I've been spending the past week and a half with the youngest at the daycare again, a class of 12- to 24-month-olds. They certainly keep me on my toes. Once, the box of plastic food and dishes was out when I came in in the morning. I'm not too fond of this box in any classroom, the biggest reason being that the direct representation of food doesn't lend itself to creativity like a box of only dishes would. But in the youngest's room, there's something else at hand as well.
When I first spent time with the littlest ones, I taught about how playing with pretend food means only pretending to put the toys in one's mouth. It was to little success. I watched the older ones take to it reasonably well, but they were two years old already or fast approaching. The littler ones couldn't seem to comprehend the practice, and when I went in that morning, I was frustrated already because I knew that almost all of the children in the room that day were closer to 12 months than 24.
Yet the toys were already out, so I had no other choice than to begin the long struggle that felt like, "come on, please mimic me already!" For the half an hour that remained until outside time, I watched the eyes and faces of the children as I carefully explained again and again, "No, not in our mouth. Just pretend," and demonstrated. It just wasn't there. There was no understanding on any of their faces.
This box has no purpose in this room, I thought to myself. These kids are just too young to understand how to pretend.
It hit me all at once what I had just realized.
Well, that's it then. I guess I really am a Montessori teacher.
One of the most common arguments I hear against Montessori education is about the lack of imaginative play in the classroom. The link in the above post writes well on the topic, but even upon reading it, I still hadn't made up my mind definitively on the issue until that moment last week.
Even in the older classrooms, some toddlers still don't understand pretend play, as evidenced by the teeth marks on every piece of plastic food and dishes in the establishment. They must be told very specifically that, "That is a toy. We don't put toys in our mouths. It's just for pretend," and I haven't seen any other teacher say this.
So I know now that I believe children can't understand pretend play until around the age of two, but what of giving imaginative play toys to older toddlers?
Well, children will play whatever they need to play in order to develop the skills they currently need, despite what invitations we make available for them through toys. A friend recently described to me how her two-year-old gave voices to and played dolls with crayons one day. Similarly, my parents have a photograph of me playing intently on the floor with a piece of trash that looks like a wadded up piece of paper. If children want to play housekeeping, nothing will stop them from finding what they need to do so, but I don't believe that we need to provide them with the confusing, mixed messages that pretend toys send.
(It's a little disheartening to me to realize this, actually, as I was planning on giving my two-year-old nephew the elegant, painted wood Food Cutting set from Melissa and Doug as a gift. Although it does list the age the toy is appropriate for as 3+. Unfortunately, because I'm a long-distance aunt, I don't get to spend as much time with him to know when he would truly benefit the most from this gift.)
In the meantime, what should these little ones be working with? Well, pouring, scooping, matching, classifying, and practicing cleaning various things. You know, Montessori activities. :)