Designed Space for Play Therapy at the Montessori Family School, Berkeley, Ca.

Some traditional Montessori schools honor children’s basic need for pretend play, not only in preschool and kindergarten, but also also at elementary ages. Pretend play is the most important way for children to process emotions and experiences. When children are in emotional turmoil or distracted by the memory of an intense experience, intellectual learning is hard to occur. The emotional body needs to be healed and ‘cleansed’. Then, the mind is able to absorb new information.

The Montessori Family School in Berkeley is collaborating with non-directive play therapist Doug Lerch to allow some children to play and heal in this thoroughly prepared pretend play environment. I provided consultation for the basic set-up of the space, which is located in a corner of a very big community room. This space is also used by an after-school program in the afternoon. The set-up needed to be flexible and removable. We used movable walls, curtains and shelves on wheels to be able to prepare in a few minutes a cozy contained space during morning hours.

Our intention was to create a cozy beautiful space where children could enjoy a few hours of play and processing of emotions in timelessness.

We divided the space into areas, each with a specific purpose:
– a cozy couch with covers and pillows
– an area for finger and hand puppet pretend play
– a sand tray
– a place for an amazing collection of figurines
– a table for play and creativity with clay and small creative projects like drawing and painting
– floor space for blocks, dolls and little cars
– a shelf for supplies and booklets

I hope more and more Montessori schools will include space and time for free play and pretend play in their elementary curricula. Maria Montessori observed that the children in the first Casa dei Bambini (1907) and in the early Montessori schools loved to ‘work’ in the prepared environment and they stopped doing pretend play. ‘Work’ in the Montessori world means doing things such as cleaning real dishes, counting real beads, and cooking real meals. Today, I still observe that children love to be part of the adult world with real contributions. However, I also observe that children love pretend play until they are 10 years old or or older. Pretend play is healing sometimes even for adults!!

Doug Lerch’s feedback: “My therapy offering here at Montessori Family School is going very well. The space is great, and works wonderfully! I am eternally appreciative for you and your help.”

We can give children ALL the tools they need to develop physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual intelligence.
I’m available to assist Montessori and other schools to create spaces for healing pretend play. Please contact me to find out more.

Carmen Gamper


  1. michael melville

    Loved reading this. My wife Athena and I incorporated art, drama and dance into our Melville Montessori School in Willits, CA for 16 years. Creative story writing and improv was a favorite with all ages, as our school was K-12. We had performances twice a year of music, dance, drama and creative writing exhibited for families and friends. Our June performance was a fund-raiser which was semi-professional. If you expect excellence of children, you get it. Clear safe boundaries make creative expression fun and healing. Science, math and art make for balanced individuals. We added the art and expression to the environment and the self-directed exploration of the children took them directly into college. An amazing thing considering we only had 24 students split into younger (under 10) and older groups. The older children often taught dance and drama to the younger children. Each school is an environmental culture of its own. Story telling and drama are essential at any age, and if supported by the adults, a life long activity.

    • Carmen Gamper

      Thank you for sharing this! It makes so much sense to include elements from other educational approaches into one’s own method. Why shouldn’t we make use of all tools available and choose what serves an individual group of teachers and students best!! Bravo!