What are Montessori Toys?

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As parents, we all want our children to have the best education and development possible. The Montessori method is an educational pedagogy that has been adapted and applied to the home environment in recent years. With its focus on hands-on, child-led learning, the ideas behind the Montessori method translate well to the home environment, and as such may parents are seeking ways to support the use of the philosophy at home.
What Are Montessori Toys?

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Montessori toys are one way you can implement the Montessori method at home, and work well when partnered with the other key aspects of Montessori. In this article, I’ll explore what makes a toy “Montessori” and what is important to consider when choosing a toy to align with your Montessori or Montessori-inspired home environment.

When I started really learning about the Montessori method, wow, where my eyes opened! Here I was thinking it it was all about fancy wooden toys and beautiful decluttered furniture choices. While these things play into the Montessori method, it’s certainly only one small part of the Montessori philosophy. But that’s a post for another day.. today we’re focussing on TOYS!

What Montessori Toys Are NOT

Before we dive into what Montessori toys are, let’s talk about what they’re not:

  • They’re not overly stimulating or flashy, and they don’t give your kiddo instant gratification.
  • They’re not meant to be played with for just a short time before being tossed aside or replaced.
  • They’re not just for fun, but they’re designed to support your child’s development, learning, and independence.
  • They’re not random toys; they have a specific purpose and aim to develop specific skills or abilities.
  • They’re not necessarily high-tech or expensive, but they’re carefully crafted, simple, and goal-oriented.
  • Sensory toys aren’t automatically Montessori toys. While the terms “sensorial” and “sensory” might seem similar, they have different meanings in Montessori education.

For example, a sensory bin is a container filled with various materials like sand or rice that kids can explore and play with. It’s an open-ended activity without a specific learning outcome. On the other hand, a sensorial material is a specific Montessori tool designed to teach a concept like size, shape, or color. Sensorial materials are more structured and focused than sensory bins.

So…What are Montessori Toys?

By definition, Montessori toys are educational materials that are designed to support the Montessori method of education. These toys are carefully crafted to be both simple and engaging, providing children with a range of experiences that help to develop their skills and abilities.

Montessori toys are often described as open-ended, however, that’s actually not the case. Traditional Montessori materials always have a specific focus and outcome in mind. While they certainly encourage exploration, creativity, and problem-solving, they’re also designed to hone specific skills for the child.

I think parents often confused open-ended with self-correcting. Montessori materials are designed for your child to be able to use independently, and therefore correct themselves. Self-correcting toys give your child feedback that the task isn’t being completed correctly. With a self-correcting toy, your child can see their error and fix it independently.

I think one of the reasons that open-ended play is often associated with Montessori is because it aligns with the Montessori philosophy of allowing children to explore and discover at their own pace.

Open-ended play is seen as a way your child can explore and discover the world around them in their own way, without the constant need for your intervention.

If we want to get technical…open-ended play better aligns with other parenting approaches, such as Waldorf education and Reggio Emilia. These approaches prioritize open-ended materials and activities that allow children to express themselves and create their own play scenarios.

So, when looking for a Montessori toy, instead of looking for open-ended toys, look for toys that are close-ended, designed to help your child complete a specific task.

Key Characteristics of Montessori Toys

Purposeful

Each Montessori toy serves a specific purpose, and they are designed to promote particular skills or abilities. Montessori toys are carefully crafted to teach a specific skill or outcome. Each toy has a specific purpose and is designed to promote particular skills or abilities.

Take the Pink Tower for example. It’s designed to teach children about size, order, and coordination.

Another example is the Moveable Alphabet –designed to help children learn to read and write.

Montessori toys are designed to be purposeful and realistic, so that your little one can learn by doing and exploring. The focus is on hands-on, child-led learning, where your child is free to explore and discover at their own pace.

While Montessori toys do provide entertainment, that’s not their primary goal – rather they’re designed to support specific development and educational outcomes.

Realistic

Montessori toys are realistic representations of objects, rather than cartoonish or fantastical. They are based in reality, rather than fantasy worlds. The reason for this is that Montessori education places great emphasis on connecting children with the real world around them. Toys that are based in reality, rather than fantasy worlds, allow children to explore and make sense of the world they live in and gain a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Simple and Made from Natural Materials

Have you ever associated Montessori toys with wooden toys? While many Montessori toys are wooden, not all wooden toys are aligned with Montessori.

