Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer 2012

Lampus Press has recently published a book by Gesine Abraham entitled:

PRESCHOOL EDUCATION: Keeping the Magic Alive — Preserving the Spiritual Potential of Early Childhood
More Information →

Since the 1960’s, Gesine has been applying Waldorf early childhood principles in a variety of settings, including Head Start, play groups, day care, and private Waldorf schools. She taught kindergarten at a private K-8 Waldorf school in Southern Oregon for 10 years. Throughout these years, Gesine has also been actively involved in parenting education, providing presentations at parent evenings, workshops, and lectures.

Gesine earned her BA degree from the World Program of Long Island University. During her undergraduate studies as a World Program student, she attended the foundation year program at Emerson Waldorf Teacher Training Institute in England. She completed her second year of Waldorf teacher training at the Waldorf Teacher Training Institute in Detroit, Michigan.

The following is an excerpt from:

Chapter 7, Waldorf and Montessori: Similarities and Differences.

The Value and Meaning of Play. “A child’s work”, Montessori wrote, “is to create the man he will become. An adult works to perfect the environment but a child works to perfect himself.” Steiner emphasized that through imitation, which is the primary focus in the first seven years, the child is creating the man he will become; he emphasized that active interaction with the environment in the will-doing cycle is the child’s means of self perfection. A man digging in the earth would welcome a helping hand whereas a child digging would resist help. The work the child is doing can be done only by him. A similarity between Waldorf and Montessori teachers is that they both have a deep understanding of the fact that in these early foundational years the child’s activities are a profound and serious enterprise.

However if we consider the example of the child digging, the digging would be referred to as the child’s work in a Montessori school; whereas in a Waldorf school, it would be referred to as play. The different choice of words here is not simply a matter of semantics but an indication of a significantly different point of view regarding the nature and use of the imagination and of play. Creating an environment that encourages creative, pretend or imitative play is at the heart of the Waldorf early childhood approach. In the Montessori system, pretend play is discouraged. This difference is striking and has therefore been the source of the most frequently asked question by parents when they look into these two different programs. It has been a question of particular interest to me as well because of my earlier experiences working with Eleanor in combining elements of both Waldorf and Montessori.

In the chapter on the Waldorf model of development we looked at the thinking-feeling-willing triplicity and at the awakening of consciousness through the three sub-cycles of the willing-doing cycle. If we look at the example of a child digging in the context of this model, we see that a new element qualifies the doing-activity of the child after age three when he enters the feeling sub-cycle (3 to 5). The activity, in this case the digging, is still compelling in and of itself—it still serves as a means of self perfecting in the sense of roughing-in a structure of knowledge, of strengthening the muscles, perfecting coordination, gaining skill and acquiring a sense of competence. But once imagination is awakened, the digging is much more appealing to the child if the digging takes place in an imaginative or pretend context.

Preschoolers love to dig, and I therefore always have a dirt hill in the playground for this purpose. I have supervised many children over the years digging away and totally enjoying themselves in the process. The addition of water to make mud is without a doubt the number one favorite activity for this age group. Children always have some imaginative context around which their activity is organized. Today, for example, Louie was pretending he was a construction worker. He dug a large hole in the dirt pile and decided to fill it with “cement.” He made the cement by mixing just the right amount of water to dirt in a bucket to get the desired consistency. After filling the hole, he smoothed the cement with a piece of bark. Next to him, several children were preparing mud pies. They were pretending they were camping and had constructed a “tent” under a bush and used stones they had gathered to make a ring around the camp fire. They were engaged in this scenario for a long time and, as they played, their food became more elaborate with the addition of leaves, berries and sticks. Seeing the play through their eyes, I was transported to a deep, remote forest far away from the town in which the school was located.

When a child plays in this way, he projects an internal image on to the external world, and what is so delightful about this is that the child is then playing in a world of his own creation. In this world he gets a feeling for what it will be like to be the man he will become when he is “all grown up.” Waldorf teachers do everything they can to foster this kind of creativity and pretend play.
The Role of Imagination and Play in the Montessori Method. The Montessori materials are concrete representations of concepts. They provide the child with a sensorial experience of ideas thereby making the abstract concrete. For example, children have a concrete, tactile experience of quantity when they count out the smooth wood spindles and place them in the spindle box. The Montessori Method is primarily a head and hands approach. The middle or feeling aspect, however, is not an integral part of the model.

