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January 17, 2024

Montessori At Home: Pretend Play with Toddlers

We've been experiencing an explosion of pretend play in our home lately. With my two youngest (nearly 2 and 4) both in really unique stages they have both been drawn to pretend play in a way that I find so fascinating. Sometimes in Montessori environments, there is a pervasive myth that small children prefer only real work to pretend play. And while Montessori activities should certainly be based in reality for small children, pretend play is an important part of every child's work in these years. 

Even in Montessori schools, you see a fair amount of pretend play. While materials have a specific aim, children often explore the boundaries of those material through their work. Montessori at home, however, is far more flexible than in a classroom. Children will want and need opportunities to pretend and process the world around them through their work. 

Pretend Play in the Toddler Years

I've observed some unique phases of pretend play in my own children over the years. The toddler years seem to be an age where people expect a lot of pretend play. In traditional parenting environments, they might even favor pretend play over the harder/messier/more active practical life. In Montessori we offer both and let our children gravitate to what they need in the moment. Here are some characteristics of pretend play in the toddler years that I've observed in our Montessori home: 

  • Based on real life scenarios that they commonly see - cooking, doctor, caring for babies, for example. Not as likely to be creating huge scenarios that they haven't experienced. 
  • Can look like pretend play but when you observe more closely it's often based more in movement: moving things around, dressing and undressing a doll, lining things up, putting in and out of containers. The pretending is secondary to the movement. 
  • Real life tools are just as engaging as any toy. They are happy to pretend with a real pot and spoon, or a pair of their siblings shoes. The play items are a lot more flexible.
  • Often want to engage the adult during this type of play 

Supporting Pretend Play with Montessori Toddlers

Pretend play with toddlers is so precious to watch! We sometimes want to jump in offering more and more ways to extend the play, teach them something through the play or suggest other ways to play. In doing this we actually interrupt their work and can make play more difficult for them. Instead, we can support their pretend play in a variety of ways. 

"The strength of even the smallest children is more than we imagine, but it must have a free play in order to reveal itself." Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child

First, we can take a supporting role in the play. We don't need to make suggestions but follow our child's lead when it comes to how to pretend and with what. Sitting back and letting our toddler come up with the play ideas is hard but worth it. Second, we can make our environment open to pretend play. Let them mix pots with blocks, let the baby doll sit in your purse, and be okay with them walking in your shoes. Finally, give them lots of time to make decisions about what they want to play with. This might mean giving them time to engage in practical work with you, but also the freedom to find their own work and follow their needs. 

Pretend play is an important part of every toddler's work and it should not be undervalued compared with other Montessori activities. While fascinating, pretend play does change over time, don't miss part 2 of this series: 

Montessori at Home: Pretend Play in the Preschool Years

Decode the nuances of toddlers' pretend play and learn how to foster their creativity in a Montessori home. Delve into the intrinsic ways you can support your child's pretend play, from taking a backseat role to adapting your environment for their play-fueled exploration.

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