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Fantasy vs. Reality in the World of Young Children

''The true basis of the imagination is reality, and its perception is related to the exactness of observation, it is necessary to prepare children to perceive the things in their environment exactly, in order to secure for them the material required by the imagination'' - Maria Montessori

I would like to start this article by sharing a couple of play situations that we as practitioners, in all early year’s settings, might experience during our everyday life in a nursery.

In my first example a group of children are playing in our outdoor playground. They seem very energetic, running and shouting and before a teacher gets to the group one of the children is kicked, and another child is pushed and ends up lying on the ground. Both children are in shock and the other two children seem speechless too. After we have made sure that the children are ok, we try to find out what actually happened. None of them seem to understand how this happened and why. After a while, one child says: ‘’we were just playing goodies and baddies”.

In another situation a group of children play ‘magic unicorns'. After a little while, a little girl starts crying her heart out and it takes us quite a while to calm her down enough for her to tell us why she is so upset. She says: ‘’my friends took my powers away with the magic wand and then cast a spell on me!’’ The child is upset until the end of the day and refuses to play with anyone until she goes home.

If you have been in a Montessori classroom, you know that Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Batman, Superman, Supergirls, magic unicorns or fairies don’t live there. Montessori's discouragement of fantasy characters is part of the carefully prepared classroom environment, and the need to be ever mindful of the important learning that happens throughout young children's experiences. Maria Montessori believed that it is necessary for children until the age of 6 years old to be engaged in something constructive based in reality rather than in the make-believe or fantasy world. The mind of a young child does not work the same way that the adult mind does. The first biological task of the baby is to adapt to whatever environment into which they were born. He or she literally absorbs everything in his or her environment without questioning anything. Fantasy can be very interesting to an older child but very confusing to children under the age of 6 as they have a limited ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy. While many believe that imagination and fantasy are the same things, they are in fact, distinctly different sides of the same coin.


Fantasy offers children impossible scenarios that can never come true and contradicts the child's developing understanding of how the world works. It is an unrealistic byproduct of imagination and these concepts children don't come up with on their own. There is really nothing wrong with fantastic play, but introducing fantasy before a child knows that these scenarios are impossible can alter the way that children play and interfere with the normal imaginative play and understanding of reality. A child who spends too much time in a world of fantasy may find it difficult to relate to others, to interact in a group or to “be there” in the present moment. It can also be very scary for the child.

Examples of fantasy play:

  • Having superpowers

  • Fighting dragons, ‘baddies’ or other unrealistic characters

  • Casting spells and doing ‘magic’

  • Being able to fly, climb walls or breath under water

TV shows and cartoons

Preschoolers cannot always understand that what they see on television is made up, especially when it looks so much like real life. Because most 3 to 6-year-olds want to feel that they are strong and in control of their world, they often identify with TV characters who are powerful and effective and this sometimes leads to aggressive behaviour towards others. Many cartoons do not show reality but provide a distorted view of the world. Perfect characters and situations might make children feel inferior. Screen media moves at a much faster rate than normal everyday life. Often this stimulation and rapid-fire activity are more than the brain can process, causing sensory overload for children. A child may feel more comfortable in the isolation of fast-action internet activity and less comfortable in the normal pace of interpersonal, social interactions like playing with friends, relationship building, working as a team, goal-setting and problem-solving.


Imagination is inherent in the human mind. It is where our creativity comes from, and it is one of the ways we process learning about the amazing world around us. Imagination is defined by the Dictionary of Psychology as, “the reorganisation of data derived from past experiences, with new relations, into present ideational experience”. This means that imagination is often based on real experiences or a person’s experience with their own reality. Imagination is children playing ‘family’ because they are driven to practice the roles that are modelled for them at their own homes. Imaginative play comes from ideas of a child’s own creation. It is vital for the child’s development as it helps them to make sense of the world around them.

Examples of imaginative play:

Pretending to make a meal with pots and blocks

  • Building tents with blankets and pillows

  • Burying a dinosaur and then digging for ‘fossils’

  • Pretend to fish using a stick

  • Building a farm using blocks and other materials

  • Playing shop or hair salon


Some people think that Montessori education discourages pretend play and imagination. But, that’s simply not true. Children will always pretend. They constantly use their imagination to create, to process, learn and understand the world around them. Through pretend play, children learn to do things like negotiating, consider others' perspectives, transfer knowledge from one situation to another, balance their own ideas with others, develop a plan and act on it.