What did Montessori write about the role or value of play? Let us begin with her point of view regarding toys. Toys are generally small models of
things used by adults, such as miniature kitchens, trucks, musical instruments etc. Montessori pointed out that adults give children these kinds of toys because they see “that the child wants to copy them in their work, but they give him in response things which he cannot work. It is a mockery!” (Education for a New World 64)

Children quickly tire of such toys and want new ones. “They wantonly break toys and people infer that the child delights in taking things to pieces and destruction but this is an artificially developed characteristic, due to his not having the right things to handle.” Montessori advocated real tools, albeit small and easy to handle, rather than toys. She advocated a social life with other children rather that play-people such as dolls. (Education for a New World 64-65)

There are few, if any, toys in a traditional Montessori classroom. There are few toys in Waldorf kindergartens as well. Waldorf teachers would agree that real tools are preferable to toy replicas which do not work. It is very frustrating, for example, for a child to attempt to dig with a flimsy plastic shovel. However a distinction is made in Waldorf schools between playing with toys and true play. The reason that so many toys are considered unsuitable by Waldorf teachers is that if the toy already represents the object, there is no work for the imagination to do; if the toy moves, but all the child does is push control buttons, then the limbs are not engaged. Children will play endlessly without toys, sailing their bark boat in puddles or building play houses with blankets and tables or other objects from around the house.

I recently watched a National Geographic special on Africa. A nine year old boy was on a long camel journey across the desert with a group of men. He was the only child on the trip. He had to keep up with the pace of the men who walked all day, not even stopping to eat but only grabbing a bite as they continued walking rapidly. At one point a truck passed the group. Shortly after the truck drove by, the boy held a bowl in his hand and used it like a steering wheel in obvious happy imitation of driving a truck. It was an especially amazing sight, the beaming face of the child who found a way to play while still keeping up his pace. With only a bowl he managed to capture the feeling and gesture of driving a large, heavy vehicle along the desert road.

Initially I wondered if Montessori’s lack of regard for play was due primarily to her recognition of the unsuitability of most toys. But it seems to me that her disregard for play is more far reaching. For example, in the following passage she takes issue not just with playing with toys but with play itself. A child, according to Montessori, has a natural predisposition to absorb the culture. She asks rhetorically: “How can a child in such a complicated world absorb culture if he be left to play with toys and build sand castles? Play has become exalted as something mystic . . . but it is logical that, if there are in this period of three to six natural aptitudes to easy acquisition of culture, we should take advantage of them, and surround the child with things to handle which in themselves convey steps in culture.” (Education for a New World 11-12.)

In another passage, she writes about the use of the imagination itself. Her emphasis seems to be on seeing value in using the absorbent stage as an opportunity to orient the child to objective, external reality—the so-called real world— rather than a fantasy one, or, in other words, an unreal world; a world which the child supposedly creates because he has not had the better choice of access to objects that orient him accurately to the environment.

Play is connected in these passages with fairy tales and building sand castles, in other words, with fantastic unreality (fairy tales), and with building pipe-dreams on a shifting, insubstantial foundation (sand castles). She is stating, in essence, that play— which has been universally accepted as the distinguishing characteristic of childhood— does not warrant the “mystic faith” which has been placed in it. Instead, she believes that it is more in the nature of a deviation and a waste or misuse of the child’s potential—a potential to absorb the “complicated culture of today.” The purpose of the Montessori materials is to give children objects to handle which in themselves provide children with the means of “acquiring culture” (materials for learning reading and writing), as well as for “more advanced culture” (such as the binomial cube, geometric solids, wooden maps, etc.).

It seems to me that there is a basic bias in this point of view which reflects a major misunderstanding of the deeper meaning and value of play and imagination. If adhered to pedantically, that is, if play were to be discouraged, I believe it would be very harmful. There would be the danger that, in spite of Montessori’s altruistic motivation and dedication to securing the rights of children, such an approach would instead lead to a narrow minded rationalism or the premature and over development of the concrete materializing faculty. It would unfortunately erode the spiritual potential of childhood, the very thing Montessori was attracted to and inspired by in her experience with children.

If our objective is to support the spiritual dimension in education, it is important to train the mind to be active in two directions: inward, to the realm of meaning, value and quality, as well as outward, to the tangible and objective. To restrict the use of the imagination to gaining accurate information about the world of objective phenomena already dims, at an early age, the quality of imagination which enables the mature adult to use creative energy to anchor something on the physical plane which is expressive of the soul’s creative power.

