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At this age the subjects in books should be based on reality because the child wants to learn about the real world. Now we provide stories about our own lives, and books about reality, saving talking animals, such as in Aesop’s Fables, till later. 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. —Silvana Montanaro, The Joyful Child
So this particular aspect of the Montessori Method is somewhat controversial. It has certainly sparked debate between myself (an Early Childhood Educator and Applied Child Psychologist specialising in Emergent Literacy) and my husband (A High School English Lit and Language Teacher and DR of American Studies and English). But let’s unpack this a little:
This theory applies to children in the first stage of their development which Montessori coined ‘The Absorbent Mind’
The emphasis at this age is on widening the child’s horizon in the real world. … Sometime after the age of six, the child can share the adult’s delight in fanciful answers because he, too, is in on the secrets of the real ones. It is then that books of fantasy, myth, and fairy tales are introduced. Montessori: A Modern Approach
These ideas are not lacking in evidence, recent research has found that children are more likely to generalise fictional content if the fictional world is similar to their own. They are also more likely to transfer solutions that they have learnt from stories containing real people compared to those containing fantasy characters. One study found that story books with human characters rather than anthromorphic (human-like) animal characters were found to better promote pro-social behaviour during this first stage of development. What’s more, children under 6 were found to actually prefer stories based on real life (read more HERE & HERE).
With all of this in mind, now take a moment to go and look at your child’s book collection or that of your local library. Based on Montessori’s ideas and the current research findings, how many books does this rule out? More importantly, how many books that you and your children love don’t make the cut? Heartbreaking, right? You see the likes of your Winnie the Pooh collection and well loved stories like ‘Guess how much I love you’ and ‘Goodnight Moon’ relegated to the ‘Not until you’ve developed your Reasoning Mind’ pile, because both contain anthromorphised characters.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to hideaway books that your child has shown an interest in. If we’re not careful with how we interpret and apply this theory we could seriously end up limiting our child’s exposure to language rich books. Although it is important that our children gain an understanding of the real world, books being a great resource for imparting such knowledge, they are also a tool for language and literacy development. It could be argued that they are first and foremost a tool for language and literacy development. They provide children with an opportunity to experience vocabulary and grammar that is more extensive and sophisticated than that experienced through spoken language (general conversations).
In addition, ideas like this from (an otherwise fantastic book) ‘Montessori from the Start’, claiming:
Nonsense songs, [pictures, and stories] that are the product of adult fantasy give no useful information about the world to the child under six years old.
ignore the evidence that songs and rhymes, especially traditional nursery rhymes, which are not always based on reality, expose children to emergent literacy skills which aid early reading and writing development and are predictive of later literacy outcomes (read more HERE). So do think carefully before banning the likes of Humpty Dumpty from your repertoire.
We need to be sensible about this. The evidence is there for us to make well informed decisions about what we expose our children to during these sensitive periods of development. I personally don’t believe that a child has to understand absolutely everything they are exposed to. Sometimes words just sound nice; they come with a rhyme and a rhythm that make us want to move our bodies. Sometimes pictures, rather than reflect the real world, are simply comprised of colours that are calming or work to strengthen our visual cortex. Sometimes favourite books and stories are so much a part of who we are that we want to share them with those we love, and that is ok (you can put Winnie the Pooh back on the shelf).
I have noted first hand how fantasy can be confusing and even scary for young children, but it isn’t the case for all children and you know your child best. Going forward we can just be a little more mindful about the books we choose for children with Absorbent Minds. Here are some things I bare in mind and look out for now when choosing books for Althea.
Fiction or Non-fiction
It can be either but I keep in mind that Fiction usually is much more language rich so try and find a balance
I try to choose non-fiction books that contain photographs. For fiction, I look for books with life like illustrations and avoid cartoonists characters with bobble heads and unrealistic features.
For 0 -6 months I chose books that were high contrast. I still read these books to her now, especially at naptimes and bedtimes as these colours are believed to give the visual cortex a bit of a rest and have a calming effect. The rest of the time, if choosing books with life like illustrations, I expect the colours to be somewhat representative too.
Children’s first picture books can be very busy. They may have great photographs but sometimes there are just too many crammed on to one page. One or two images per page is plenty.
Rhyme, Rhythm & Repetition
I look out for books that contain simple, catchy, repetitive rhymes. Unfortunately some of our favourites don’t tick all the boxes above but I believe the benefits of rhyme on emergent literacy outway any possible negative effects of fantasy on absorbent minds. Books of poetry are often a montessori friendly way of incorporating rhyme.
Unfortunately some of my much loved fiction books lack cultural diversity, they are the ones I grew up with (and some were written long before I was born) so you can perhaps excuse some of the authors and illustrators for their monocultural literature. I’ve found a lot of lovely non-fiction that depict many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds and I have listed these below. I’m now looking forward to finding some fiction to add to our collection, recommendations are very welcome!
Here are a few of my recommendations
0 – 12 months (and beyond) is a great time to add lots of non-fiction board books to your Montessori Book collection. Books with high contrast images are a wonderful material for your Newborn and around 6 months touch and feel books make for a great sensorial activity. At around 8 – 9 months, when your baby starts being able to very simply categorise the world around them, books that cover single topics like animals and transport are great to place alongside small world materials.
Smile! (Baby Faces Board Book)
Playtime (Oxfam: Around the World)
Alfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Helen Oxenbury
Mog and the Baby by Judith Kerr
Peepo! By Janet & Allan Ahlberg
I highly recommend adding these authors and illustrators to your Montessori Friendly Fiction Collection. They’re wonderful for the youngest of Absorbent Minds but remain much loved classics with older children.
As a Montessori Parent or Teacher, how do you go about choosing books for children under 6 years of age? I’d love to hear your approach and any recommendations!