Pretend play in a Montessori classroom might look different than in more traditional settings because there is one thing we don’t include – fantasy in the form of commercialised characters. Young children have an intense interest in the world around them. They find everyday life to be magical, special, and worthy of wonder. They don’t need anything more than the rich world around them to play with. They want to explore, create and enjoy reality. The bottom line is, our reality is pretty amazing, especially when viewed through the child’s eyes. Many of the Practical Life materials take advantage of this natural inclination in children, by offering the same types of skills they want to master with real tools. They often play ‘mummies and daddies’, birthday parties, ice cream shop, chefs, hairdressers, etc. while using the real objects and reflecting on their own experiences. Sensorial and Knowledge and Understanding of the World materials are also often used for pretend play. When children play in these areas, we get to meet all sorts of characters such as architects, musicians, farmers, palaeontologists, scientists, world travellers, gardeners, doctors and many others. At our forest school, we observe children using natural materials making campfires, building shelters for their ‘family’, shopkeepers of natural treasures or florists preparing the most beautiful bouquets of flowers.


What is universal about great art is that it speaks to the human experience, even when we can't define that experience. Artists can create because they can imagine, not a world that reflects mass-produced fantastic impossibility, but one that includes the human experience and builds upon it. An active imagination is necessary regardless of whether your child is destined for artistic greatness.

In the majority of traditional settings, there isn't much opportunity for being creative apart of selective subjects like art and even then, projects are assigned to a group and the children are limited to choose their own direction. Children in Montessori classrooms are encouraged to get creative using reality-based resources and 'make it their own without us adults projecting our own ideas on how it should be done. As a result, children who are encouraged to be creative and are allowed to use their imagination are better in demonstrating critical thinking, problem-solving skills and making a better connection between different topics.


  • Limited screen time: If you do have screen time, do it as a family, and be sure that you use it as an opportunity to talk with your child about what he or she understands from what you are watching.

  • Books based on reality: There are plenty of books for young children which are about real world situations with real characters which children can relate to. Offer books that open questions like, "How do you think she felt when that happened?" or, "What would you do in that situation?" to engage your child's understanding of the world and of how he or she can affect it.

  • Daily tasks: Let your child to be involved independently in real daily tasks such as learning to make a healthy snack, hanging washing on a drying rack, setting a table, looking after the plants in the garden, washing the dishes, fold their own clothes, etc.

  • Spending time outdoors: Spending plenty of time in natural settings gives young children hands-on experiences that are concrete and reality based. It provides opportunities for children to get creative with natural materials, get to know the world they live in and then reflect these experiences in their creative work. The sensory experience which outdoor play provides can't ever be compared to indoor play.

  • Family trips: Children will have a lot of fun while visiting a farm, herbal gardens, natural parks, exhibitions, theatres or concerts. All these places are set up for an excellent educational experience.

  • Materials/Toys to play with: Have you seen a young child being more interested in the box a new toy came in than in the actual toy? Children are drawn to simple toys that they can learn about the world with. Overly complex toys, or when there simply are too many of them, might leave children feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. A mud kitchen in your garden with real utensils and pots, simple building blocks or stones, a tray with a variety of materials like pieces of fabric, leaves, sticks, pine cones, shells and pebbles are just a few examples of activities that your children will love. Similar activities provide children with an opportunity to use their imagination, get creative and have the sensory experiences that each child in this age craves.

In this fast pace world, when we adults have so many responsibilities to juggle on an everyday basis, we might think that screen time won't do any harm and it gives us more time to manage all. However, if we engage our children in real activities of helping around the house, playing with blocks, encouraging outdoor play and avoiding the TV, we can feed their imagination and they learn to occupy themselves by mastering real life activities. So, in the long run, we get more ‘free time’ by choosing to introduce the real world instead of the fantasy world. Let’s keep it real to help children make sense of the world around them. With our guidance, they will discover what's important to know and eventually will be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The world is fantastic just as it is!

Larnaca’s manager, Eva Levcikova, has been working with Little Gems for many years. Eva and our team maintain immaculate and stimulating environments for our little gems to thrive and grow in, building their understanding of the world around them in carefully prepared reality-based milieus. Please contact us should you want to learn more about Montessori’s philosophy regarding Fantasy & Imagination.

Nicosia: 22 351319. Larnaca: 96 557661. Email:


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