Montessori and the fairy tales controversy.

maria_montessoriWhen I first starting looking into the Montessori method for my youngest it was because she had such a strong kinesthetic approach to how she learns and I knew Montessori was very hands on, and manipulative based.

I am not a purist. I am not going to follow Dr. Montessori wherever she leads any more than I’d follow Charlotte Mason wherever she went. One of the major reasons to home educate is that we can adjust methods and approaches to suit how our children learn. Any approach that isn’t flexible isn’t useful in children’s learning. In fact one of the major issues I have with the National Curriculum is it’s shallow-narrow approach.

church_odyssey_cover_200_266 violetI haven’t read everything Dr. Maria Montessori wrote. I’ve read The Absorbent Mind and some other bits. In what I have read she doesn’t tackle the issue of fairy stories – at least not that I remember. However I’ve come across a few online debates based on the premise that Montessori did not think children should be exposed to fairy tales, at least not until they were around age 6 when their reasoning skills developed. It has been extrapolated that Montessori thought children under the age of reason couldn’t differentiate between reality and fantasy. It’s certainly true that before reason they are more questions about what is real and what isn’t – at least that’s been my experience with both children I’ve worked with and my own children. So, while children under the age of reason may not know which is which, I do think they know there is a difference.

I can’t comment on whether Montessori was right or wrong on this because I’ve never seen a reference to which book or article is being discussed. There is merely the assertion that this is what she taught. Hopefully I will come across her own words on this in time. Some have said she noted the younger children simply weren’t interested in fairy stories and would drift away to do something else. This has been my experience too with the “original” versions. Now that the children are older (Heleyna will be 6 in April and the other two are 8 and 10) they like to sit together and listen to a story, though Heleyna still wonders off in the middle of one sometimes.

If Montessori was saying that the original fairy stories such as those we find in Andrew Lang’s series are not suitable for children under the age of 6 because they may confuse them about the difference between “real” and “imaginary” and in some way stunt their own imagination, I would say; maybe.  But I have found that children will ask questions on this if they are confused.

It is certainly true that the original fairy stories can be heavy going and perhaps really young children would not be able to benefit much from them, but as with all thing home ed, I think it’s up to the parent to know their own child and be able to choose storytelling that suits. One of the joys of the original stories told as they were meant to be told is that they have a depth that makes them appeal to a large age range. There’s something for everyone in them. It has been said that Montessori, much like Charlotte Mason recognised the value of a well told story for vocabulary enhancement.

On the other hand I have a real bugbare with the appalling disneyfication of perfectly good stories so that they are dumbed down beyond redemption. If we respect our children we will not be feeding them a badly written sugar-fest of meaninglessness.  The fairy tales and myths are part of the structures of culture and children do love them.

I can’t help wondering if the reason we have so much dumbed down material aimed at children is to do with the structure of schools. If you have a class of thirty 4 year olds there’s a kind of mono-culture where a big in depth myth seems to have nothing to say. But families are mixed ages and needs so the meat and two veg approach to storytelling is a way of speaking to everyone, even the grown ups.

We are made for stories. Storytelling has been a vital part of human cohesion since Adam and Eve left the Garden. Even Scripture uses story and even mythological language to teach us God’s Truth.

Stories are a way of holding families together. In Africa they still have the traditional family story and news sharing time in families. Immaculee Illibegiza speaks of it in her moving books Led by Faith and Left to Tell as she survived the Rwandan massacres. I can’t remember the proper name for these gatherings but I think this family sharing of story is important to self identity.

So the bottom line for me is this. I don’t know where dr. Montessori said “no fairy tales” and I am not convinced she ever did. I know Charlotte Mason was very keen for strong, “no twaddle” literature being offered to children and it’s something I concur with.

My children do get fairy stories – and I do try and avoid the dumbed down versions, though there are some good quality edited versions we have used.

I think there’s more to be said on this especially on a child’s development of imagination through reality and the difference between a well grounded story and an illusion. I might come back to this one.


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