Think of a time recently where you undertook a task, game, or pastime that you really enjoyed. Maybe it was a Sudoku puzzle, or stripping wallpaper off a wall, or doing a craft project, or completing a jigsaw puzzle. Were you having fun? Yeah, you were. Not laugh-out-loud, knee-slapping, hysterical laughter fun, but rather a kind of deeply satisfying enjoyment. If I looked at you in that moment, your face would most likely be expressionless, your hands and mind busy, your eyes alight with concentration and engagement.
When people unfamiliar with Montessori observe it in action for the first time, it can be eerie. We’ve heard many instances of adult observers remarking, “But the kids aren’t having fun! Look at them… they’re sitting there by themselves, so grim, not talking, not playing! They’re barely moving, they’re expressionless. Where’s the joy? Where’s the fun?”
We adults often assume that a young child is not capable of the same deeply satisfying intellectual and emotional engagement that adults can access. Montessorians have observed how incorrect this assumption really is. A persistent belief exists – reinforced by contemporary marketing – that childhood fun can only exist in the form of frivolous, whimsical play, full of giggles and laughter. It’s often hard to convince parents and other adults that concentrated, contemplative enjoyment can also be shared by children.
Right now, before we go any further, I want to dispel the long-held and incorrect belief that Montessorians are dismissive of frivolous, whimsical playtime. We are not. In fact, we are huge fans of it. Huge. However, we also see how emotionally fulfilling these long concentration events are for children, just as they are for adults. We know that fun takes many forms, and we want children to experience them all. It can’t be crazy zany manic fun times all the time, just like it can’t be all serious, deep concentration. There has to be balance.
In the same vein, we don’t want parents to abandon whimsical, silly fun. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve that kind of giggly craziness. Who would want to take that away from a child? But what we do want is to expand the definition of what “fun” can be for a child. You know the moment when you emerge from concentration after an hour or so of doing something creative, and you feel like a million bucks, satisfied and refreshed? Children get that same feeling, too.
Montessori described one of her earliest encounters with this kind of behavior. Keep in mind that it was new and mystifying to her. She hadn’t observed deep, fulfilling concentration in children before. In The Secret of Childhood she describes her first observation of a child achieving joy through deep concentration:
“The first phenomenon that awoke my attention was that of a little girl of about three who was practicing slipping our series of solid cylinders in and out of the block (they go in and out of the holes like the corks of bottles, but they are cylinders of graduated size and each one has its own special place). I was surprised to see so small a child repeating an exercise over and over again with the keenest interest. She showed no progress in speed or skill; it was a kind of perpetual motion. My habit of measuring things led me to begin to count the number of times she repeated the exercise. Then I thought I would see how far the strange concentration she showed could withstand disturbance, and I told the teacher to make the other children sing and move about. They did so, but the little girl did not stop her work for an instant. Then I gently picked up the armchair in which she sat, with her in it, and put it on a little table. She had quickly clutched her cylinders to her, and, putting them on her knees, continued her work. From the time when I had begun to count, she had repeated the exercise forty-two times. She stopped, as though coming out of a dream, and smiled as if she were very happy. Her eyes shone, and she looked about her… Similar facts occurred on various occasions. And every time the children emerged as if rested, full of life, with the look of those who have experienced some great joy”.
Fun can be rolling down a hill, shrieking with laughter the entire time. Fun can be silently working on a math problem because you just love it when you get it right. Fun can be walking on a line on the floor with a little beanbag balanced on your head, controlling every muscle with perfect concentration so it doesn’t fall off. Fun can be sitting on the carpet with three friends while you each read and dramatically perform an action written on a chosen slip (sing proudly, hop sadly, slither silently).
Children can have fun in many ways. We serve them best by expanding our own understanding of what “fun” can be, and allowing each child to experience a diverse range of deeply satisfying engagement experiences, just like we adults do.