Montessori materials are made from natural materials like wood, cotton, and wool because Montessori education places great emphasis on the importance of connecting children with the natural world around them, and believes that children should learn from materials that are authentic and realistic.

By using simple, natural materials, Montessori education is able to promote a sense of calm and focus in children, helping them to develop concentration and attention to detail. The simplicity of the materials also allows children to focus on the specific skill being taught, without distraction from unnecessary decoration or embellishment.

Hands-On

Montessori materials are designed to be hands-on because the Montessori philosophy places great emphasis on learning through sensory experiences. This is referred to as sensorial Montessori. It’s based on the idea that little ones learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning process, using all of their senses to explore and discover the world around them.

By providing hands-on materials, Montessori education allows children to use their senses to learn, touching, feeling, and manipulating the materials in order to understand the concepts being taught.

Self-Correcting

One of the key characteristics of Montessori toys is that they must be self-correcting. This means that your child can easily see if they have made a mistake and can correct it themselves without needing your intervention. Picture a child using the knobbed cylinders. They will be able to see if they have made an error when trying to fit the cylinders into the corresponding holes on the board. The board is designed so that they can see which cylinder does not fit and can adjust its placement until they find the correct hole. This self-correction helps to build the child’s confidence and independence, as they can work by themselves and learn at their own pace. This promotes problem-solving skills and fosters a sense of responsibility for their own learning and progress.

 

What are Some Examples of the Traditional Montessori Materials?

Maria Montessori developed a range of educational materials that are used in Montessori schools around the world. These materials are carefully crafted to promote specific skills and abilities, and they are used to support the Montessori method of education. Here are some examples of traditional Montessori materials:

Pink Tower: This material is a set of ten wooden cubes that vary in size. Children learn about size, order, and coordination by stacking the cubes from largest to smallest.

Knobbed Cylinders: This material consists of a set of cylinders with knobs on the top. Children learn about size, order, and coordination by fitting the cylinders into the corresponding holes on a wooden board.

Number Rods: This material is a set of ten wooden rods, each varying in length and color. Children learn about size, order, and number concepts by placing the rods in order from longest to shortest.

Bead Chains: This material is a set of chains made up of beads in different colors and lengths. Children learn about counting, addition, and multiplication by manipulating the chains.

Moveable Alphabet: This material includes a set of letters that can be used to form words and sentences, helping children learn to read and write.

Spindle Boxes: This material consists of two wooden boxes, one with ten compartments and one with nine, and a set of wooden spindles. Children learn about numbers and counting by placing the correct number of spindles in each compartment.

Binomial Cube: This material is a puzzle that helps children learn about mathematical concepts such as algebra and binomial theorem.

Metal Insets: This material consists of a set of geometric shapes that help children learn about shapes, sizes, and angles.

Cards and Counters: This material includes a set of cards with numbers printed on them, and a set of counters. Children learn about numbers and counting by placing the correct number of counters on each card.

 

What’s the Difference between Montessori-aligned, Montessori-Inspired, and Montessori-Friendly Toys?

Now, I know some of you might be wondering what the difference is between Montessori, Montessori-inspired, and Montessori-friendly toys. Traditional Montessori materials are designed to be used in a Montessori classroom, but Montessori-inspired and Montessori-friendly toys are usually more suited to home use. These toys may not have been specifically designed by Maria Montessori, but they share some of the characteristics of traditional Montessori materials and can certainly be used in a home environment to foster the ideas behind Montessori.

 

Montessori-Inspired Toys

These toys are inspired by the Montessori method of education, but they may not adhere strictly to the Montessori philosophy. They may incorporate Montessori principles, such as self-correcting play, natural materials, and a focus on child-led learning, but they may also have more modern features and designs.

Examples of Montessori-inspired toys include:

  1. Wooden Stacking Rings: This toy consists of a set of wooden rings that can be stacked on a wooden peg, helping children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
  2. Sensory Balls: These are soft and textured balls that can be squeezed, bounced, and rolled, helping children develop sensory skills and hand strength.
  3. Shape Sorters: These toys include a set of shapes that need to be matched with their corresponding holes, helping children learn about shapes, colors, and sizes.
  4. Play Kitchen: A toy kitchen set up in a realistic way can promote practical life skills and help children develop social skills and creativity.
  5. Balance Board: This toy is a wooden board that can be used as a balance beam or a seesaw, helping children develop balance and coordination.

