Play as therapy has much in common with Montessori practice. Wendy Fidler looks at the implications for children with under-developed play skills in Montessori settings.


Play as therapy has much in common with Montessori practice.Wendy Fidler looks at the implications for children with under-developed play skills in Montessori settings.

What is Play?

Play has historically been viewed as an indicator of the child's level of development, (Eisert and Lamorey, 1996) and used to assess a child's capacities rather than the child's play skills. More recent research has supported the view that play is important in its own right and that it is supported by both intrapersonal and environmental factors (Parham and Primeau, 1997).The dynamic process of playing is theorised as cooperation between the child's internal features (spirit and skill) and the environment where playing occurs:

  • Spirit is the truest expression of the child; something he is attempting to express in actions (Egan and DeLaat, 1994). Spirit reflects the concept of 'inner drive', self-direction and self actualisation (Montessori, 1966) which can be observed as excitement, confidence and effort that the child brings into play when he finds 'just the right challenge' for himself in the process of doing (Ayres, 1972). Children's desire for cause and effect motivates their play.
  • Skills are refined by repeated 'doing' (Montessori, 1966): Motor skills (moving self and objects through time and space); process skills (logically sequencing and organising actions over time); communication and interaction skills (conveying intentions and needs and coordinating social actions).
  • Environment offers physical and social opportunities, restraints and challenges. If these are too demanding the child may withdraw or stay as an onlooker. In a supportive social environment the child dares to take risks. Play performance within an environment of supportive peers and adults, 'the zone of proximal development' (Vygotsky, 1934) is fundamental in the process of skill acquisition.

What did Montessori say about Play?

Dr Montessori (1912, Pedagogical Anthropology) attributes much to a child's freely-chosen interactions during their work/play cycle;

"The children are free in all their manifestations and are treated with much cordial affection. I believe that this is the first time that this extremely interesting pedagogic experiment has ever been made: namely to sow the seed in the consciousness of the child, leaving free opportunity, in the most rigorous sense, for the spontaneous expansion of its personality, in an environment which is calm, and warm with a sentiment of affection and peace."

The results of Dr Montessori's experiments were certainly surprising - many presupposed negative instincts of childhood did not develop at all and unforeseen 'intellectual passions' appeared:

"The intellectual activity of these little children was like a spring of water gushing from the rocks that had erroneously been piled on their budding souls; we saw them accomplish the feat of despising playthings, through their insatiable thirst for knowledge; carefully preserving the most fragile objects of the lesson, the tenderest plants sprouting from the earth - these children that are reputed to be vandals by instinct!"

The children were never served food in the school; they went with their parents to their own homes for lunch and consequently the Children's House did not influence their diet. Montessori was, therefore, astonished to find that all the children were so improved in their general nutrition as to 'present a notably different appearance from their former state', and from the condition in which their siblings remained. 'Weakly' children were organically strengthened and in general the children had 'gained flesh and become ruddy to such an extent that they look like the children of wealthy parents living in the country.'

Montessori asserts that the renewed vigour of these children was due solely to 'the complete satisfaction of their psychic life.' The amazing results were an unexpected revelation of nature; a scientific discovery.

Children's physical health depends as much, if not more, upon happiness and peaceful, stimulating occupation than on food alone. The cornerstones of Montessori education are the calm teachers who are at peace with themselves, the calm, orderly and respectful physical environment and the love and affection shown to children as they work in the prepared environment. In essence, Montessori environments are the perfect places for nourishing children's bodies, minds and spirits.

How is Play used as Therapy?

Traditionally, play has been used therapeutically to help children 'understand muddled feelings and upsetting events that they haven't had the chance to sort out properly. Rather than having to explain what is troubling them, as adult therapy expects, children use play to communicate at their own level and own pace without feeling interrogated or threatened.' (British Association of Play Therapy)

Modern play therapy programmes assist children who have physical, mental or emotional challenges to initiate their own play and to develop 'pretend play' skills so that they can become a 'player' with their peers. Play therapy programmes do differ but a therapist might typically assesses a child's play abilities in play scripts, sequences of play actions, object substitution, social interaction, role play and doll/teddy play.The programme usually begins with a directive approach during which the therapist constantly watches, responds to and is completely attuned to the child - this has been described as a 'dance' between child and therapist (Stagnitti and Cooper, 2009).

One activity is introduced at a time and the therapist observes the child's reaction carefully to check whether he can cope with a more advanced play level or whether the direction activities should remain at developmentally younger levels. The child continues to repeat the activity until he shows confidence and competence in initiating it himself. At this stage another activity is introduced.

Case Study*: Could Montessori be more beneficial than play as therapy?

Rosetta Rietz was a Montessori teacher who experimented during the last century with various learning environments for brain injured children in the USA. Her original theory was that the children would fare best in tiny groups with limited visual and auditory stimuli - this was because of the children's 'distractibility'. 

To test her theory Rietz organised two daily classes; the first with 34 children and one brain-injured child and the second with eight brain-injured children. Rietz noticed 'several significant elements' found in the first class were essentially lacking from the second:

  • spontaneity;
  • peer instruction (children teaching and learning from each other);
  • group interaction and social dynamics.

Since these elements are at the heart of Montessori class, Rietz decided to form a class with equal number of brain-injured and non-brain-injured by the presence of brain injured children. They acquired:

  • compassion for their peers' misfortune;
  • understanding of the differences and likenesses between all human beings;children. The class comprised 17 brain-injured children and 17 non-brain-injured children ranging in age from 2.5 years to 15 years. Results from the class over a period of time revealed that:

    Brain-injured children can:

    • function adequately in a large mixed ability group;
    • learn to concentrate in a highly stimulating Montessori environment;
    • learn acceptable social behaviour from their peers;
    • observe and imitate to help tap into their own learning potential.

    Non-brain-injured children are not adversely affected

  • respect for the worth and dignity of all human beings;
  • wisdom in using the gift of their own healthy body and mind for the benefit and welfare of self and humanity.

* from: Montessori and The Special Child, R. C. Orem

These are lofty outcomes and we might also expect to add team building, leadership and community skills for all of the children.

Obviously not all children who are referred for play therapy have brain-injuries, but the underlying implication is that therapy in a sterile, one-on-one or clinic environment will not be as holistically healing as the experience of a child in a real-time Montessori class.


Ayres, A.J. (1972), Sensory integration and learning disorders, Western Psychological Services, Los Angeles, CA

Egan, M and DeLaat, D. (1994), Considering spirituality in occupational therapy practice, Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy 61, 95-101

Eisert, D. and Lamorey, S. (1996), Play as a window on child development: the relationship between play and other developmental domains, Early Education & Development Vol.7, Routledge

Montessori, M. (1913), Pedagogical Anthropology, William Heinemann, London, UK

Montessori, M. (1965), The Advanced Montessori Method Volume 1, (Formerly Spontaneous Activity in Education 1917), Shocken Books, Random House, New York

Montessori, M. (1966), The Secret of Childhood, Fides Publishers Inc.

Orem, R.C. (1970), Montessori and the Special Child, Capricorn Books, New York

Parham, L.D. and Primeau, L.A. (1997), Play and Occupational Therapy for Children, Mosby, St. Louis, MO

Stagnitti, K. and Cooper, R. (2009), Play as Therapy: Assessment and Therapeutic Interventions, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK & Philadelphia, PA

Vygotsky, L. (1934), Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

To comment on or discuss this article, contact Wendy Fidler at or 0208 858 4368/07710 433 994




© Wendy Barbara Fidler

Wildwood Montessori Consultancy 

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