Imagination Playground Comes to TNCS

“Play is the work of the child,” said Maria Montessori a century ago, and with that simple yet compelling concept, launched a revolution in early childhood education. The Montessori method is often mistakenly faulted for not making room for “imaginative play,” but the converse is actually true, and it’s also why the method is so downright effective. By integrating “work” (i.e., learning) with materials and lessons that children are naturally drawn to, the Montessori method allows kids to do what they do best—play, explore, touch, smell, absorb—but in a constructive, productive way. In other words, they are learning because they want to without even realize it’s happening. It’s sheer genius.

Fast-forward to this century, and an offshoot of this concept has begun to take root: play facilitated by “playworkers.” Playworkers describe (they resist defining it—you’ll see why) play as “a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” Activities such as building a sand castle and playing make-believe fit this description, whereas playing Angry Birds on an iPad is something else entirely (no judgment implicit here, parents!). It’s no accident that the playwork model of play sounds a lot like what Dr. Montessori had in mind. Playworkers’ (also called “play associates”) roles are to be the caretakers of the play environment. Unlike the bored, inattentive playground monitor of yore, these are trained adults who oversee an open setting in which children can direct their own play, maintaining a safe, welcoming environment for them.

Trained to what, exactly? Enter Imagination Playground, The New Century School’s latest schoolwide initiative to ensure a happy, adjusted, engaged student body. Launching soon, a focus on constructive play is what makes Imagination Playground a natural fit for TNCS. Says school cofounder Jennifer Lawner, “We will begin using it in the gym space during school hours and also make it available to The Lingo Leap for birthday parties and other activities.”

So What is Imagination Playground, Exactly?

Imagination Playground blocks close-up

A close-up of the foam blocks . . . makes you want to reach out, grab one, and start playing!

The flagship Imagination Playground opened in New York City in 2010; since then, more than 700 Imagination Playground sets have been implemented internationally . . . including right here in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, very soon. To backtrack a bit, Imagination Playground is a “play system that encourages unstructured, child-directed ‘free play.’” It looks like giant Tinker Toys—only soft, on an extremely large scale, and powder blue! Developed by the architectural firm The Rockwell Group, this play system “in a box” (or cart, as the case may be) can be used anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and comprises three key elements:

1. Manipulable Environment: Traditional playgrounds consist of fixed equipment. The experience kids get from swinging or sliding is somehow passive, even though they are actively moving. There is still the element of deriving enjoyment passively rather than having created/designed the experience. Not so here, where kids manipulate the play environment according to their own lights, then do with it what they will.

2. Loose Parts: An assortment of age-appropriate “found parts” can be integrated with the signature blue building blocks to expand on and extend play in new directions.

3. Play Associates: Workers are trained with a specific curriculum developed by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “saving play” as well as addressing America’s “play deficit” to properly implement and oversee an Imagination Playground.

According to Imagination Playground website’s FAQs, “This unique combination of elements enables children to create a great new playground each time they visit.” Click here for a video demonstration/profile.

More About the Blocks, Please

These are really the core of the Imagination Playground. The biodegradable foam blocks are nontoxic, cleanable, recyclable, resistant to microorganisms, and nonflammable. They are all blue—no variations are possible. This is to both encourage the use of, that’s right, imagination, rather than getting distracted by colors (or worse, fighting over them) as well as because that color was best received among kid focus groups. The blocks kit includes shapes like “l’il cheeses,” “clover gears,” and “arched chutes.” Are you getting excited yet? This basic kit can enhanced with angles and curves add-on sets to build endless combinations of kid-engineered “playgrounds.” They also promote collaboration among children to build their place space together.

And the Play Associates?

Must be the world’s best job, right? Probably pretty close, though training is a nonnegotiable prerequisite. This job is really more about managing the environment than playing with kids, however. Performing safety checks, setting up and putting away the loose parts, and cleaning the materials are their primary responsibilities, all to enable kids to let their imaginations take them where they will. “Play Associates set up and step back.”

As stated above, Play Associates are a kind of “playworker,” a profession written extensively about by Penny Wilson in the U.K., herself a professional playworker. Together with a nonprofit organization right here in our own backyard, Ms. Wilson and the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, MD aim to “[establish] playwork as a profession in the U.S. . . . [in] its efforts to restore play to children’s lives.” Read their Playwork Primer 2010 here.

Play: Not Something to Mess Around With

In the end, there’s a very serious side to play—not in a bad way, but in terms of the no-nonsense list of benefits that this kind of play yields. Playing with loose and found parts, researchers agree, hones cognitive, creative, and social development. In fact, it is precisely through play that kids develop. By playing, they are actually transforming their dreams into reality as noted pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst David Winnicott believed and for whom the concept of play was a central motif. Tied to influential architect Simon Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts:

“in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”

and the fundamental logic of Imagination Playground emerges. Did you watch the video yet? Those parent and education professional testimonials were full of words like “problem-solving,” “engaged,” “higher-level thinking,” “teamwork,” and even “character strengths like grit, resilience, and self-control.” (Remember education researcher/author Paul Tough? One of the NYC school principles he wrote about, Dominic Randolph, is an Imagination Playground advocate and user.) All of these blog themes are really starting to, uh, “connect”!

