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Monster and Goblins and Ghouls .. Oh My! - Fantasy and the Concrete Thinker

Next week is Halloween. This is such an exciting time of year - with the decorations, and trips to the pumpkin patch, carving jack o’lanterns, and dressing up. And, of course, the candy!!

In our consumer culture, it seems everywhere you turn, you are inundated with ghosts and monsters and skeletons. And yes, children can enjoy the festivities. But sometimes I feel all of this is very overwhelming and probably pretty confusing to young children.

Young children are concrete thinkers. They live in the here and now. Children do not fully develop the ability to abstract until the age of 7. What we perceive as children using their imagination, is actually children trying to act out what they have been exposed to in real life in an effort to understand it better. When a child is putting a baby to sleep, it is because they have seen someone putting a real baby to sleep. When children play “kitchen”, they are both trying to understand better what it is they are seeing the adults in their lives doing, and experimenting with how it feels to do that themselves. But this is different from true imagination.

True imagination is the ability to create ideas, and experiment with those ideas as mental representations, that one has never actually experienced. We are using our imagination when we can picture a cube in our minds and then rotate that mental representation of the cube to “see” all its sides. We are using our imagination when we can picture our solar system rotating around our sun. We have never experienced actually seeing the solar system in space but our understanding of the physical world has developed enough to create an image of what this might look like. We are using our imagination when we can “see” worlds that do not actually exist, picture creatures that may live in these fantasy worlds.

This is why, the world over, academic learning is not introduced (or should not be introduced) to young children before the age of 7 when they would begin the 1st grade. In the preschool Montessori classroom, we do introduce some concepts that are often thought of as academic but this is done with hands on materials so that the children actually do have real life experience in concrete ways. Even though the oldest children in the primary classrooms may be learning to add and subtract numbers in the thousands, they are doing so by actually moving cubes made of a thousand beads. This experience with concrete objects makes their ability to understand those concepts on a more abstract level later that much easier. I remember my own son learning later math in elementary school and I could almost see him moving the beads he worked with in his preschool classroom in his head.

So back to Halloween …

How confusing it must be for a child to hear about monsters and ghosts and skeletons, walking around in the world. They have never seen such things in real life. And how frightful! ARE there monsters and ghosts and skeletons that might come and get me?? Even the seemingly benevolent imaginary creatures we have in our cultural reference can take on a strange and possibly uncanny bent – talking dogs and flying horses would certainly be very alarming if I saw them in real life!! To children just exposed to these concepts, this is a possibility they cannot help but assume to be true, just by the nature of their very concrete and literal minds.

I am in no way saying that your child should never be exposed to the suggestions of fanciful ideas. But I would caution parents to tread lightly and slowly. We forget how much technology we have at our finger tips that we did not have when we were children. I see parents rushing to introduce their toddler to Star Wars because they loved Star Wars as a child, forgetting that they were probably in elementary school, if not even older, when they saw these movies themselves. And we did not have the amazing CGI effects we have now. The dragons and super heroes and talking animals our children can see now LOOK REAL!! At least with the old cartoons, when children did see such things, they were drawings and created some mental distance from reality.

Last school year, as some of our preschool children were playing outside, a strange man walked in our parking lot. Feeling uneasy, the teachers brought the children inside. When the children asked why they had to go inside early, the teachers explained that there was a person outside that them feel uncomfortable and when we are in that situation, we listen to our intuition and remove ourselves. Though it was not a great situation by any means, the children got a lesson in trusting one’s self and how to stay safe. But there were a couple children who, very quickly, connected this situation with the “bad guys” they had seen on TV. We don’t love the idea of “good guys” and “bad guys” in general but what was actually concerning about this situation was that then these children began talking about how they are the “good guys” and could defeat this “bad guy”. “I’ll smash him! Like this!” And they showed us how they punch and kick. “I’ll throw him out of this universe!” While this can be molded into a story of good triumphing over evil, - a very abstract lesson that we adults want to apply to doing good in the world in social justice/morality/ethics sense - in real life situations, three and four year old cannot “win” against an adult who is high on drugs, having a mental health crisis, or for some other reason is making dangerous choices. They need lessons on how to ACTUALLY stay safe!! And how they can ACTUALLY keep others safe – going to a trusted adult and finding help

Stories and fanciful ideas can be a great way to introduce pretend, imagination, and magic to the lives of young children. When done in connection with an adult where conversation and laughter can happen, this can be a beautiful experience for children. When done in a media driven, consumer culture – however – fantasy can make our children exposed to a confusing, frightening, and false idea of reality and how to navigate it. Let us not forget the beauty and magic of our real world. The idea that a bee dances to communicate with their family, that a frog can jump 5 to 10 times the distance of its own size, and that a caterpillar metamorphosizes into a butterfly is AMAZING and magical. Children need to fall in love with our world so that they can grow to be active, engaged and happy humans on this beautiful planet.

“There is no description, no image in a book, capable to replacing the sight of real trees and all the life to be found around them in the forest.” – Maria Montessori




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