For over 100 years those who've read her volumes of pedagogy have known about Dr. Maria Montessori's stance on fantasy for ages six and under. She felt it was inappropriate, perhaps even damaging, for children to be peppered by the imaginative stories written by adults. In fact, she had observed just the opposite, that children are much more interested in understanding, and working with, the real world. In 2018 that must seem like an extreme stance to take, given the many lovingly illustrated children's books (along with creative television shows and iPad games) in the hands of nearly all young children. Children seem to love them. What could be the harm?
In her 2007 book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Dr. Angeline Lillard pointed out that "no fantasy before the age of seven" remains a controversial theory and is the only major Montessori postulate yet to be substantiated. Meanwhile, in 2015 Dr. Lillard quietly took a look at the impact of fast-paced television shows on the executive function of young children, her previous hypothesis being that fast-paced shows would lower a child's executive functioning. However, in the course of her research she discovered something fascinating and quite surprising. Fast-paced shows did not harm young children unless they were accompanied by fantastical events.
In other words, a child could watch a show about real penguins in their natural habitat, with its pacing as fast or perhaps faster than a rapid cartoon, without being negatively affected. However, if a child watched singing and talking penguins in say, Happy Feet, whether fast-paced or slow, a child's executive function would be lowered, at least temporarily. The long-term effects of fantasy on intelligence have not been analyzed. (Gottfried Schlaug found the widening of the corpus collusum in children under age seven came directly from intense piano study and lasted into adulthood, so there is a possibility that the negative effects of repetitive viewing of fantasy could also be long lasting.) In Lillard's study, executive function declined for 4 year-olds as well as 6 year-olds.
Why does executive function decline? That's a deep question, something that Dr. Lillard speculates upon in her paper, something beyond the scope of this blog. (Suffice to say, the question goes to the core of cognition and how human beings process information.) One reason so many of us have been attracted to Dr. Montessori's work is that she didn't spend enormous amounts of energy explaining the underlying reasons for her method. She simply based her theories on observable fact and waited for the world to catch up, which we are still doing today.
With this study, Dr. Lillard added significant support for this last isolated Montessori tenet, that fantasy should be reserved for children who are old enough to know the difference between make-believe and the real world. In 2018's media circus, it's hard enough for adults to distinguish truth from fantasy. Perhaps it's time for parents to take a closer look at what their children are watching, or reading at bedtime, so as their children mature those little ones are truly awake and remain so.