Towards the end of school last year, I was talking with some of the elementary children about our growing community. I distinctly remember asking, “Can you imagine 28 students in our classroom next year?”. Their minds were racing, coming up with ideas for how community jobs would be done, how lunch tables would be set, even how with more children there would be more friends and games to play at recess. So I started to think about imagination; we all have it, but it takes time to develop. Imagination is not only a human tendency but also a characteristic of the second plane child.
Maria Montessori believed that we ought to tend and nurture the internal child and await his manifestations. Children of the first plane utilize their imaginations largely in the reproductive sense. The imagination is employed to call up that which is no longer present. It is in the second plane that the imagination becomes a tool that enables the child to call up that which has never been sensorially experienced, or which has never in fact existed. But this talent, as all others, arrives according to each individual child's timetable.
Nature is responsible for the regulation of when a child walks, speaks, and of when a child's intelligence is developed. It is to be the adult's new role to both support this individual developmental timetable, and to remove obstacles to its progress. Nature regulates the development of the child's imagination in the same way.
Imagination in the Primary Classroom
It was Maria Montessori's belief that the more precisely one is able to observe by the senses, the more valuable will be the material that the mind takes in for the imagination to do its work. She considered it to be necessary to “…prepare children to perceive the things in their environment exactly”.
One might ask why accurate images are important here. Why wouldn't any image suffice? The answer, perhaps, is to be found in Dr. Montessori's observation that the imagination is a means for working upon reality. Inaccurate images of reality, when worked upon by the imagination, would be more likely to result in creations not best suited to the actual conditions of reality.
The Sensorial Materials were designed in order to provide young children with opportunity to refine their senses and to enable them to better organize the sensorial impressions that they continually absorb from the environment. They were developed by Maria Montessori not to present the child with new impressions, but to bring order and system into the countless impressions he has already received. The particular abstraction essential in each material is isolated, and presented in a physical, ordered form. Length, for example, is presented by the Long Rods. This material consists of a graded set of slender red prisms, each longer than the next. All attributes - color, weight, thickness etc. are the same. Only length varies. The concept, the abstraction, the image of this attribute is emphasized.
The place of the imagination in the process of abstraction is important here. Each long rod highlights 'length', and this is the attribute that the mind extracts from each. From these individual images, the mind constructs the new abstract image of 'long'.
Imagination in the Elementary Classroom
In the elementary, abstracted qualities are related. 'Convection' is abstracted through various experiments, and the cooling of the newly born earth is comprehended as this concept is applied to the beginning of our planet. By appealing to the child's imagination with 'Cosmic Tales', Maria Montessori brought the universe to children. These are the Great Stories, which incorporate magnificence and mystery in a conscious effort to strike the imaginations of the children. This idea of striking the imagination doesn't mean that the child is to be "excited" by the presentation, but that an impression is made upon his mind, as an impression is made upon clay.
The first of these, "God Who Has No Hands" utilizes simple experiments and a series
of charts to further feed the imagination. Science experiments illustrate the various forces and mechanisms which were at work. Small pieces of paper are sprinkled on a bowl of water and, amazingly, some clump together whilst others seem to avoid one another. This experiment gives a first impression of the behavior of atoms - their attraction and repulsion of each other. But pieces of paper are not atoms, so it is necessary for the child to move from this real experience into her imagination, where the atomic forces at work might be better visualized.
The charts utilized in this and many other presentations are also intended to appeal to the imagination. Many are 'impressionistic'. They use personification and allegory in order to provide the child with opportunity to exercise the imagination. Hot particles rising above the globe as it formed, and cooler particles sinking down towards its surface, are represented as having 'angels' carrying them. The internal functions of a leaf are illustrated in the form of a factory inside a leaf, where minute workers carry out the various life-functions of a leaf.
In both of these cases, as it was with science experiments, the child must move from an illustration that catches the imagination, to a conception of the real processes at work. The imagination assists the child as the move from angel to convection is made. "It is as if..." the imagination says, as the actual processes are brought more into focus.
The mathematics materials also help to develop the imagination. It is not possible, Maria Montessori observed, to 'imagine' the number of animals in the ocean. But, we express some of these numbers in decimal notation, and then we are able to deal with such quantities. By utilizing numbers and by building one number upon the other, the imagination is assisted in its task of bringing the universe to the child. It is not possible to visualize one billion or one quadrillion living things. Our minds do not possess the scope for this. It is numbers - 1,000,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000,000 that help children to imagine such quantities.
Concrete representation of quantity and geometric representation of process contribute finally to an algebraic abstraction. It is not a difficult matter for the child to utilize arithmetic images and images of geometric patterns in order to make a final, generalized abstraction that we call 'algebra'. "That's algebra? I thought that it was supposed to be difficult!"
The imagination, as we have seen, requires 'something' from which to construct its images. Access to the real world provides the best source for images. Now, as the children become interested in all that surrounds them, the contents of the classroom offer too little. "Going Out" is viewed as an important way to maximize the store of accurate images in the child. For every new experience, the imagination is employed as it constructs new images, and as it utilizes these new images, perhaps in combination with existing images, to construct novel images of its own. New ideas and concepts are thus built, the mind is further developed and organized, and the imagination is strengthened as its 'muscles' are exercised.
As we have started off the year with a new, larger class, I can see the children using their creative minds not only with how to handle daily tasks with other children, but also with the materials, research, reports, and science experiments. This is where, when the classroom becomes normalized, that it is as if the true vision of their imagination comes into play.