Fantasy or reality? My favourite Montessori children’s books

When choosing children’s books to read to your children, you will be confronted with a plethora of choice. You will also quickly notice a pattern in children’s literature: many of the children’s books are fantasy based, describing things that don’t exist in our world (unless you believe in fairies), making all matters of animals, plants and even objects acting like human beings.

If you are interested by the Montessori principles, you may have come across the idea of reality based books. As a Montessori teacher and parent, I advise to choose books that are based upon reality, especially for the children under the age of 6.

When adults think about childhood, they often associate it with fantasy: Disney stories, fairy tales, Santa Claus.  But Maria Montessori had a different opinion.

From birth to 6 years old, the child is a human being in formation. He learns about the world around him. He wants to learn the reality of the world he lives in.  The child has an absorbent mind and is not yet capable of abstract thought and the imagination that follows from it. Fantasy and many modern toys (e.g. a talking bear) are based on abstract thought. Therefore, Montessori advised against the introduction of the child to fantasy too early. By fantasy, we mean animals that pretend to be human beings (in movies and books), fairy tales and other myths and legends. For a young child who has never seen a real bear, if you introduce him to a talking bear wearing clothes, he will think that a bear is supposed to talk and wear clothes.

In the twenty-first century it is very difficult to avoid all fantasy. The world around us is full of fiction: advertising on passing buses, television programs, children’s books and the culture of mass media.  When your child is in their infancy you may think ‘why does it matter?’ but from about 3 years old your child will begin to ask questions such as ‘why is the bear talking?’ and ‘where do witches live?’

I experienced it myself (with my child and in the classroom) and I found it very difficult to stay honest with the child. Therefore, you are kind of trapped into a fantasy world that your child doesn’t understand.

Avoiding fantasy does not mean a lack of imagination. Maria Montessori encouraged imagination to be based upon reality because until the child is fully formed (brain, body, emotions) everything he learns is part of his reality.

“Montessori recognized that children’s ability to imagine things that were not actually present demonstrated a special mental ability of high order. She saw that it was the foundation of intelligence itself and that it was responsible for the curiosity that underlay all scientific exploration of the environment.  Imagination is the real substance of our intelligence. All theory and all progress comes from the mind’s capacity to reconstruct something.” (The Child, Society and the World, Chapter 3, p.48).

She did not come to this conclusion purely from a theoretical perspective but after closely observing hundreds of children under her care. Again and again she saw that children were drawn to work purposefully, to activities that were meaningful to them, and that it was this contact with reality that had a transformative effect on their behaviour.

Early on in Montessori’s work she provided children with traditional toys and fairy tales. It was her subsequent observations of the children’s own choices of activity that made her question whether such things were actually serving their developmental needs.

“If I were against fairy tales, it was not because of a capricious idea, but because of certain facts, facts observed many times.  These facts come from the children themselves and not from my own reasoning.”(The Child, Society and the World, Chapter 3, p.45). 

In 1919, she participated in a conference and explained her ideas about fantasy “Imagination really does not enter into the problem, because in telling fairy tales it is we (the adult) who do the imagining.  The child only listens. (The young child) cannot distinguish well between the real and the imaginary, between things that are possible and things that are merely ‘made up”

So telling fantasy is us, using our adult’s imagination and imposing it to our children. When given choice, children will be naturally drawn to realistic stories (and toys and activities).

So when it comes to choose children’s books, it’s safe to choose books that represent the world your child lives in. And it’s not only Maria Montessori who said so, a study from 2009 has shown that children by 15 months of age can apply something learned from a picture book to real life, and also transfer that information in the other direction (DeLoach & Ganea, 2009).   Another study from 2015 has shown that children prefer realistic stories. A recent study (2017) has shown that moralistic stories with human characters have more impact than animals characters.


So here my favourite 10 children’s books for the toddlers

(I would say those books are mainly from 1 to 4 years old)

(By the way, this is a very small selection of books but those are the books I have kept from one child to the other, books that my 5 and 9 would read again when they come back from the playgroup in the house and books that are enjoyed every week by the children visiting the playgroup)

  • Rod Campbell’s books: Dear Zoo is a firm favourite and I like to make a story basket with this one. I also love the series with Buster
  • Books with real pictures: Global baby will fascinate your baby or toddler. Did you know that babies are programmed to react more to pictures of human beings? (I have the French version of this one ;-))

  • Cleo the Cat was my daughter’s first board book. Of course, it’s a keeper in our house and we read it again and again. It is now well loved in the playgroup.

  • The same author Caroline Mockford has some other lovely books, all reality based and so Montessori friendly (as most of the books published by Barefoot books). Here two other favourites

Those two books also show children from all around the world.

  • My youngest was obsessed with dogs when he was a toddler. Before he could talk, he was signing “dog” so I bought him a few dogs related books and this one is still so great!

  • Hug from Jez Alborough is such a good book too! A bit less realistic as a monkey is not supposed to say Hug and all the wild animals are not supposed to hug each other but so simple for young children. My two were big fan and were so happy to “read” it themselves (because they knew it by hearth obviously).


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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.

  • Laura says:

    Such an informative post – and I love Eric Carle

  • Cathy Glynn says:

    We loved Hug when my daughter was small and she also loved Hairy Mclary, we spent many afternoon giggling at Scarface Claw the cat.

  • I’m so glad to see the hungry caterpillar is still doing the rounds!

  • Laura says:

    Loving all of these books and so good to see you are following a Montessori start, we did contemplate that but we are more along the lines of Steiner

    Laura x

  • Stephanie says:

    This is a really interesting way of thinking about books, it isn’t something I have thought about before, but it’s made me think

  • Luiza Calini says:

    That is so cute!Now I know which book I can recommend to my sister in law!She has a toddler 🙂

  • I didn’t know about Montessori’s stance on fantasy stories so this was an interesting read as I hasn’t considered it before

  • Ana Claudia Nunes says:

    Thanks for sharing these amazing ideas.

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