For a final word on the child’s sheer driving need to play, here is an excerpt from an interview with playworker Penny Wilson in the American Journal of Play:

“It is a common mistake that adults make to think that play is frivolous and fun, a pretty frill of childhood. But play not only develops physical and mental strength and agility, it is the mechanism by which children work out their thoughts and emotions. As adults we struggle to explain and understand ourselves and the things that happen around us. We wrestle with words. For example, I find it very difficult to capture the words I need to explain this thought to you now. Children have exactly the same need to grapple with their thoughts. But they use their playing as their language.”

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts or share an anecdote in the Comments section!

Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education

Despite the relative prevalence of Montessori education in the United States, surprisingly little research has examined its efficacy. In the more than 4,000 U.S. schools (including private, public, and charter) having implemented Montessori curricula since 1907, the studies that do exist have demonstrated inconsistent findings.

A new study by Angeline Lillard from the University of Virginia published last year in the Journal of School Psychology finally provides some definitive feedback. These results are also pretty provocative. As one parenting advice journalist reads them, maybe preschool doesn’t really matter so much—or, to be more precise, what preschool a parent chooses doesn’t matter so much. In a regular feature called The Kids on, Melinda Moyer wrote, “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.” In other words, worrying about where to preschool your kids pretty well implies that you are providing a caring, hands-on, and stimulating environment for them to grow up in. The rest takes care of itself at ages younger than 5 or 6 years in such an environment. (Click here for Moyer’s entertaining article in full.)

The Real Deal

That was actually a fairly incidental point of Dr. Lillard’s study, however. The real thrust of her investigation was whether Montessori preschool in particular produced any difference in cognitive outcome compared to conventional preschool. So, for current and prospective families of The New Century School, the tagline might be more like, “If you are reading this article, good job in choosing a Montessori program for your kid!” Because, in fact, Dr. Lillard’s research shows that after a Montessori schoolyear, study participants (numbering 172 and ranging in age from 33–76 months), measured higher in executive function (also defined as “self-regulation”), theory of mind, reading, math, vocabulary, and social competence than their counterparts in any other type of conventional school program.

Researchers measured these areas with a set of tasks each focusing on a particular skill and then compared end-of-year scores to beginning-of-year scores to see point gains. The results are:

Executive function: the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders task—kids are required to perform the opposite of a response to four different oral commands (for example, being asked to touch their toes if told to touch their head, and vice versa). Montessori, +13.72; conventional, +7.34

Theory of mind: the False Belief test (and others)—kids are shown a box (e.g., a crayon box) and asked to guess what is inside. Once they are shown that the box contains something unexpected (i.e., not crayons), they are then asked to predict what someone else’s guess will be about the contents. Click here for a video demonstration. Montessori, +0.39; conventional, +0.12

Reading: the Letter-Word Identification task—kids are required to correctly identify letters in words of increasing difficulty.  Montessori, +11.28; conventional, +5.9

Math: the Applied Problems subtest—kids are required to demonstrate simple counting, addition, and subtraction, skills as well as reading clock faces and identifying coin values. Montessori, +4.58; conventional, +3.53

Vocabulary: the Picture Vocabulary task—kids are required to correctly identify the picture that illustrates a given word. Montessori, +2.92; conventional, +1.08

Social competence: the Social Problem-solving task—kids are given a fictional problematic scenario and asked to present solutions (for example, how to share a book between two children). Montessori, +0.33; conventional, –0.07

Classic Montessori’s Lasting Benefits

Thus, the Montessori students made considerably higher gains in each area. Also note where the biggest gains (and differences) were seen—that is, in executive function and social competence. These skills are not only important predictors of school readiness, but also of later academic performance and much later life satisfaction. Dr. Lillard attributes the significant differences in outcomes to the consistent use of in-class Montessori materials and techniques. (See the gallery below for TNCS’s primary students happily engaged with the Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Math materials.)

Another interesting note is that Montessori preschool is also often credited for producing “sleeper effects” in secondary school, in which novel social and cognitive benefits emerge well after the student has left the Montessori curriculum.

A final note is that Dr. Lillard’s study also compared “classic Montessori” programs with what she designated “supplemented Montessori.” For the purposes of this post, TNCS fits the “classic” category, which is defined by 3-hour work periods, 3-year age groupings, one Montessori-trained teacher, and use of traditional Montessori materials. In Dr. Lillard’s study, supplemented Montessori in general fared no better or worse than conventional preschool curricula.

Interested in reading more of Dr. Lillard’s work? Her website,, provides access to a host of related articles.

Have an anecdote, question, or comment to share? Your participation in this important discussion is welcome!