Comparing the approaches of Montessori Education and Play Therapy

Is it possible that Play Therapy and Montessori education principles and values make them ideally suited towards each other and simply the way they use the language of ‘work’ and ‘play’ seems to set them apart. Could ‘Play Therapy’ materials be used as Montessori Materials for the troubled child as a way to make abstract communication and feeling concrete and give children with traumatic experiences a set of tools with which they can teach and heal themselves (under the guidance of a trained adult).

Recently I have been looking for ideas to help young Elementary children communicate at a deeper level and this has led me to read about Play Therapy. I see Montessori teaching and Play Therapy work as sharing many characteristics. While there are many excellent introductions to Play Therapy I have used the beginning chapters in Garry L. Landreth’s ’The Art of Relationship’ Routledge (2012) for this piece. After a few searches on the internet I have not discovered any articles about Montessori and Play Therapy being used together, I would be very interested in learning more.This essay assumes an understanding of Montessori terms which are fully described in the ‘Theory’ section of this site.

The language of Play, Work and Fantasy

The language of Montessori’s and Play Therapists is at odds, but the principles which guide their work does not seem to be. Montessorians avoid the term ‘play’, firstly, by calling it ‘work’ they intend to give greater esteem to the importance of activity which children are engaged in and because by ‘play’ we often mean adult-imposed-fantasy-role-playing. On the other hand, Play Therapists use the word ‘play’ to describe the serious activity in the ‘playroom’ as a way to value the children’s natural medium of creative expression, different to but as significant as the activities adults employ.

With regard to the adult-based-fantasy such as Disney and Star Wars films, merchandise and experiences, in my experience these do seem to have a detrimental affect on children acting out their own narratives, following these narratives is not what Play Therapists or Montessorian’s view as ‘creative’. These are not the narratives Play Therapists seek to strengthen but they may be useful when modified by the child to express the child’s authentic voice. Many disturbed children use these adult fantasy to survive difficult realities. Neither the Play Therapists not Montessori teachers are comfortable with children being dominated by these imposed tales. Play Therapists see play as ‘the concrete expression of the child and is the child’s natural way of coping with the world’ (Landreth). The activity in Play Therapy is to act or draw child-initiated stories, these might begin with characters from children films but the therapist is interested in how and why the child relates to that character and if a child uses fantasy to disengage with reality why it is that reality is unattractive for the child.

Is the repetitious engagement of young children which Montessorian’s call ‘work’ related to the way traumatised individuals repeat the catastrophic event symbolically, seeking way out? Is it possible that their is a parallel between the Montessori adult showing the child an easy way to clean up a spill, avoid feelings of shame and gain a sense of accomplishment and the Play Therapist who asks the child why the robot in the sandtray behaves with repetitive aggression or victimhood and asking what other strategies the robot could employ. Bettelheim 1987 states that this play is engrossing, symbolic, beyond the child’s conscious understanding and appears to have little value to the adult, but unless there is danger he cautions against interfering with it. This sounds very much like the work of a child in Casa, so I wonder are both sets of professionals observing the same thing and giving it different names – ‘work’ and ‘play’?

In ‘The Art of Relationship’ a few studies are mentioned discussing fantasy in children’s play, Howe and Silvern (1981) observed maladjusted children’s play as having more intense, typically angrier, sadder and more anxious feelings, higher levels of conflict and saw higher levels of fantasy, Perry (1988) did not. It would be interesting from a Montessori perspective to know the ages of the children they describe, they did notice that maladjusted children chose water, sand and clay work over other Play involving more language (puppets, story telling) which is unsurprising to a Montessorian understanding of the Planes of Development.

Concept of ‘the child’

Montessori adults and Play Therapists see children as full people, who are processing the experiences around them to create themselves now and as adults.

Both esteem an activity which is not goal oriented, is intrinsic, allows child to assimilate world, the child to be her child is own teacher, they value exploring and orienting oneself in ones real environment, they see physical activity as the natural medium for the children to express themselves, and specially trained adults demonstrate future thinking in concrete and present ways. Play therapy is designed for children who have met with a barrier and need a way of discharging emotions in socially acceptable way while ‘learning the trappings of their culture’ (Landreth) and developing skills. Both Montessorians and Play Therapists believe in children’s ability to express the individuality of their inherent personalities and draw on inner resources.

Are Montessori Pedagogy and Play Therapy compatible?

