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Fantasy play- help or hindrance to imagination?

Updated: May 3, 2019

“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”

- Maria Montessori

Why did Montessori advocate that children should not be introduced to fantasy before the age of 6? Isn’t fantasy play important for the development of creativity and imagination?

Many early years settings encourage fantasy play. In almost all toy stores you will find a huge variety of toys that encourage children to engage in fantasy before the age of six. As parents and educators should we follow this trend, as a harmless, fun or even beneficial one? Or is it possible that such play is hindering the growth and development of our children?

Educators agree that imaginative and creative thought are some of the key essential skills that our children will need for the future, for their day to day life and for the ever-changing ways in which we work in this modern age. Children entering the education system today at 5 will be entering the work place in 2035. We do not know what that work place will look like but we can be sure imaginative and creative thought will be essential skills to make their knowledge transferable. So how can we foster and develop these skills? Is fantasy play a step in the right or wrong direction?

Imagination is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to create pictures in your mind; something that you have imagined rather than something that exists; the ability to have new and exciting ideas”. Creativity is defined as “The use of imagination or original ideas to create something”.

Imagination can be divided into reproductive imagination and creative imagination. In reproductive imagination, the young child (0-6 years) imagines in his mind something he has already seen and experienced. It’s a sensorial stage of imagination in that it is built upon impressions he has received through his senses. For example, he sees a castle then later builds one out of pillows; he uses a broom as a horse or perhaps pretends to be his teacher often impersonating mannerisms he has seen. It could be said that he is making sense of his world through this reproductive imagination.

This play is an important way of processing of the world around them, so what does the child need for this type imagination to be fostered? Experiences, real experiences and lots of them! but other than that this child needs nothing. A tree branch can be a sword, a plane, a horse. The possibilities are endless. The child does not need expensive role play items, pricey wooden food...etc To develop a strong reproductive imagination, we could say less is more because less means fewer limits to the imagination and more open-ended play. Children engage in this play particularly outdoors and at home. They role play naturally we don't have to give them 'role play'. We need to just let children play instead of directing them. (It is important for Montessori educators to note though that Maria Montessori did not allow children to use the Montessori classroom materials such as the pink tower in this way. The Montessori materials are purposeful materials that teach the child other skills. Just as a child is free to draw on paper but not on a book or the wall, so to a child is free to use their reproductive imagination with appropriate materials but not misuse classroom materials, which require to be respectfully handled).

Creative imagination follows on from reproductive imagination from around the age of 6. The imagination really explodes now, and the child begins to create something non-existent (not experienced) out of the pre-existing elements of his past experiences. For example, the child when told about the formation of the universe can picture this in his mind though never experienced. He does this by imagining the darkness he has experienced, the sounds, the light, the movement, the stars he has seen etc. He brings together an array of the real experiences he had in the 0-6 phase to now create a new image and concept in his mind.

It now becomes evident that the child must have had as many real, hands on experiences in his 0-6 period of self-construction when the synaptic pathways were being laid down. Montessori described how the one born without sight will often describe how they imagined vision in terms of sounds, for example they described imagining red as a trumpet and blue as the sound of a violin. They could only create with their imagination from the actual experiences they had.

Fantasy is a confusion for the child aged 0-6. We know that this child has an absorbent mind. He uses his senses to absorb all the information around him. Neuroscience has established that the experiences that a child has in their environment determines the connections that are made in their brain. The richer the experiences and the more he experiences the more the connections are made. Within our brain, we have synapses which connect neurons together and allow signals to travel. In the first 2-3 years of life there are an immense number of these connections made, a process known as synaptogenesis, which aids the child to adapt to their time and place.

Synapses formed can either be strengthened or weakened, depending on how often they are used. Synapses not often used undergo ‘pruning’, a process in which irrelevant synapses are removed. Brain connections not made and strengthened in the early years will not develop & will be removed. Early childhood is the key period for brain development and the establishment of the synapses that will remain with us in our lives.

So why is fantasy a confusion? If I watch spider-man on the TV I have sensorially experienced his existence but am told he is not real. Yet if I never interact much with spiders but interact a lot with spider-man which synaptic routes are being strengthened? Will I be able to use this fantasy experience to build upon in later years? An experience which is inaccurate and based on false information. The properties of the web are wrong, the movements of the man are not possible.

Our children only have one chance to build their brains. Most brain development is complete by 3 and the vast majority by 6. If all your connections of information are based on false misinformation how is that intellectually going to serve you when you need to use true creative imagination to problem solve and think outside the box.

Maybe the question we should all be asking ourselves is not is there any harm with fantasy and TV but rather what is the benefit? What is the best we can give our children in this most critical part of their lives? The reality is our children, as many of us know, prefer the box to they toy inside it! Children really do not need all the 'stuff' that is marketed at parents despite the massive push by companies to tell us otherwise.

Light green column represents birth to age 3

I have seen children in the infant community being presented with the farm animals only to hold the pig and exclaim “peppa”. The visual of the pig is synaptically more wired to the cartoon of peppa pig than that of a farm experience. These children engaged in fantasy often find it hard to connect with reality and work. They live in an imaginary world which society feeds further and then in later years we scold the child for not being a creative thinker capable of concentration and problem solving.

We know that creativity is “the use of original ideas or imagination to create something”. Original ideas require intellect and intellect is developed based on the child’s rich experiences in the environment. Imagination is based upon the experiences in the 0-6 period of life.

To develop a strong creative and imaginative mind the child needs rich and real experiences in early life. If we can provide them with that, we will find in the elementary years children who are not only able to write the most descriptive work, and draw the most incredible images but those who can create solutions for problems we have not yet imagined.


M. Montessori, (1949, 1952) The absorbent mind. Amsterdam, Montessori -Pierson Publishing Company.

M. Montessori, (1918) The advanced Montessori Method volume 1, Montessori -Pierson Publishing Company.

A.C. Jimenenez Borbolla, personal communication, April 2019.

M. Montessori, (1948, 1976) From childhood to adolescence. Amsterdam, Montessori -Pierson Publishing Company.

Santos E., Noggle C.A. (2011) Synaptic Pruning. In: Goldstein S., Naglieri J.A. (eds) Encyclopaedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer, Boston, MA

Ackerman S. (1992). Discovering the brain: The development and shaping of the brain.

Graham J. (2011). Children and brain development: What we know about how children learn.

Santos E, et al. (2011). Synaptic pruning.

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