It warrants repetition here to recall that the kind of play involved in building sand castles serves a purpose quite the opposite of the usual connotation of the phrase. Playing with sand—sculpting, forming, building and re-building wet sand—is just the direct kind of learning that builds a solid structure of knowledge of the physical world. The addition of the imagination in the play activity motivates the child to repeat and refine his explorations, thereby filling in more elaborate details (for example, getting sand just the right consistency to make high turrets) than would otherwise be the case. Furthermore, the ability to project an inner image on an external object activates and develops higher brain functioning, and it is this ability which is actually the essential and necessary pre-requisite for the acquisition of “more advanced culture”, such as philosophy, higher mathematics and physics.
It seems also necessary to recall here that fairy tales serve an important purpose. Young children have an interest in and a need to learn about moral, psychological and spiritual truths as well as an interest in and a need to learn useful information about the external, physical environment. Fairy tales are not meaningless and fantastic day dreams, but have their own laws just as the physical world has laws. They are true to inner not outer reality. The characters and events in fairy tales represent psychological and spiritual truths and address major existential dilemmas. As the story unfolds, the child’s questions about the meaning and purpose of life are answered in a manner that makes these pressing concerns accessible to the child in the form of living pictures. Since the complicated culture of our modern age is one in which our knowledge of the external world far surpasses our wisdom, it seems particularly urgent to me that the art of telling fairy tales not be abandoned.

Fairy tales are frowned upon by many Montessori teachers. As one Montessori teacher said to me, “You can tell them fairy tales as much as you like, but sooner or later the children need to be told the truth.” I would simply respond that those who “know the truth” will sooner or later discover the hidden and profound meaning in fairy tales. They will also discover why fairy tales are for a child a soul’s delight.

Before Eleanor and I decided to start a school together, we discussed the issue of play and its place in the curriculum. It was important to me that opportunities for pretend imaginative play be provided for as an integral part of the day. Eleanor was familiar with the kind of play I had in mind because she had visited my Head Start class. She felt it was in the spirit of Montessori to not discourage play if it was the child’s choice because Montessori took her lead from the child himself. In fact, Montessori had initially encouraged the children she first worked with from the tenement to play with the toy pots and pans, but discovered that they had no interest in them. We agreed not to mix pretend play with the use of the Montessori apparatuses and therefore we provided a play area with its own supplies. We found a facility which had a large enough room to provide ample space to meet both our needs. We were not sure if our two approaches would coexist compatibly, but we thought that the attempt would, at the very least, prove to be an instructive experiment.

I have very fond memories of the three years Eleanor and I worked together. We were able to use our differing approaches in such a way that they complemented each other. We respected each other’s contribution. We provided the full range of Montessori equipment as well as most of the resources typically found in Waldorf kindergartens. The children were free to choose and were nearly always engaged with activities from both approaches on a daily basis. When Eleanor left, I was faced with a new and different opportunity. Now that Eleanor could no longer continue to work with me, I had to decide if I wanted to continue to offer the Montessori part of the program.

At that time (in the early 70’s), I had completed the two year Waldorf training but the focus of the training was on preparation for teaching in the Grades. I had no specialized training for the kindergarten as is now provided. Steiner’s writings about the young child are scattered throughout his books and it takes time to penetrate into them. I had no contact with other Waldorf teachers. In subsequent years, I was able to deepen my understanding of the Waldorf early childhood model by attending workshops and reading newly developed periodicals. But at the time that I was faced with this choice of whether or not to continue offering some combination of the two approaches, I was still learning about the deeper aspects of Waldorf more or less on my own. I was in a situation where I had to find my way through my own explorations and observations.

When I worked for Head Start, I saw that the children who were the most neglected— that is, those children who had little stimulation such as opportunities to talk to adults who listened to them or read to them, to maintain consistent relationships, to be cared for and nurtured—tended to be very concrete and unimaginative. They preferred helping me with practical chores or doing puzzles or some other project with a set procedure and clear beginning and end. Open-ended pretend play was not appealing to them; at any rate, they seemed to not even know how to do it.

But after a while, after they had experienced the order and predictability of the day, a consistent and dependable relationship with adults, the magic and rhythm of story, verse, poetry, and after observing other children play, they slowly entered into a more imaginative realm. Once they began to play it was as if some invisible barrier or threshold was crossed and they were considerably changed. They spent less time in activities planned by the adult and more and more time playing imaginatively and entering fully into the pretend play scenarios of their own creation. The more freely they played, and the more time they had to play, the more exuberant, happy, glowing and light-hearted they became, in other words, more child-like in the radiant sense. A burden seemed to be lifted.