If Montessori gives a plan for a helping adult, materials and an environment to enable the child who has adapted well to their safe environment, what about children who do not have positive formative experiences, witness trauma or need additional help ‘normalising’? From a Montessori perspective Play Therapy gives children who are struggling to accept their environment materials to bridge the gap between their sensorial, concrete experience and abstract thought. Montessori offers work, repetition, focus, concentration and happiness, to that list Piaget (1962) adds play by which he means using symbols to represent abstract ideas through manipulative tools. While Montessori gives sound arguments for working with normalising children through concrete and useful work, can ‘play’ be a way to reach out to children who are protecting themselves through fantasy and after making contact with these children bring them back, at their own pace, to our reality? For children in the second plane we know that the imagination is a great power to contact reality when working with children. According to Montessori pedagogy the child is in her a phase for language acquisition phase and concrete thinking until age 6, at this time play therapy sees uninitiated ‘play’ as comfortable, natural medium to express and self-heal. Play in therapy is enjoyable, involves whole child – physical, mental, emotional and creative aspects. As opposed to talking therapies which require nuanced language, abstraction and clear command of words a therapeutic relationship is well established through play. It is a way to give children social control and choices which in reality they may or may not have had.

Montessori education expects ideal conditions from prenatal to adult, play therapy supposes the child has experiences which are unmanageable and require self-directed exploration through materials in the context of a therapeutic relationship. While children are developing their language during the first two planes, birth to twelve years we cannot hope to reach them completely through the talking therapies, play therapy offers materials to reach children through developmentally appropriate modes.

The role of the adult

A play therapist closely observes a child’s self-initiates play. A Montessorian does this with a well-adjusted child as she learns to work. The child self-imitates the play as they want to heal themselves and develop and like the Montessori adult the therapist guides the energies, overcoming barriers and creating a situation where the child can come to success.

Sometimes play therapy is adult directed, using art, music, body therapy and a combination of these, just as Montessorian teachers direct children to presentations. The adults in both contexts work tentatively with the child until they feel the child is ready for the new experience. However, both methods are largely child directed. Children left to select an activity; drawing, puppets, sand and water work for example while the adult observes or lets herself be guided as a participant in the child’s play. The adults of both methods rely on careful observation without judgement to learn about the child and to decide what steps to take next.

Use of the environment and materials

In Play Therapy children choose how each object is used and what it represents. But the therapist selects the play materials and builds up a safe physical environment and working relationship as a Montessori adult would to enable optimal growth to arise from the situation. ‘Play is to the child what verbalisation is to the adult’ (Landreth). We insist on value of words but children can come to their own emotional calm and plans of action e.g. being friends without the rituals of fully explaining a situation or being made to say sorry. I see children stop being upset and being ready to be friends with each other after just watching the body language of the other child. They don’t need the formal settlement to a disagreement we do. But  children with more language and abstraction skills do, they want to see justice and fairness and have a complete adult abstract understanding of the event for themselves. Using puppets to reenact what happened gives me a clearer idea of a incident between six year old boys than asking them to recount and they could choose what to do next, the puppets hugged.

The relationship between the adult, child and playroom.

The child in the Montessori classroom and in the Playroom has freedom to act, as long as the room is safe, the child knows the adult values her choice, without this the observation of her actions become meaningless. The adult asks the child to evaluate what she likes and does not like, what has meaning for her, the adult may offer suggestions but the child has the right to refute these guesses, the child’s opinions and feelings are valued and accepted. This information is useful for the professional adult and guides her understanding. The child values time spent with the adult where she receives complete attention, total caring and has an environment set up just to help her. After developing trust, acting authentically and being understood, ‘the child feels safe enough to be more fully the person he is capable of becoming…his uniqueness is expressed more freely and thus more completely’. Being accepted by the trained adult the child accepts herself and process of self knowledge can begin to be expressed through ‘play’ or ‘work’.

Process of the Play/Work

In Play Therapy and Montessori children new to the environment and adult begin with noncommittal activity and through being able to make real choices come to spontaneous and creative activity. Both sets of professionals know that maladjusted children ask for direction, manipulate less, avoid ‘playing’ with materials by either verbalising excessively or not verbalising enough, they may show aggression through a lack of responsibility towards the environment or anxiety or depression by not wanting to relate to it. In Montessori the result is work, the development of the self and a desire to contribute to society. The activity in play therapy gives way to the expression of feelings and freely recounted incidents as a relationship of trust has been established, the child is now able to relate to reality, to work and develop themselves. The child who is ‘free’ is a child who is content and busy, alert but focused, engaged with the environment and actively responsible for her choices and the consequences of them.

It seems that in Play Therapy and Montessori Education have is a great deal in common. The adults role is to be a sensitive, observer adults who has fully prepared an ideal environment full of materials and experiences designed to suit children. Children are actively engaged in their pursuit of building themselves in their own style, their developmentally different style of moving, expressing and conceptualising abstract thought. I think that for a child in need of help, who isn’t ‘normalised’ through work because of some outside event in the child’s life a recommendation of Play Therapy from a Montessori practitioner would fit well with the principals of a practitioner and learning environment.

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