it comes to what pretend play looks like in the preschool years, things tend to shift a bit in really interesting ways. Instead of purely pretending based on things they see like toddlers do, the imaginative powers of the preschool child expand. I still find that much of the pretend play involves reality but the limits of that reality really are much broader. Here are some characteristics of pretend play in the toddler years that I've observed in our Montessori home:

  • Real life scenarios are popular but that they may or may not have experienced: things like getting dropped off at a bus stop, managing a construction site, visiting the ocean
  • Acting out scenarios they have read or seen: they start to replay the media that they have consumed. So things that happen in a book/show are incorporated into their play or recreated
  • Small figures become more popular than real life objects: small models of real life things become more important than playing with your dishes, for example. It might be people, cars, their favorite characters, animals or other loose parts - but these details are used more and more in play
  • Feelings, words, and complex scenes develop - often around some conflict: while toddlers seem to be pretending for the movement, preschoolers are pretending for the emotion.  

Building with interlocking house blocks and loose gems.

Supporting Pretend Play with Montessori Preschoolers

By the preschool years, I find that most people expect some amount of pretend play with their children. Now, that play will look different depending on a lot of factors including temperament, neurotype, (in my experience) age order. So as parents one huge thing we can do to support our children is just accept where their play is and enjoy it. We can take a child-led approach trying not to interrupt, add to, or control the types and ways we find our children playing. 

I have also seen parents of preschoolers worry more about pretend play in favor of academics. Instead of soaking in the preschool pretend play, there sometime hesitation that they are not engaging in more work with numbers/letters/academic focus. So we have to trust that children are going to choose the work that they need in the moment and that might look like a mix of both pretend and academic work. And, if a child is attending a Montessori preschool for part of the day, the mix of work at home might lean far more into pretend than academics. 

    Trusting our children's play is hard work for many of us but can be so rewarding as we see their creativity bloom. Sitting back and watching play without judgment is such a beautiful gift that we can give our children. In my final article in this series, I'll be sharing some of my favorite Montessori friendly materials for supporting pretend play at home with children in the first plane of development.

    Ever wondered how fantasy play fits into a Montessori environment? Discover an eye-opening perspective on balance between fantasy and reality-based play in Montessori, and why it’s crucial for your preschooler.

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    Anonymous said…
    My kids 6/M and 4/F pretend they're husband and wife, prepare meals, take care of baby dolls. (They do know that siblings can not get married.) They have imagined this entire life, i.e. what color their car is, their adult age (41 and 34). Did yours ever do that?
    Nicole @ The Kavanaugh Report
    Oh yes! "Playing house" my kids love it around those ages. A great way to process what they see and feel!