Montessori and Creativity

(This article was written by Chris Manville and first appeared in Montessori International Magazine)

We live in a rapidly changing world. One in which innovation, flexibility and finding original solutions to problems, old and new, is essential. Creativity provides one means by which children can be prepared for this challenge.

Coming as I do from a background in theatre and the arts I have always held a strong belief that opportunities for creativity are essential if a child is to reach his or her true potential. A creative child is flexible, original, persistent, self-critical, willing to take risks, curious and self-confident. I hope we would all agree that these are characteristics that Montessori would have seen as desirable.

But what exactly is creativity? More than anything, creativity is about seeing things in original ways; it is the act of making new connections. What is important here is that these ‘original ways’ and ‘new connections’ need only apply to the individual. Within the nursery this means that if it is new to that particular child then it is creative – as long as the origin is from within the child. Simply recreating what someone else has shown you does not constitute creativity.

The educationalist and poet, Peter Dixon, tells a story of an enthusiastic and dedicated nursery teacher who, every day, showed her children something new she had made with a cardboard tube and a sheet of silver foil. She would then show the children how they could make one too. The rest of the staff praised her for her creativity. After a few weeks she told the children that today they could make something of their own. The children sat and did nothing. When she asked “Why aren’t you making anything?” the children replied, “But you haven’t shown us how.”

This story illustrates just how stifling a teacher’s input can be even when they are constantly coming up with new ideas. Creativity in education is not about the teacher it is about the child.  And creativity is not confined to art activities, music and drama. Everything that children do has the potential for creativity. Indeed, it is the most natural thing in the world for children to experiment; to look for solutions to the problems they encounter at every turn. This is why children in a Montessori environment must have the opportunity to explore the materials in their own time and in their own ways. They do not know how these problems have been solved in the past: but what a boost to their self-esteem when they make a discovery for themselves. And during those experiments who is to say what else they may discover over and above the ‘purpose’ set out in our Montessori manuals. Remember, the Montessori materials are not ours, they belong to the children.

This freedom to explore the materials should apply equally to all areas of the curriculum. The categorisation of an activity as maths, literacy or practical life, is an adult distinction. For children learning, as we know, is non-compartmentalised. We cannot say with any certainty what a child may be learning from a given activity, or where there thoughts are leading them. The worst thing we can do is stop them manifesting those thoughts into actions.

If it is only the teachers who are allowed to think up extensions and variations then the children will only learn to sit back and say “But you haven’t shown us how”. In this way we will never have the opportunity to see beyond our own ideas.

In my role as a teaching practice tutor I have seen too many Montessori teachers restrict children’s spontaneous experimentation with the materials with comments such as, “that’s not how we use those.” But I have also been privileged to see children completely absorbed in combining materials in exciting new ways, unhindered by the unnecessary guidance of an adult: a pirate ship made out of the broad stair; a series of bridges using long rods and the pink tower; a long rod Christmas tree hung with knob less cylinder and colour tablet baubles. Each of these came about, not because an adult had shown the children how, but because there was a culture of freedom within the schools concerned which empowered the children to create.

For many years I have argued for the inclusion of truly creative art activities in schools, and I will continue to do so. But it is just as important to see creativity as a part of every activity. By allowing children the opportunity to explore their creativity through all the materials we are helping them to develop the open-mindedness and flexibility of thought needed in the modern world.


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