Is Montessori Play-Based? Discover the Surprising Truth!

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Choosing the most suitable early childhood education for your child is very important because it can make or break the foundation of their cognitive and intellectual development. 

However, this can be very challenging. 

Two of the most common methods for early childhood education are Montessori and play-based learning. 

So first things first, is Montessori play-based? While it’s true that both of them have overlapping similarities in their methods, they are not necessarily the same. A lot of people tend to blur the lines between the two, but here are the striking differences that set one apart from the other.

Play based Learning vs Montessori 

Montessori education is an approach that is highly focused on meeting the needs of the child.

The Montessori method created a conducive learning environment that harnessed the children’s natural thirst for learning. 

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    On January 6, 1907, an Italian educator by the name of Dr. Maria Montessori established a learning center for the children of the marginalized district of San Lorenzo, Italy. 

    Called Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), Dr. Montessori aimed at teaching children various concepts and ideas based on their stages of development and giving them agency to direct their learning. 

    Through this, children can develop a lifelong love for learning.

    With the help of Dr. Montessori’s prior work on young children, she started to design learning materials for them, some of which are still being used in Montessori classrooms today. 

    Some of these materials include items that hone practical life skills such as washing, sweeping, and pouring, as well as materials that develop musical and artistic senses. 

    Anchored in the system created by Dr. Montessori, the Montessori method of learning offers a unique approach to education. 

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    In this method, children are allowed to learn in their own way and at their own pace, creating a child-centered learning environment.

    Although this is the case, these tasks are usually predetermined by the teacher according to their curriculum. 

    Moreover, the activities in the classroom are task-oriented, which means that the children learn through trial and error and not according to direct instruction. 

    Montessori learning prioritizes active hands-on experience and reliance on intuition to unlock a skill or concept. 

    On the other hand, in a Play-based education system, the activities are open-ended, and students are allowed to spend most of their time interacting and playing with their classmates. 

    An example would be, a teacher providing the students with materials for fishing to help them learn how to fish independently. 

    There are little to no formal directions, and children can play roles however and whichever they like. It allows for pretend play in the learning process. 

    Teachers do not decide the students’ tasks; instead, children have agency in deciding what they will be doing and how the learning should go. 

    Children are encouraged to interact with their peers and come up with solutions to problems. 

    Through this, they are able to develop their social skills, empathy, self-esteem, and self-regulation.

    Play-Based Learning vs. Montessori Highlights

    Play-Based Learning: Play-based learning emphasizes the importance of play in a child’s development and learning. It recognizes that play is a natural way for children to explore, experiment, and make sense of the world around them. In play-based learning environments, children engage in self-directed play activities that foster creativity, imagination, problem-solving, and social skills. Play is considered the primary avenue for learning and is integrated into various aspects of the curriculum.

    Montessori Education: Montessori education is an educational philosophy developed by Maria Montessori. It focuses on providing a prepared environment where children can actively engage in hands-on learning and exploration. Montessori classrooms are designed to promote independence, freedom within limits, and individualized instruction. Specialized Montessori materials are used to facilitate the development of specific skills and concepts, such as practical life skills, sensory exploration, mathematics, language, and cultural studies.

    Top 5 main differences between Montessori vs Play-based Learning

    1. Curriculum of Study

    Montessori preschools focus more on academic learning. 

    Early on, children are already introduced to numbers and science, whereas in play-based schools, children are allowed to imaginatively engage with people, objects, and the environment.

    1. Pretend play

    Play-based learning allows for more imaginative and dramatic pretend play. 

    Although Montessori recognizes the importance of imagination in a child’s ability to learn, it does not encourage this type of method since the child might develop the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

    1. Task-oriented Work

    Most Montessori preschools emphasize task-oriented work, while play-based preschools encourage open-ended play. 

    1. Use of Materials

    Compared to Play-based preschools, Montessori schools tend to provide the children with concrete materials, such as manipulatives, to drive their learning experience. 

    On the other hand, play-based preschools have several materials that are more open-ended, which can include blocks or arts and crafts materials.

    1. Role of teachers

    In Montessori, a teacher acts as a guide who observes how a child accomplishes the tasks and tracks their progress at the same time.  

    It establishes a decentralized system, which means that teachers do not discuss the lessons in front of the class but rather structure classes around the activities. 

    They also act as facilitators of the educational materials and guide them in their independent discovery. 

    Meanwhile, play-based teachers actively engage in and guide the play throughout the entire duration. 

    They are also more intentional in how they plan, observe, and guide the children while in play and actively initiate and generate play to include the use of educational materials.

    Main Similarities Between Montessori and Play-based Learning

    1. Hands-on independent learning 

    Both Montessori and play based learning seek to cultivate a child’s cognitive development through hands-on tasks that they get to do independently. 

    1. Child-centered 

    The tasks in both methods of learning allow the children to learn complex concepts and abstract ideas at their own pace and in their own time.

    1. Intrinsic motivation for learning 

    Montessori and play-based learning both seek to harness the children’s natural desire to learn and anchor on their curiosity to fully understand the concepts through experience.

    What are the benefits of Montessori learning?

    Still unsure of what methodology to opt for for your child? Here are some of the benefits of Montessori Learning:

    • Your child is set up for higher education.

    As children begin to develop their cognitive and intellectual abilities at a young age, Montessori learning offers a curated experience that balances learning opportunities with a fun school life.

    The method’s five curriculum—Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics, and Culture—prepares and lay out the foundation of a child’s learning routine early on.

    • Your child will develop independence and self-esteem.

    Since Montessori school teachers act as guides who track the children’s progress at the same time, the children will develop their independence during their discovery, repetition of tasks, and practice.

    As soon as a child can master Montessori materials, they can foster their own motivation and confidence as the learning process unfolds.

    Is Montessori education worth it?

    According to an article published by the BBC earlier this year, the study of a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Angeline Lillard, showed that compared to those who had attended other schools, children who attended Montessori schools developed better literacy, numeracy, executive function, and social skills. 

    Whatever the method’s actual advantages, its core premise is undeniably enticing, and its proponents have had great success advancing its vision of a freed, self-directed childhood unbound by the constraint of traditional education. 


    Indeed, there are quite a lot of differences between Montessori and Play-based learning.

    Montessori education lets a child thrive independently, excel in a self-directed environment, and is aimed at nurturing a child’s love for learning. 

    Play-based learning, on the other hand, promotes a more structured and directed approach.

    Although the Montessori method of education is not keen on pretend and fantasy play, unlike play-based learning, it recognizes and embraces the truth that creativity, imagination, and intelligence should go hand-in-hand to achieve a good education. 

    In comparison to paper-and-pencil teaching, both methods are a leap towards creating a more positive environment for children to freely learn on their own without the pressure of topping the ranks and outranking a peer. 

    Instead, they have a common goal: establishing intrinsic motivation toward learning.