We often see beautiful lists of lovely toys and different websites telling you they have the most amazing Montessori toys that your child has to have! These messages about Montessori toys always become rampant around the holiday season. Many claim to be Montessori friendly, usually featuring gorgeous wooden materials.
But just because something is made of wood doesn’t mean it’s a Montessori material, nor is every Montessori material made of wood. It can get confusing and honestly, even a bit misleading.
Today, we will have a dialogue about:
- What is a Montessori toy?
- What is a Montessori material?
- What characteristics can you look for in toys you bring into your home that use Montessori concepts.
Our Montessori Home
Not all of the materials in our home would qualify as Montessori materials or Montessori “friendly” or Montessori “inspired”. We do not run a school. We manage a home with children that have different interests, desires, and ages. Each child is unique and is constantly evolving and growing. This means that the materials my husband and I choose to have at home are also constantly changing to fit the needs of our home.
Keep in mind, Montessori is much more than an approach to learning. There are many concepts from the method that we use in our home as parents, specifically in how we treat our children with kindness, dignity, and respect. Whilst we love Montessori, we do not exclusively use Montessori as the only criteria for deciding whether to bring a toy into our house.
What is a Montessori Toy?
Remember, Dr. Montessori did not create toys. She created educational materials to teach children specific concepts.
So is there really such a thing as a Montessori “toy”? No.
However, there are some toys that are aligned with Montessori concepts that can be engaging and beneficial for your children. You can apply these concepts to the toys that you keep in your home.
If you are on this journey of setting up a warm and inviting play space or learning area for your children, you can use this information to consider the toys you will bring into your home in the future or perhaps remove some objects from your home.
What are Montessori materials?
Montessori materials focus on a few key concepts. We can look for some of these in the toys we bring into our home.
The child should not just passively sit and ‘watch’ the toy doing the work for him or her, but be involved in doing/using it. Montessori materials involve the child – the child interacts with and uses the material.
We generally tend to avoid battery operated toys. Instead, you may want to look for open-ended materials that allow for play in multiple ways.
Do consider – a variety of wooden blocks, puzzles, or art supplies!
For babies/toddlers, you can purchase a wooden stacking toy rather than one that sings and lights up.
Purposeful materials can also mean rather than buying a toy vacuum for your child, you can get them a real mop that they can manipulate or some other real cleaning products. Children want to participate in the household and want to see the result of their work. Seeing that their toy vacuum is not actually vacuuming the ground can be discouraging and upsetting.
Isolate a concept
Montessori materials have a clear purpose and use. Overstimulating the child with several different features on the toy can be confusing and will hinder the development of concentration.
For example, when you see the pink tower, it is a very special material that goes beyond simply being a stack of blocks. The pink tower is very thoughtfully designed! First, the tower consists of blocks that are identical in shape and colour. The only difference between each component of the pink tower is the size of the blocks.
The difference between each block is exactly the size of the smallest one. This is very important and one of the main reasons to get a specifically Montessori set of blocks rather than the colourful ones – the isolation of one important skill or component.
Choosing toys that are simple or isolate one specific skill to develop, you can help your child’s concentration and prevent overwhelm. This can be great for development.
Natural materials, unlike plastic, offer children an opportunity to learn about the earth and the beautiful resources we are lucky to be able to use from it! A child can feel the natural grain of wood on a wooden toy, they can feel the cold from a metal spoon, they can even smell wood.
Story time: When our son was younger, we purchased a very beautiful set of bamboo plates and cups. Oh no! He ended up dropping his cup, causing it to break! It was even his favourite green colour!
This was a teaching moment for us all. He learned to be very careful with his green plate and bowl, gently carrying it with two hands rather than one. Children should learn to care for and respect their materials, and being breakable offers an important lesson. The natural consequences of using natural materials lead to a bigger life lesson.
It can be expensive to purchase new materials when items break. We recommend shopping second hand and trying to repair whenever possible.
However! Just because something is made from a natural material does not automatically make it a Montessori friendly toy. If this is important to you, you can consider the combination of different characteristics of Montessori materials. Again – just because something is made of wood does not make it a Montessori material.
The lovely pastel, wooden stacker above would not be considered a Montessori inspired material even though it is made from wood. The rings are different colours and don’t isolate one concept at a time. The toy is fine, but it is simply not Montessori-inspired. Read more about choosing a stacking toy for your child here.
Aside from all of those excellent reasons for choosing natural products, I also urge you to consider the environmental ramifications of your purchases. We consumers ‘vote’ for products with our purchases, so I do believe that it is wise to consider where our materials come from, how they were made, and how they impact our earth.
Many materials, I prefer to purchase used, especially if they do happen to be plastic. Materials such as lego, I think work best as plastic toys. And that’s fine.
As consumers, we do tend to prefer gently used plastic toys in this case in order to limit my own footprint on our earth and also due to the use of toxins and dangerous chemicals that can be found in some children’s toys.
Grounded in reality
In general, the Montessori method always begins with teaching a child something concrete before gradually moving to more and more abstract concepts or versions of the material. By providing concrete knowledge of realistic materials first, children are able to fully understand what a concept is before moving on to applying their imaginations/imaginary concepts.
Especially if you have a child under 3, it may be beneficial to focus on realistic toys and materials.
Instead of a play kitchen, consider purchasing some child-sized cooking materials so that your child can help you in the kitchen!
Montessori materials are optimally sized for handling by a child. It can be frustrating, upsetting, and difficult for children to use certain materials that are designed specifically for adults when their hands are so small.
In Montessori homes, we often do give children materials that are not traditionally viewed as toys, such as sponges, rolling pins, and others. Perhaps you want to get your child some baking materials? Make sure that cookware, cleaning materials, and children’s items more generally are comfortable to be used by small hands.
Montessori materials are self-correcting. This means there is one way to complete an activity. The child would notice if the activity is not completed correctly without adult intervention. For example, a puzzle will have a left-over piece or may not fit together properly.
The child should be able to notice this independently. Discovering that an error was made is an important part of learning.
Materials are developmentally appropriate for your child’s current needs. This is so important as providing materials that are above your child’s current developmental needs can lead to frustration, discouragement, or even dislike of this material when the child would otherwise enjoy it fully if it was simply brought out at a later time.
It can be so confusing and overwhelming to think about whether something is Montessori enough. Don’t worry about the label, and ignore the marketing because it’s so often misleading.
Not everything in your home needs to be Montessori-inspired, Montessori-ish, Montessori-friendly, or whatever other label we can throw on there.
Take a deep breath and think about your family and their needs at the current time. Take your child’s lead and follow their needs! Choose your toys and materials based on the specific needs and interests of your children!
You got this!
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