A Montessori-Inspired Checklist for Choosing Toys

So much can be said about Montessori philosophy and its usefulness in the home, and there is much more to it than material things. In fact, specialized materials are hardly needed. There is more to come on these subjects, but the following is merely a list meant to help parents as they seek to choose toys for their children that are in harmony with Montessori principles. It is by no means exhaustive or all-inclusive. Keep in mind that Montessori is a philosophy, and as such is open to interpretation. This list is based on one teacher’s interpretation and does not necessary reflect the opinion of all Montessorians.
Photo Credit: Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

1. Look for natural materials
In Montessori, particularly in the early years, there is an emphasis on facilitating a deep connection with real, natural things. The idea is that the best way to help children learn about their world is to put them in contact with it. Montessori is also concerned with providing rich experiences for the senses – something that cold, hard plastic doesn’t do a particularly good job of.

A benefit of using natural materials like glass and ceramic for children’s items is that it gives them experience in handling such things, which requires controlled movement and delicate care. When a child throws a plastic bowl, it bounces back and provides the child with limited feedback. If they throw a glass bowl, the child sees immediate consequences of their action and is able to learn from them.

Montessori aside, toys made of natural materials like wood, cotton, and wool are much gentler on the environment and less likely to contain dangerous toxins like those found in plastic. A variety of beautiful, handmade wooden toys can be found on sites like etsy, and other toys made of natural materials can likely be found in stores in your community, if you look hard enough. For a selection of carefully designed, handcrafted Montessori infant and toddler toys, see Pinkhouse Handworks and Goose Designs. I have ordered from and highly recommend both.

2. Look for realistic items
Also in the interest of facilitating that connection with the real world, Montessorians seek to provide items for children that are realistic. This means opting for a brown toy dog over a purple one, and passing on the set of play food with the smiling bread and bespectacled raisins.

While some frown on this aversion to the fantastical, concerned that it discourages children from being imaginative, I would argue that play food endowed with human characteristics, forces the adult’s imagination on the child. Providing children with opportunities to connect with reality, we give them the opportunity to create a solid foundation of knowledge – an understanding of the world on which they can build, and from which they can come up with all manner of creative, fantastical ideas of their own when and if they wish to.

To quote Montessori herself: “How is it possible for the child’s imagination to be developed by that which is in truth the fruit of the adult’s imagination?

Many wonderful, realistic toys exist that are made from very unnatural materials, which creates a bit of a dilemma. Personally, if I have to choose, I opt for realistic toys made of synthetic materials over unrealistic ones made of natural materials – that is, so long as we are past the everything-in-the-mouth stage – but mine is purely a personal decision. There are plenty of gray areas here, and room for parents to make their own decisions. One example of toys that perfectly fit this criteria, but are not made of natural materials, is the animal models made by Schleich. I highly recommend these, as they are by far the most realistic models I have come across, and are also very well-made and durable.

3. Choose With Purpose.
In reality, there is no such thing as a Montessori “toy” and you will not hear a Montessori teacher referring to the children’s toys. Everything provided for the child is chosen with purpose, and intended to allow for purposeful work. The home is certainly different from the school, but I believe this principle applies in both environments. In the words of Dr. Montessori, in a section on toys and the reason they are not a part of the Montessori classroom: “Because a child is constantly passing from a lower to a higher state, his every passing minute is precious. Since a child is constantly growing, he is fascinated by everything that contributes to his development and becomes indifferent to idle occupations.”

The lines between work and play are blurred for the child: what we see as idle play may actually contribute to their development in a deep way, and what we see as great fun may be of no use to them. This is why we need to ask ourselves questions like: “How will this object contribute to my child’s development or well-being?” I continue to use the language of toys here, because that is what parents are used to, and truly it makes little difference to the child what we call their materials so long as their purposeful activity is allowed for and respected by the adult.

Toys tend to pile up in many homes until they simply become unmanageable, and it can be difficult for children to learn and develop their powers of concentration in an environment that is cluttered and disorderly, which is another reason to pass on an item if you can’t think of a specific way that it will enrich your child’s life. Children have a much easier time of keeping track of toys and their constituent parts when they have only a limited number. As toys stop serving your child’s needs, you can store them for future use, repurpose them, or pass them on to someone else and replace them with items that currently serve a purpose for your child.

4. Keep it simple.

Photo Credit: Lorena Fernandez-Fernandez

Along the same lines as the previous point, Montessori materials generally have a very specific purpose, and their design reflects this. As an example, we can look at one of the most well-known Montessori materials: The Pink Tower. The primary aim of the pink tower is to help children develop their ability to visually discriminate between objects of varying dimensions. With this goal in mind, the ten cubes of the tower vary precisely from one to ten cubic centimeters. They do not vary, however, in color or texture, as this would draw attention away from the dimensions of the cubes, thereby distracting from the goal.

The same quality can be sought in toys. Avoid things with too many bells and whistles as they discourage children from focusing on and learning from specific features of the toy. These overly stimulating items also hinder the child’s development of concentration. Think about what you want the toy to do: If blocks are for building, they don’t need letters, numbers, and bright, colorful pictures on them.

