“Is this toy Montessori?” is one question that crops up again and again for parents starting out on a Montessori journey.
From the outside it appears Montessori has so many rules and philosophies that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, especially since most mainstream stores only stock a few items suitable for a Montessori homes.
In truth the guidelines are very straightforward and easy to follow, I’ve deliberately avoided including too many specific toys as Montessori is about doing not buying.
Materials or Toys?
You will often hear Montessori practitioners discussing Montessori Materials and rarely mentioning toys. In truth there is no such thing as a Montessori toy merely toys that better represent the Montessori ideals.
The Montessori materials found in a classroom are not referred to as toys because children using them will be empowered by the prepared environment to work purposefully, to experiment, explore and collaborate. The toys found in a home will offer similar outcome but also allow children to engage in more imaginative play.
In my opinion, if a child attends Montessori school it is not necessary or helpful to repeat these materials (or materials focussing on the same skill) at home, but instead it is beneficial to offer them the opportunity to engage in developmentally appropriate play. In fact, offering materials incorrectly or before the child is ready can have a negative effect.
With that in mind let’s look at the guide lines.
Especially for very young children there is nothing more enticing than a basket of real, household items. From 18months to 3 years of age children benefit from and will seek out Symbolic Play in which they recreate everyday scenarios for example feeding a doll.
A perfect example of real items are the Practical Life materials such as child-sized brooms and cloths. These tools would never be described as toys and while children using them will find their activity enjoyable, fulfilling and often relaxing it is also obvious that what they are doing may be described as work. These toys have the added bonus of allowing children to feel like independent, productive and valuable members of the household, a cornerstone of the Montessori philosophy.
When choosing toys try to pick items that are recognisable from real life. For example opt first for animals that your child will recognise from the parks around your home or a tea set that represents how you drink tea as opposed to the habits of another country.
Examples; small kitchen items, cleaning supplies, real foods like vegetables, keys and key rings, dolls, a sink full of water and sponges or brushes.
Wood is a material of choice for Montessori toys because it is beautiful and offers far more sensory stimulation than plastic. (More about that here; The benefits of wooden toys).
Plastic has a place too though. In my opinion plastic is an ideal choice for model animals (despite my love for Holztiger) as they are far more detailed and accurate than wooden ones. They are perfect for wet or outdoor play too. The same goes for dolls. Likewise metal is an authentic choice for cars and boats.
Example Brands: Plan Toys make open ended toys using sustainable wood, Hape is another good choice, Schleich or Oh Ivy produce beautiful animals and Miniland is my brand of choice for realistic dolls.
Montessori seeks to encourage creativity, imagination, decision making, independence and collaboration, this means giving children the freedom to decide how to use an item.
When choosing toys for your Montessori home it is important to ask “How many ways can this be used?” If only one game is possible with an item then it doesn’t belong in your home.
It’s also worth nothing that if a toy is designed to do one thing that it should be Self Correcting. This means that the child will know when they have achieved the task (eg a shape sorter or pouring water from one jar to another). As a result the child does not need to have their achievement confirmed by an adult and can praise their own work.
Examples: Construction sets (like Lego, Magnatiles or Joinks), animal figurines, dolls houses and play mats, art materials and cardboard boxes, gross motor or outdoor toys (like a Pikler triangle, a Wobbleboards or slides and ramps), silks and blankets, play doh and sticks.
It’s That Simple
Montessori Shelfies are the most popular representation of Montessori on sites like Instagram and Pinterest however they only comprise a small part of the Montessori Home.
Materials are no substitute for toys and the many faceted functions of play can not be facilitated by items intended for work.