When I worked with Eleanor, I observed that once the children learned the intended lesson of one of the Montessori apparatuses they naturally did not have any further interest in it; that particular piece of equipment was mastered and so they moved on to something new. One day after Eleanor was no longer working with me, a child took one of the knobbed cylinders and began to use one of the cylinders as pretend lipstick. She glanced over at me to see if I would disapprove, and sensing that I did not, she carried on with the imagination. She set up a beauty parlor and the cylinders became combs, a blow dryer, and nail polish.

Eleanor had been clear about using the Montessori equipment appropriately. When she was present, the children felt what she expected from them and they acted accordingly. When she was gone, they did not get such a clear message from me. On the one hand, I understood that the Montessori apparatuses had been designed for a specific purpose. If they were available, they should be used as they were intended. But on the other hand, I was not comfortable intervening in or prohibiting the direction the children choose to take in how they used the materials. I felt that I should let them use the equipment according to their own inner promptings or remove the equipment altogether.

Before I made a clear decision about how I wanted to proceed, there was a period of time when I decided to let the children use the Montessori equipment for pretend play if they were so inclined. Most of the children in the group at that time were returning students from the previous year and so they were familiar with the proper use of the equipment. They had mastered, as it were, the intended use of most of the sensorial and basic math materials. These materials now found new life when the children were allowed to use them according to their own inner direction.

They used them in two ways, as “props” for pretend play or as construction toys. The spindles from the spindle box became fire wood, cargo for trains, fishing poles, food, farm fencing, money, etc. The number rods were laid out for railroad tracks. The sensorial equipment was used frequently for construction projects. For example, a child built a castle with log slices (typical Waldorf equipment), arranging the round pieces of wood into many small rooms within a large, overall organic shape accentuated with high towers and bridges. To this he added the color tablets from the Montessori monochromatic color box, arranging them in spiral pathways and as colorful and asymmetrical additions to the body of the castle.

Before I had “absorbed” Steiner’s writings about how the play of children reflects the transformative work of the etheric or life body (vital body), I was seeing this phenomenon in the way the children were using the Montessori materials. They were taking things that had a very clear, precise geometric form and using them to create organic or non-geometric shapes and forms. Their inclination to do this was pronounced and universal. I later realized that this early experiment of mine is one that would make both Montessori and Waldorf teacher cringe because it infringes on the integrity of both approaches. For example, natural, undefined objects (such as stones, branches, shells, blocks of wood, puffy cotton, etc.) are more suitable objects for play according to the Waldorf approach. According to the Montessori approach, the purpose of the equipment (to orient the child accurately to objective reality) is undermined if used as props in play.

As I noted earlier, when I first began working with Eleanor, I thought that the two approaches would complement each other, one adding something that was lacking in the other. After this period of experimentation, I realized that I was moving toward a new outlook. My own observations and experiences had taught me the wisdom of waiting until after seven to introduce direct math and reading instruction. I therefore decided to eliminate the Montessori reading and math equipment. I believe this equipment is well designed but is better suited to supplementing the instruction of older children.

The objective of the Montessori practical life and sensorial exercises were being met in the ordinary Waldorf curriculum, integrated into the natural course of the day as well as in the planned arts and crafts and special seasonal projects. Watching the children use the Montessori materials in pretend play made Steiner’s point about the deadening effect of rigid forms come alive for me and I felt the need to simplify and “soften” the environment. It happened that over time I eliminated most of the Montessori materials and found my way back to what felt, to me, to be the essentials, that is, pretend play in a home like environment. The element of imaginative play is key both to the child’s magical unity consciousness plus the child’s work of coming fully into physical life manifestation through doing and through imitation. Eliminating play is like eliminating the heart and soul of childhood. Why do some adults fail to see the significance of imaginative play? Perhaps Steiner gives us a clue when he says: “Our intellectual culture has landed us in a situation where most adults no longer have any understanding of childhood, because a child’s soul is entirely different from that of a thoroughly intellectualized adult. We must begin by finding the key to childhood again.” (The Child’s Changing Consciousness 62.)

Works cited:
Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
—Education for a New World. Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications, 1974.
Steiner, Rudolf. The Child’s Changing Consciousness. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophical Press, 1996.
—The Education of the Child. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1965.
—The Poetry and Meaning of Fairy Tales. New York: Mercury Press, 1989.