Officially, there is no such thing as a “Montessori toy,” but some toys are particularly aligned with the Montessori learning philosophy. Playthings in a Montessori environment ignite your child’s curiosity through repetition and purpose, and by reflecting their daily experience.
To introduce Montessori learning into your child’s playroom, provide carefully selected playthings based on the characteristics below. Arrange just a few objects at a time on a low shelf and rotate them to engage your child’s interest. Introduce new toys with slow, exaggerated movements and few words, and give your child plenty of space to explore and solve problems on their own.
Characteristics of a Montessori-aligned toy
It doesn’t have electronics or flashing lights
Just as there are empty calories for a child’s body, there is superficial input for a child’s brain. Battery-powered toys featuring lights and action at the touch of a button can be engaging at first, but when the toy does all the work, your child misses out on the meaningful connection between an action and its natural consequence.
Let’s say a baby presses a button on a toy and a purple cow pops out, lights flash, and music plays. The baby’s brain builds a network of neural associations around that sequence, but the sequence is not useful to the child’s long-term development. It’s neither open-ended nor reflective of how the world really works.
In contrast, an open-ended toy like the Race and Chase Ramp invites your child to explore natural forces like gravity and momentum by rolling small cars down a multi-level ramp. Can they roll two cars down at the same time? Can they keep a car from falling off an edge? Do other objects roll as easily as the cars? These questions and others encourage problem-solving through exploration. Playthings powered by your child’s own energy encourage them to stay with a problem, investigate further, and build new skills.
It’s based on real life
Babies and toddlers are naturally driven to understand the world around them, so surround them with real photography and accurate replicas of real-life objects and animals. Maria Montessori observed that before they are able to make the mental leap to fantasy, children need a lot of exposure to objects that accurately represent the real world. Young children are naturally drawn to what is familiar: it’s comforting and exciting to them at the same time.
Books about talking bears and giraffes driving cars are wonderful and whimsical, but you may find that your child connects more with books that feature real photographs of people, animals, and objects. Books about real-life experiences like getting hurt on the playground, cooking at home, or getting a check-up help young children make sense of experiences they’ve had themselves.
It’s made from natural materials
Your child learns by using multiple senses at the same time, which is how the brain translates a world filled with possibilities into concrete skills. Natural materials such as sticky rubber, smooth polished wood, cold stainless steel, and fuzzy felt can all be used to explore differences in texture, temperature, and weight. This sensory-rich learning experience is central to the Montessori philosophy.
It focuses on one skill at a time
Montessori-aligned toys help your child focus on mastering one skill at a time by minimizing unnecessary distractions. Just as too many toys can be overwhelming, too many features on one toy can prevent deeper learning. The stuffed octopus with an activity on every tentacle labeled 1-8 can seem educational at first, but bouncing from one activity to the next doesn’t help your child concentrate. Understanding any concept is difficult when there isn’t a focus.
This doesn’t mean you should only seek out single-use toys. Instead, select playthings with multiple possibilities that you can work with one at a time. For example, you can present realistic animal figurines in three different ways:
- First, present the figurines on their own to introduce new vocabulary: “this is a cow.”
- Then, as your child masters the vocabulary, use the figurines for a game of “I Spy” and ask your child, “where is the cow?”
- Later, use the figurines as a matching game by pairing them with realistic images.
It promotes STEM learning
Your child is constantly testing and experimenting with everything they can reach to try and make sense of the world. They develop an understanding of important concepts like physics and math through play and daily home activities.
Montessori-aligned playthings offer concrete opportunities for this type of learning. Dropping the ball inside the opening of the Ball Drop Box is a study in cause and effect, while the different shapes in a puzzle encourage problem solving and spatial relationships. An exploration of opposites can teach your child about weight, temperature, and texture.
It encourages independence
Montessori is all about empowering children to contribute, caring for themselves and their environment with real-life, age-appropriate tools or child-sized alternatives. The goal is always to nurture your child’s role as a capable member of their family and beyond.
You may already have many of these tools in your home, like small whisks or spatulas and a child-sized apron to wear when your child is cooking alongside you. Other examples include the Squeaky Clean Squeegee set for independent cleaning, a pitcher for pouring, and a Montessori Placemat with utensils to guide them in setting the table.
How to introduce Montessori-friendly toys
When we asked Montessori expert Jody Malterre about her favorite Montessori play materials, she was quick to say, “the delivery of the toy is the most important thing.”
Toy presentation actually starts with how objects are arranged in the playroom. Limited choices in an organized space promote concentration, curiosity, and independence. Research supports this minimal approach, suggesting that an appealing arrangement of just a few toys at a time can lead to longer periods of focus and creativity. Fewer options also create opportunities for more independent play.
Once you have prepared the environment, the next step is to formally introduce your child to each new toy as it arrives in the playroom. Consider these tips from our expert to learn how:
“Slow hands, with minimal words”
Use slow, exaggerated movements to show your child the purpose of a new object, saying few or no words as you go. Your child’s brain works hard to concentrate on one thing at a time, so help them focus on your hands by saying as little as possible while you model how to work with a new toy
Offer your child a turn, then sit back
Resist jumping in. Instead, wait and suggest a new direction if they seem to need encouragement: “I wonder if…” or “it might help if you try…” Giving your child space for exploration (with some redirection, if needed) supports the kind of hands-on, independent learning Montessori is all about.
Model “grace and courtesy,” a Montessori practical life lesson, by offering a turn and waiting for yours 🙂
After you show your child how to use a toy, offer them a turn and put your hands on your lap as you observe. This lets your child take the lead in their own learning and models how to wait for a turn.
Waiting is hard for them—and sometimes for you, too; it’s natural to want to help them out. Focus on observing your child’s work and giving them a few minutes before introducing a shift in turns: “may I have a turn now?”
When your child works with a simple challenge over and over again, they create strong connections in their brain. As simple as they may seem, encourage those repeated efforts before adding on more difficulty. Repetition of a simple challenge, such as working with a seemingly simple task like the Montessori Egg Cup, prepares their hands for more complex work later, like placing pieces into more difficult puzzles.
Think of each toy as a tool for learning new language
When presenting a new plaything, start by naming it with accurate language. Your child’s brain is craving new words, including those you may consider complicated or advanced: “this is a propeller plane, and this other one is a shunt plane.”
Focus on possibilities, not perfection
The toy may have a specific purpose you can present to your child, but an object’s intended purpose is just the beginning of its learning possibilities. Don’t be surprised if your child finds a completely new way to play 🙃
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