The other day, I was asked (quite belligerently, I might add) by a non-Montessori educator why there is no dramatic play allowed in Montessori classrooms.
"Oh, but there is!" I countered, " Where on earth did you get the idea there isn't?"
What followed is not worth posting other than to say the woman was more interested in attacking the method than she was gaining any real knowledge about it. However, the conversation got me thinking about dramatic play and what it looks like in a Montessori classroom.
First, lets look at the word play. It is supposed by many that children in Montessori programs do not play and I can't emphasize strongly enough the error of that supposition. Put simply, Dr. Montessori described the things that children do as work so that adults would stop trivializing the importance of play. Play is the work of children and it is how they learn.
Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from the fact that we don't have toys on the shelf. In fact, that first classroom in San Lorenzo was furnished with toys donated by a group of society ladies. Gradually, Dr. Montessori brought in some of the materials she'd adapted to be used at the Orthophrenic School. What she observed was that as the new didactic materials drew in the children, the toys were abandoned. This can still be observed in many brand new Montessori classrooms; toys are available while the children are introduced to the Montessori materials but are abandoned by the children after a few weeks.
So why does this happen? Instead of a pretend kitchen filled with plastic food and a pretend stove and refrigerator, we give them real things. (We call this the Practical Life area.) Why pretend to prepare food to share with friends when the real things (apples, pickles, jam and crackers, carrots, etc.) are sitting in the real fridge or on the shelf waiting to be prepared? Why pretend to clean house when there is a whole classroom to be scrubbed, dusted, swept and polished?
Which leads me to look at the definition of dramatic. The Oxford dictionary defines dramatic as "Of drama; as of a play-actor, theatrical; fit for theatrical representation…" - in other words, pretending or mimicking. Well, I've certainly seen lots of that going on in the classroom.
I see dramatic play every time a five year old decided to be "Teacher" and give a lesson to a younger child. I see it when two boys, looking at a book about Space, imagine what it will be like when they are astronauts. I see it every time a child hands me a carefully cut strip of paper and tells me it is my ticket. I see it every time a child carefully cuts the zigzag line (from the cutting tray) and turns it into a crown. I also see it every time a child conducts the music coming from the CD player. (And let's not forget the dressing frame incident!) Our classroom is full of pretending and mimicking and I bridle when I'm told otherwise.
So, is there dramatic play in our Montessori classroom? Absolutely, however I will admit that we don't have fireman, policeman, doctor, or purple dinosaur costumes for the children and there are some very 'Montessori' reasons for that. It is too adult-directed and not real. I much prefer an assortment of scarves that can be used for anything a child can imagine. (They can also be used at circle to wave while listening to music.) As for the realism, having a real stethoscope available to the children opens up all sorts of opportunities for dramatic play. Because the stethoscope is real, they are also learning several science and sensorial lessons.
Dramatic play is very present in Montessori classrooms but, because it does not look like the dramatic play seen in other preschools, it takes careful observation to identify it.
You will note that I've stayed away from a discussion about fantasy and imagination. That is a topic for another day.