Montessori or Play-based learning: which is right for your child?

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When choosing a play school for your child, most parents start by wanting to cover a few important basics – that their child is seen and heard, safe and happy. Beyond that, parents often start thinking about the kind of methodology that will best suit their child and their individual needs.

In this post, we asked Play Sense Co-founder and Director of Education, Lara Schoenfeld, about the difference between two popular methodologies – Montessori and play-based learning – to help you make the right choice for your little one.

Can you start by giving us a brief summary of what characterises Montessori and Play-based education?

In a Montessori classroom, children choose activities to engage in from classroom materials developed by Dr Maria Montessori. These “materials” typically include items that develop practical skills such as pouring and spooning, washing up or sweeping as well as materials that develop the senses, music, art and language. Children can work on the activity they choose for as long as they want and thereby learn through trial and error and not from direct instruction. This style of teaching and learning is known as “constructivist theory” of education. In a Montessori environment, children work independently, and concentration is the prized skill to be developed.

Anita C Bundy, a renowned Occupational Therapist, researcher, and author, describes true play as having 4 characteristics: motivation, control, framing and pretence or imagination. Keeping this in mind, when children in a Montessori classroom choose their activity and engage in it until they want to move on, there is intrinsic motivation and internal control.

In a play-based classroom, children also have choice and control, but the other two characteristics of play are also present – framing and pretence. Framing is the ability to give and receive social cues and pretence is fantasy, using objects in unconventional ways, being creative or silly. The adult or teacher has a more active approach in the classroom, where they guide play but don’t direct it. This is known as a “sociocultural theory” of education. Children in a play-based class will be stretched to the ‘just right challenge’ by their little friends around them or teacher in a process known as scaffolding. This is different to a Montessori class where the materials are said to scaffold learning.

Both Montessori & play-based learning have an emphasis on developing independent thinking and a lifelong love for learning. Can you tell us a bit more about how they differ?

Both learning approaches use carefully planned and structured activities, and both involve choice for the child. Play-based learning also takes into account the group and that we are social beings who learn from each other, and this forms the basis for engaging children in group play. Play-based learning also focuses on imaginary play which science has proven is the best way to develop language, thinking and social skills in little ones.

This focus on imaginary play is one of the biggest differences between the two methodologies. There are a wide range of Montessori-like approaches to teaching and learning but strict Montessori teachers do not encourage imagination – in fact, they steer children away from fantasy and all the materials in the classroom encourage concrete thinking.

You touched on the emphasis on social skills in play-based learning. Why is it important to develop social skills at this age? Don’t social skills develop later in childhood, at primary school age for example.

Extensive research shows us that play-based classrooms with rich peer interactions and child directed play develop prosocial skills. These are turn taking, collaboration, following rules, showing empathy, self-regulation, self-confidence, impulse control and motivation (1). These sound like skills you want your child to have, right? But they aren’t just important for behaviour. These factors have an impact on cognitive development and are just as important in learning to read as the ability to recognize letters and sounds. In fact, prosocial skills or social competence as its sometimes called is a better predicter of academic achievement than learning to read at a very young age, for example (2). And this remains true, despite the individual child’s IQ or socio-economic status.

Tell us about the role of the teacher in play-based learning?
The teacher has a crucial role to play in guided play – which is how core capacities are taught to little ones. Guided play leaves the locus of control with the child, but the teacher still initiates play and carefully plans play activities to meet learning goals. For example, a child who has been on an aeroplane wants to play Pilot Pilot with another child who hasn’t. The teacher encourages their language and imagination by setting up chairs in rows and drawing clouds on the pavement to resemble an aeroplane. She models how an air host serves the passengers using pretend food and hands over as soon as a child wants to take over. This type of play has been proven to increase creativity, language, social skills, and imagination. So, the teacher is vital in guided play and the associated learning.

This graphic illustrates the role of the adult or teacher in guided play and learning. Reference: Keller Foundation

Can you give us an example of why you chose to focus on play-based learning, both as a professional and a mom?

I’ve researched numerous methodologies related to early childhood development and education, all of which have merit. But as an Occupational Therapist and a mother, I chose play-based because it acknowledges context. For example, in a Montessori classroom an activity might be grating soap. The child then exercises motor skills and has a sensory experience learning to master the task – the soap will give off a fragrance and there are various textures and movements to explore. But the ‘lesson’ is void of context. In a play-based classroom, a child will have the opportunity to grate cheese before being invited to make a sandwich – a lesson that establishes what grating is, why we do it, and encourages the child’s ability to engages in several activities that are related and are in context for the world we live in.

Any other advice for parents choosing a play school for their little one?

There are a few factors to consider such as the play school’s proximity to home but I would encourage parents to ask what type of play activities occur, what is the child to adult ratio, and what is the educational philosophy. Children need play to learn and to be learning ready and that said, play isn’t just free play. While free play is important, your child shouls experience different kinds of play. The right play school should be able to demonstrate how they are using different types of play to create a rich, engaging experience for little ones that give them every opportunity to learn and flourish.

1. Corsaro, 1988; Klugman &Smilansky, 1990; Kraft and Berk, 1998

2. Birch and Ladd 1997; Konold and Pianta 2005

3. Empirically-Derived, Person-Oriented Patterns of School Readiness in Typically-Developing Children: Description and Prediction to First-Grade Achievement

4. Hirsh Pasek: A mandate for playful learning, Book 

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