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We've all seen young children doing any number of imaginative things with wooden blocks: building a toy animal corral or a parking lot for cars, or a doll's cradle. What makes block play open-ended, after all?

Merriam-Webster's definition of open-ended, applied:
  • "not rigorously fixed": the outcome of the child's activity is not predictable; the process of using the material (rather than the result) is the point
  • "adaptable to the developing needs of a situation": the activity allows many opportunities for the child to solve problems and adapt to the unfolding experience
  • "designed to permit spontaneous and unguided responses": practically a description of a Montessori classroom activity!

Building a tall tower with wooden blocks requires imagining an idea, implementing it, discovering the limits of the materials, and adapting to the successes and hindrances of the task. Completing this open-ended process requires a level of order, concentration, competence, and independence that Montessorians hold dear for the child. Children find incredible personal satisfaction from such absorbing labors.

Children become completely engaged with the process of an open-ended activity. They guide their own paths to discovery. All areas of development are brought into action; the child interacts with his or her world cognitively, socially, physically, and emotionally. This is important and beautiful work in the developing child.

Open-ended is an utterly Montessori idea

While it is true you aren't likely to find a dress-up or fantasy area in a Montessori classroom, children enjoy daily opportunities for creativity in all areas of development, both in thought and expression. As soon as a lesson is introduced, children can use the work to conduct or "experiment" in their own way, to be a catalyst for their own epiphanies, and to absorb knowledge.

When we see the children in action, absorbed in activities of their own choosing, we see their amazing capacities for invention and perceive the scope and unlimited potential of their developing brains. Open-ended work, self-correction, and freedom of choice provide the trifecta of child development and the cornerstone of learning. A learning environment filled with open-ended inquiry and self-direction is so satisfying for children and integral to real learning!

Why is creativity in the Montessori classroom so often misunderstood?

Montessorians understand the importance of giving children a solid foundation in real things, a "base" in reality, if you will. When we bring a miniature dog into the classroom for the children to use as a language object, it looks like a real dog because it represents a real dog. Books with photographs and life-like illustrations are favored over those with cartoon depictions of things. Does "showing the child a real tree" squash creativity?

Of course not. Although people often equate creativity only with the arts and imagination only with fantasy play, creativity and imagination go hand-in-hand with all kinds of learning.

Imagination and creativity surely have a comfortable home in academics! When we consider that open-ended activities are about the whole experience, it's easier to see how they are represented in the classroom.

Children's ingenuity prompts them to build walls and towers with their wooden blocks, thus experiencing geometry and testing the limits of physics. It is creativity that inspires a child to fit colored tiles together to make a design, tiles whose dimensions express numeric patterns small fingers "remember" with their muscular memory.

Sparking the young child's capacity for creativity is essential to learning.

Imagination powers the awesome ability to comprehend abstractions of every kind—to see something in one's mind that one cannot see in person or touch with the hands. We ask the elementary child, for example, to imagine other planets and, ultimately, the whole universe!

By exploring the world they can see and touch first, children develop a strong foundation from which to launch their imaginations. Comfort and success with a whole range of creative, open-ended activities unleashes the neurological potential of the child in ways that are simply not addressed by so many of the bright, flashing, single-purpose toys being marketed to children today. In a perfect world, open-ended activities would be the overwhelming majority of "things" we provide for our children.

—Originally Published 2008