When we talk about imagination, we immediately think of children playing and inventing, of creative processes and great scientists. The term 'imagination' has always played a major role in the lives of human beings and is associated with the unlocking of great potential, so much so that parents view imagination as an important skill to be nurtured in their children's lives.

However, when talking about imagination we sometimes confuse it with creativity, as if the two were synonymous, not least because nowadays the development of children's creativity is considered absolutely vital. We therefore need to take a step back and have a clearer understanding of what we are talking about. Although creativity and imagination are deeply interrelated, they are totally different things.

Imagination is the ability to evoke or produce images of something we are thinking about regardless of its presence or absence.

Creativity, by contrast, is the ability to create something in the real world using our imagination. In order to be creative, we therefore need to have highly developed imagination skills, though the reverse is not necessarily true, and to understand the reality around us.

One of the most famous quotes on creativity is by Henri Poincaré, who in 1908 wrote: "Creativity means to combine existing elements with new connections perceived as useful".

Imagination provides the building blocks of creativity, something which Maria Montessori very clearly understood long ago, when she wrote: "This strength of imagination in the child under six is usually expended on toys and fairy tales, but surely we can give him real things to imagine about, so putting him in more accurate relation with his environment. "

(Maria Montessori - Education for a New World, p. 73)


So why is Maria Montessori said not to be in favour of fantasy? Is fantasy not the same as imagination?

Fantasy and imagination are two very different things, as are fairy tales and fables, although we often tend to treat them synonymously.

In her classes, Maria Montessori preferred reading and telling fairy tales as opposed to fables. And there was a very precise reason for this. But let's approach this one step at a time.

Fairy tales are stories that always have a happy ending and mainly involve magical and fantastical settings and characters like fairies, ogres and witches who may possess incredible powers (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Thumb, and so on).

Fables, on the other hand, are stories that always involve a moral lesson that seeks to highlight the vices and flaws of our present-day society, and where the characters and settings are mostly realistic (although, here too, it is not unusual to find talking animals that don't belong to a child's real world).

Fairy tales seem absolutely harmless to us: how many of us have grown up to the tune of poisoned apples and child-stealing giants? But sometimes our children, suddenly and for no apparent reason, can no longer fall asleep peacefully or wake up crying during the night because they can see a witch in the darkness or think there’s a wolf hiding under the bed. And we usually have a ready answer: “But these things don't exist!”

To our adult mind, which is able to differentiate exactly and naturally between reality and make-believe, this is obvious and self-evident. But to a child, that's not how it actually works.

What we are encouraging through these types of stories is the child's fantasy, which unlike the imagination, bears no correspondence to reality.

Imagination, by contrast, is based on all the sensations that our body and mind have perceived from reality and also have the capacity to recreate, like an object we are familiar with and are able to imagine even if we don't actually have it before our eyes. Fantasy, on the other hand, is a product of the imagination which offers children impossible scenarios (that can never come true) and contradicts the child's developing understanding of how the world works.


What does recent scientific research tell us about the use of fantasy for young children?

Like many other psychologists and educationalists of her time, Maria Montessori argued that children under 6 years of age are not able to distinguish between fantasy and reality and tend to believe anything they are told.

However, recent studies instead suggest that young children aged between 3 and 4 begin to be able to differentiate between reality and fantasy thanks to an underlying scepticism that they already show at this age.

So why, especially in Western culture, are there many young boys and girls who believe in a vast array of fantastical beings like Santa Claus, the tooth fairy (or mouse), the big bad wolf, and so on?

The reason for this is not simply that children are credulous; instead, it is quite plausible that young children initially react with scepticism, but this scepticism rapidly disappears due to the cultural pressure around children as well as the testimonies of the parents, who provide concrete evidence of the existence of such entities, and on this evidence young children build their reality (e.g. finding money under the pillow and their tooth gone, biscuits left out for the reindeer found eaten, and so on).

In the research study, children were presented with new terms and/or fantasy entities/characters and were asked to say whether they were real or pretend. In most cases the children said they thought they were pretend words or entities because they had never experienced them in real life.

So, even at a very young age, children are able to understand what might be real or pretend precisely because they learn from their actions and by doing things.

Of course, if we as adults provide evidence of the existence of something that doesn't exist or constantly expose young children to fantasy cartoons, films, books and games, this will become their reality, instead of perhaps watching dad cooking and wanting to do what he does, pretending to be a great chef, or looking at the birds in the sky and imagining they are flying like them.

In “pretend” play children don't live in a “fantasy” world, but experiment with new roles, try new experiences in a safe environment and build their social skills. Many of the practical life activities (for more details, visit  https://it.clementoni.com/blogs/montessori/40-attivita-di-vita-pratica) make the most of children's natural propensity to imitate adults and to really endeavour to do what they see others doing around them. Children want to know what the world is truly like and how things work, and they use “pretence” to experiment within that world. But we should try to ensure that this “pretence” doesn’t remain fake but is actually the real thing, as Montessori suggests, and we should offer children real objects that are safe to use and not plastic fruit and kitchenware


So how should we approach imagination and fantasy?

Maria Montessori had absolutely nothing against the imagination, quite the opposite! But she said that the true basis of the imagination is reality, and that only a solid foundation of real-life experiences can lead to a rich imagination.

We simply have to offer children experiences that are as tangible and as practical as possible, at least until they are 4 years old, and they themselves will unleash their imagination, and consequently their fantasy.

But this will be a conscious process because the more children experience the real world, the more they are able and happy to let their imagination and their fantasy run free, since they can distinguish between them, knowing from practical experience what belongs to reality and what belongs to their fantasy, thanks among other things to the support they receive from honest adults who will always be there to guide them. That way, we will avoid any interference and confusion in the child’s mind.

And even if we come upon a book with talking animals or fire-breathing dragons, we won’t have to worry or wonder about what harm it might do to them. It’s our attitude that will make all the difference in that case.

We can even read the book with our children, but let's make sure we apply critical thinking and try to elicit reflections from them by asking questions like: “What do you think about that? Have you ever come across a dog talking in the street?” It will be fascinating to listen to them, and they will most likely amaze us with answers that perfectly reflect reality.


Some tips for choosing books:

Favour stories that:

- are based on reality, stimulate their sense of wonder and foster their knowledge of the world (animals, plants,

  peoples, means of transport, and so on);

- feature characters that arouse admiration;

- are not trivial just because they are meant for children;

- are beautifully illustrated with pictures that are as real as possible: getting children used to appreciating the beauty of drawings is an excellent sensory activity.



Maria Montessori, La mente assorbente, Garzanti

Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori parla ai genitori, Il leone verde

Maria Montessori, The California lectures of Maria Montessori, Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Tanya Sharon and Jacqueline D. Woolley, Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction.

Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics,

Jacqueline D. Woolley and Maliki Ghossainy.

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