What's wrong with a little fantasy before 6?
Should every child be raised on fairy tale land?
I was talking with a friend who is a mother of a beautiful four-year-old girl. My friend believes, as do many other parents, that every girl should be raised in a fairy tale land and her room should be a museum devoted to all sorts of magical toy creatures because, granted, they are cute. When I said that I did not believe it was a good idea to introduce fantasy at such an early age, although I truly love Disney myself, she was shocked!
She asked me all sorts of questions: How do you avoid telling fairy tales to a child? What do you talk to them about, if not fantasy? If they are going to figure out sooner or later that all those things are not real, what’s wrong with a little fantasy?
The absorbent mind
From birth to six-years old, children have what Maria Montessori called “the absorbent mind.” The mind of the young child does not work the same way that the adult mind does. Our’s is a logical mind with defined rules. The child’s mind is truly all-seeing where everything is possible. The first biological task of the baby is to adapt to whatever environment into which he was born. To succeed in this task he or she literally absorb EVERYTHING in their environment. They do not question anything.
In my own Montessori classroom, I had a student who went with his parents to see a Spiderman movie. He came back totally amazed! He truly admired that Peter Parker dude! He painted Spiderman in every single drawing he made. When we talked about what the students wanted to do on their holiday vacations, he said he wanted to go to New York to meet Spiderman. Spiderman became his role model.
He would play with real spiders (big or little) even though we, the teachers, had clearly explained that the spiders could attack and bite if they felt bothered. When I asked why he wanted to play with spiders, he told me he wanted the spider to bite him so he could become like Spiderman!
It might seem funny or cute that this child was completely convinced that Spiderman was in fact real regardless of any effort made by a teacher to tell him otherwise. But to me it feels more like disrespect. Only when his logical mind kicks in, at about 6 years old, will this boy have the skills to discriminate between true and false. He may continue to believe this and even put himself at risk because of this blind belief based on a fantasy introduced to him by his loving parents.
Children and fantasy on the local news
Luckily nothing has happened to this student of mine because he believes Spiderman is real. But other children in other parts of the world have not been so fortunate. Young children have hurt themselves as well as other children by jumping from windows, hitting with objects, choking and even shooting at other children with guns. However in the world of television cartoons and videos, these actions do not result in any real world consequences.
Silvana Montanaro, one of the most recognized Montessori infant teachers, says: “Fantasy is very interesting to the older child, but only confusing to the very young. A rich foundation of stories about the real world is the best preparation for a creative imagination. We should check that books present reality, since at this age children are trying to make sense of the environment and the life around them. There is nothing more extraordinary and interesting than our own daily life. Fantasy can come later – after reality has been experienced and absorbed.”
The origin of phobias
The absorbent mind of the child has no limit, and children have no way of choosing what their amazing minds will absorb. Today many psychologists agree that the majority of phobias can be traced back to early childhood. However, this wasn’t always the case. What has changed? Young children’s exposure to fantasy has increased to the same degree that technology has spread worldwide and become more and more available. One consequence is that we now find in youngsters phobias and increasing violence that didn’t exist before the 1980’s.
What does my child need?
What children actually need is their reality presented to them with joy and excitement so they can experience that it is safe and most importantly, open to their exploration. If you ever see a video of a toddler exploring, you see they go a little way out, then make sure mom is still there before they go out a little further. They need safe limits.
In Montessori we have a whole avenue to help children adjust to real life. We call it Practical Life, and it’s basically designed to help our children develop simple skills to succeed independently in real daily tasks such as learning to make a healthy snack or washing their hands.
Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard recommend lots of outdoor time in their book Montessori from the Start: “Being out-of-doors in natural settings gives infants and young children hands-on experiences that are concrete and reality based. The infant outside in a carriage for a morning nap wakes up to clouds moving across the blue sky, leaves rustling and waving in the breeze, wind on her face, the smell of tree bark in the hot sun. One day she will stand up and know the feel of cool green grass under her bare feet. These sensations are not just nice experiences. They are the basis of our recognition of our universality, perhaps even the realization of our spiritual being which is our most abstract concept.”
I just need a minute!
As a mother of an infant I know firsthand that sometimes it might be tempting to have a little bit of “free time” while leaving a child with the TV to watch some cartoons. But then I think about it this way. Watching TV is actually training my child to depend on outside entertainment, while it is filling his mind with fantasy content that is useless to him. On the other hand, if I engage my child in real activities of helping around the house, playing with blocks or puzzles and avoiding the TV, I can feed his imagination and he learns to occupy himself mastering real life activities. So, in the long run I get more “free time” by choosing to introduce the real world instead of the fantasy world.
The amazing real world
The real world can be amazing too! Have you ever seen a young child playing “office” imitating what he sees mommy or daddy do? Nothing is more interesting to a four-year-old than her daddy’s cellphone and briefcase! What an immense joy she may feel to handle real office supplies! Or even better, going on an adventure to the kitchen where she can help prepare real food for the family! There is no word to describe the glow in your child’s eyes when he or she feels empowered, independent, and joyous by being a part of real, simple daily tasks that matter.