Montessori-Friendly Toys

These are toys that are not necessarily Montessori-specific, but they can still be used to support a Montessori education. They can be used in a way that aligns with Montessori principles, but they have been designed specifically for the Montessori method, such as:

  1. Wooden Blocks: Blocks can be used to build structures and promote creativity, problem-solving, and spatial awareness.
  2. Magnetic Tiles: Magnetic tiles are a versatile toy that can be used to create a variety of shapes and structures. Children can use the tiles to explore different angles and geometrical shapes, promoting spatial awareness and problem-solving skills.
  3. Nature Kits: Nature kits can include items like magnifying glasses, field guides, and specimen jars, allowing children to explore and learn about the natural world.
  4. Art Supplies: Montessori education places great emphasis on the importance of art and creativity in a child’s development. Providing children with art supplies, such as paint, markers, and paper, allows them to express themselves creatively and develop fine motor skills.
  5. Musical Instruments: Instruments like drums, xylophones, and shakers can help children develop rhythm, coordination, and a love of music.

Can Plastic Toys Be Montessori-friendly?

What if you’re given plastic toys that don’t seem to align with the Montessori method? Don’t fret, plastic toys can still be used in a Montessori-inspired home environment.

I often see parents on Montessori groups and blogs exclaiming their frustration over being given plastic toys from friends and family that don’t align with the Montessori method. “I can’t use this!” they exclaim. When I see posts and comments like this, I remind parents that important to note that plastic toys can still be used in a Montessori-inspired home environment if they align with the overall philosophy and goals of the Montessori method.

It’s important to consider the specific purpose of the toy and how it will support a child’s learning and development. The toy should be designed to be simple and uncluttered, without unnecessary decoration or embellishment, so that the child can focus on the specific skill being taught.

If the toy doesn’t have this, can you get creative and come up with a way to use the toy that does? For example, a shape sorter could be used to teach counting skills. A set of plastic blocks could be used to teach color by creating color matching cards for your child to match and sort the block against. Sometimes, it’s not about the material itself but the way you, as a parent, can find ways to introduce the toy in a way that helps your child hone a specific skill.

Overall, while natural materials are preferred in Montessori education, plastic toys can still be used as Montessori toys as long as they are designed in a way that aligns with Montessori principles and promotes learning and development.

My Tips for Choosing Montessori-inspired Toys

When choosing toys for your child through the lens of Montessori, it’s important to consider a few key factors. Here are some things I try to keep in mind when choosing a toy:

  1. I look for toys that are designed to promote a specific skill or ability, such as sorting, counting, or problem-solving.
  2. I choose toys that are simple and uncluttered, without unnecessary decoration or embellishment, so that my son can focus on the specific skill being taught.
  3. I try to consider toys made from natural materials first. These materials promote a sense of calm and focus in children, helping them to develop concentration and attention to detail.
  4. I look for toys that are hands-on and interactive, that will allow my son to explore and discover the world around him by using his different senses.
  5. I consider if a toy is self-correcting. Can my son complete this without my intervention?
  6. I consider his developmental stage and needs and try to pick activities that align to this.
  7. I try to avoid toys that are overly stimulating or designed to provide instant gratification, as these can be counterproductive to the Montessori philosophy of child-led learning and development.

The Bottom Line

To sum it up, the Montessori method of education is all about letting kids lead the way in their learning journey. Montessori toys are a part of this approach, as they help kids develop independence, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

These toys are usually made from natural materials, they’re hands-on, and allow children to correct mistakes on their own.

Each toy has a specific goal in mind, whether it’s developing fine motor skills or learning about shapes and colors.

Even if you don’t have access to traditional Montessori materials, you can still find toys that align with Montessori principles and bring them into your home. Just remember to choose toys that are geared towards learning and development, and don’t sweat it if they’re made of plastic – they can still do the trick!

Overall, incorporating Montessori-aligned, inspired or friendly toys into your child’s playtime can be a great way to support their education in a fun and engaging way.

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