One of the most important ideas in early childhood education is the concept that young children absorb the world around them. It is this sponge-like capacity to absorb from the environment what is necessary that makes the young child a super-learner. Research consistently shows that until the age of about five-six years old, the young child will absorb what they see and accept it as ‘real.’ Later, as their experiences with the real world become increasingly complex and abstract, they transition to having a reasoning mind more similar to an adult. Until six years old, they have no filter to help them separate reality from superhero fantasy play. This disconnect leads to a concern. When a young child watches fantasy programming on TV or at the movie theater, the ‘suspension of disbelief’ coupled with on-screen violence may be interpreted as normal behavior.
It is not. Instead, fantastic shows may scare our children into believing that animals CAN talk; extraterrestrial aliens ARE among us; zombies DO exist; or ‘bad guys’ lurk behind every shower curtain or door.
Maria Montessori invested her working career in developing and designing an environment leading to each child’s optimal development. Every component in that environment sought to move children’s understanding of ‘self and surroundings’ forward—in positive, encouraging ways.
Dr. Montessori observed that most fantasy is anchored in unrealistic and, at times, psychologically scary topics. During Dr. Montessori’s lifetime, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel;’ Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ and Shelly’s Frankenstein’ used cannibalism, resurrection, witches, abandonment and talking animals as touchpoints. But these were novels read by adults who used their imagination to create visuals.
On the other hand, she saw fiction as a learning tool. Children could use fictional stories as a foundation to implement social skills and problem-solving. ‘Pretend play’ based on real, adult activities the children observe – what we call ‘socio-dramatic role play’ – are adaptive ways of using imagination, interaction and re-enactment with friends and peers. This kind of pretending helps children process and cope with issues they face in real life.
What would Dr. Montessori say about today’s Marvel® universe of fantasy superheroes?
She would argue that these kinds of fantasy are OK; but only after your child has shown an ability to discern the difference between fiction and fantasy.
Young children have difficulty discriminating between fantasy and reality. Young children may not understand the difference between ‘play fighting’ and real fighting, between ‘bad guys’ and another child on the playground they are having a disagreement with.
Waiting to introduce fantasy to your child in elementary school is more developmentally appropriate – as their understanding of the world has adapted to classify things in less literal, more abstract terms. As always, parents can guide children to move towards the next developmental steps simply by observing, assessing and acting in their child’s best interest. In that way, concerns of superhero fantasy play can be diminished.
La Jolla Montessori School, a toddler, primary and Kindergarten private, independent learning center, is located at 8745 La Jolla Scenic Drive North. To place your name on the waitlist, please visit: https://lajollamontessorischool.com.