5. Look for activities that are self-correcting
An important feature of Montessori materials is what is referred to as the “control of error.” This is some aspect of the material that tells a child whether or not they have completed an activity successfully. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious and concrete, as with the knobbed cylinders, which each fit into a specific socket. If a child puts some away incorrectly, he or she will be left with others in the end that just don’t fit. Other times, the control is less obvious, as in a pouring activity where only the presence or absence of a spill provides feedback.

Many toys don’t have, or need a control of error, since there’s no right or wrong way to use them. The beauty of making sure activities that are intended to be done a certain way do have a control of error is that it eliminates the adult need to correct. Correction not only breaks the child’s concentration, but it can harm their confidence as well, deterring them from continuing to practice a new skill until they’ve mastered it. Materials with a control of error provide a constant feedback loop that allows the child to recognize, “I need to do this in a different way,” instead of, “I did it wrong again!”

To quote Angeline Lillard in her book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, The adult avoids passing judgment on the child…inadvertently promoting the performance goal of looking good for the adult. 

Having children find their own errors through the materials and work to master materials for their own sakes would be expected to lead to (or preserve) a mastery orientation in Montessori children.”

Photo Credit: The Bunny Maker

6. Choose toys that are developmentally appropriate.
This seems like a given, but it’s amazing how many things are marketed to a certain age that absolutely do not serve the needs of that age group. Montessori materials are carefully ordered to move from the simple to the complex, and from the concrete to the abstract – taking what the child already knows and using that to help them learn even more.

Numbers and letters are one example of something that is commonly made a primary feature of toys for infants and toddlers, despite the fact that they are not developmentally appropriate at all. They are complete abstractions. Sure, they can be physically seen, but that doesn’t make them concrete. The letter B is a symbol for a sound in our language, which makes up part of words like ball and bubble. These words are themselves symbols for shared ideas. Learning letters is of no importance to toddlers, yet they’re all over blocks and other toys. Toddlers are just beginning to communicate, and as such are interested in naming and categorizing things in their environment. Instead of pictures of letters and numbers, let’s give them pictures of everyday items. This brings us right back around to choosing with purpose – if you can’t think of a developmental need a toy will help your child meet, you may want to reconsider purchasing it.

7. Follow the child
This is the mantra of many Montessorians and is said so often that it has almost become trite, but observing our children can provide more valuable feedback to consider than any book on child development. If you notice your child trying to manipulate and open containers, create an opening and closing basket that will allow them to practice this skill. If they take an interest in helping care for plants, put together some gardening supplies for them to use outdoors, or help them pot a couple of plants of their own to care for inside.

Photo Credit: Hans and Carolyn

Regardless of how developmentally appropriate a toy is said to be for your child’s age group, watch and see. If you sense that something is so challenging as to be frustrating, quietly put it away for use at a later date. If you see that your child has mastered one skill or activity, look for something more challenging that will allow them to take their new skill to the next level.

8. Foster Independence
In the classroom, all Montessori activities are designed so that they can be done without adult help, or with as little help as possible. Of course the home differs from the school and you will want things that you and your child can do together, but in the spirit of Montessori you can try to provide mostly toys and activities that your child can do on their own. This allows them to develop a healthy self-confidence and sense of autonomy.

Going beyond toys, it is beneficial to set up the home in a way that makes it possible for the child to freely explore and to do for him or herself. Step stools that allow the child to reach the sink for handwashing and tooth brushing, low shelves in the closet for clothing so that children can be actively involved in every stage of the dressing process, and healthy snacks in a low cabinet so that the child can help themselves when hungry are all examples of ways that this can be done. Your own resourcefulness is the only limit. A very useful tool for fostering the child’s independence in the kitchen is the Learning Tower, and you can find a wide variety of child sized cooking and baking items through the For Small Hands catalog.

What are your thoughts on implementing Montessori philosophy in the home? Do you have your own guiding principles for choosing toys? 

14 thoughts on “A Montessori-Inspired Checklist for Choosing Toys

  1. Dave Higgs-Vis

    Wow, what a fantastic post!

    You've given me a lot to think about when choosing new toys for my daughter.

    Thank you!

  2. Annicles

    You are so right, Melissa and it becomes moe important as the children get older. One problem I have is that although I have always limited the amount fo toys available and that worked while they were toddlers, they are now emotionally attactched to certain toys. That makes it much harder to put away a certain amount of toys in order to keep bedrooms clear. I have had to compromise because I can also sympathise with both my daughters who love certain toys very much. I am hanging onto the hope that they will grow out of dools and dragons eventually and let them be consigned to the loft for their children to enjoy! My compromise is that the living areas need to be clear and beautiful spaces for everyone to enjoy! It is nearly working!!!

  3. Cathy Woodhouse

    Brilliant post, Melissa – I will definitely send family and friends in this direction when they ask me what to get as gifts for Finlay!

  4. Melissa

    Great points, Anna. I really have very minimal experience with older children, so I don't have a great deal to say about that. I would love to see some suggestions from someone with lower or upper elementary training and/or older children. Ahem. ;)

  5. Experimentalmom

    This is a very informative, helpful post. Thank you for taking the time to write so thorough an explanation of toys from the Montessori perspective.

    1. melissa Post author

      Awesome! Thanks, Moorea! I’m glad you found some useful resources in the list. I definitely love writing about Montessori, so hopefully you can find some other things you like in the future!

  6. teresa

    I had never seen this one! It’s great. I want to really consider these things as I’m adding some children’s things to my store. Oh, and for my own kid!


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