16 Toys Every Montessori Mom Has In Her Home To Nurture Independence & Curiosity
Montessorian parents follow the philosophy of Maria Montessori in that children should “cultivate their own desire to learn.” In keeping with this parenting style, there are definitely certain materials and toys every Montessori mom has her in home. These toys and materials are meant to create a prepared environment that invites children to be independent, inspires their natural desire to learn, nurtures concrete learning, allows them to practice real-life skills independently from a very young age, and to focus on their sensitive periods, according to The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davis. “[Montessorians] do not believe a child is a vessel to be filled with facts. The child genuinely loves learning, making discoveries for themselves, and coming up with creative solutions,” the book notes.
You’ll notice many of the items on this list below aren’t only necessarily “toys,” but also materials and tools in order to prepare the “environment” (your home) for your child. In Montessori, especially during the toddler years, it’s about the child “helping” the parent and learning practical life skills, including preparing snacks, arranging and watering flowers, pouring water, cleaning up spills, and sweeping. Toddlers love to help, and you’ll find that you have a really happy toddler if you let them do the practical life stuff you do.
Kathryn O’Neill, a Montessori teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, says the perfect Montessori toys are realistic, require the child’s active participation, use hands-on manipulation, demonstrate some sort of cause-and-effect relationship, are self-correcting, purposeful and goal-oriented, isolate a skill, and something a child can complete successfully on their own.
For example, “realistic toys” would be realistic representations of animals and vehicles, and “active participation and hands-on manipulation” toys would include opened-ended toys where the child physically handles the material. A “cause-and-effect relationship” toy would be dropping a ball in a hole and it rolling down a ramp, and “self-correcting” toys would be when puzzle pieces aren't fitting or threading beads through a hole. And finally, “goal-oriented” toys would have a clear end to an activity, and the child cleaning up after him or herself, according to O’Neill.
“Ideally, Montessori toys use real items when appropriate. Food is something that should always be real so that the children can experience the texture, smell, size, etc., of real food. Replicas of items should only be used when it isn't realistic to bring that item into the home (for instance, an elephant would not fit in your home so you should totally enjoy bringing an elephant figurine into the house).
“The best thing about figuring out an ideal Montessori toy is knowing that what makes it ‘ideal’ doesn't change with the child's age. As a child's abilities change, the toys will change. The goal is always to provide toys in the ‘Zone of Proximal Development,’ which basically means you want to offer toys that are ‘just enough’ of a challenge for the child. You don't want to provide an activity that is too easy (boring!) or too hard (discourages independent play),” O’Neill adds.
You’ll find the toys and materials on this list to fit just perfectly into the Montessorian ideals of nurturing kids to be lifelong learners and to always be curious.
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1. Wooden Puzzles
“Puzzles are great toys as they meet all of the requirements to be an ideal Montessori material,” O’Neill says. “The age and abilities of the child will determine how many pieces and types of puzzle pieces (simple shapes vs. animals) that should be provided.”
2. Kid-Sized Furniture
Kid-sized furniture fosters the child’s need for independence and it allows them to learn how adults do practical daily life activities easily because they’re made with their size in mind. Many Montessorian families have a kid-sized table and chairs for their child to bring their work baskets over and play/complete the task. This helps with showing them how to take the basket back to the shelf when they’re finished with the toy. This is called “shelfing.”
Speaking of baskets and shelfing, not only do baskets help make the child’s play space serene, inviting, and nice to look at, but it helps those little hands carry their toys to the work table or the floor since they can grasp it with both hands. This fosters their independence. But “sensory baskets” are not inherently Montessori per O’Neill. “Baskets are a great organizational tool, but strictly speaking, sensory baskets aren't ‘Montessori’ (though they can be very beneficial, especially for children with sensory processing differences),” she says. “Sensory baskets don't technically fall under the requirements for a Montessori toy since they are not goal-oriented or self-correcting. That said, they are a good way for children to get hands-on experience and are great for getting used to touching different textures.”
4. Musical Instruments
“Musical instruments and the enjoyment of music definitely fit into the Montessori world, though they are not specifically 'Montessori.' This is a universally enjoyed activity that is fully embraced by Montessorians,” O’Neill says. The Montessori Toddler suggested “... making sounds by striking or banging on an instrument is perfect for both young and older toddlers. Think of triangles, drums, tone blocks, and xylophones.” Plus, shaking instruments are great and easy for tiny hands, like “maracas, [egg] shakers, tambourines, etc."
5. Wooden Moveable Alphabet
O’Neill says a wooden moveable alphabet is 100% a Montessori activity “that was developed to teach children to construct words phonetically.” She adds, “In Montessori, children actually learn to write before they learn to read, and they do so by learning to construct words with the Movable Alphabet.”
6. Activity Gyms & Mobiles
You can start your child on the Montessori path beginning right when they’re born. Activity gyms, mobiles featuring bright colors that catch your baby’s eye and help them practice focusing, and toys and objects made from all-natural materials are perfect for babies. The wood and natural materials make them safe, fun to explore, and Montessori.
7. Pikler Triangle
A Pikler Triangle is quintessential Montessori because they’re typically made of wood, and they encourage open-ended play for your child, as well as work on gross motor skill development. It helps develop muscles, balance control, and best of all, courage and confidence.
8. Learning Tower
Similar to the kid-size furniture, a learning tower is a great tool to have your younger kids help you in the kitchen, whether that’s helping bake something, preparing their own snacks, helping prepare a meal for the family, washing dishes — anything you’d normally do in a kitchen. This tower gives toddlers enough height to reach. I know this sounds nuts — I certainly thought so at first — but they do make child-safe kitchen tools specifically for this purpose.
9. Child-Safe & Child-Sized Kitchen Tools
Curious Chef and Amazon sell a ton of kid-safe kitchen tools for your child to help you cook meals and for them to prepare their own snacks, which is a huge part of Montessori. The serrated knives are made of silicone so they won’t actually cut your child, just the fruit, and the peelers are fun, too. If you’re still too nervous to do this like I am, you can simply have your kid help you wash produce, tear lettuce, or pour pre-measured ingredients into a bowl when you’re baking. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen children who are 18 months old peel and chop up their own banana. It can happen. However, my child eats the banana with the peel on and throws the knife on the floor when we try to practice this. Every kid is different.
10. Watercolor Paints, Paintbrushes, Paper, & Other Arts & Crafts
Per The Montessori Toddler, “Watercolors are perfect for toddlers who want to paint — even a young toddler can have success without as much potential for mess as markers or regular paint.” The book suggests starting with one color like a large single-color table, and then the child can practice wetting the brush, getting paint on the brush, and making marks. It’s important to use the one color so it doesn’t get all muddy and brown. Remember, the child isn’t learning how to draw, but how to manipulate the materials.
Other arts and crafts include clay, Play-Doh, and kinetic sand. “Working clay in their hands and using simple tools encourages the child’s hand strength and creativity,” per The Montessori Toddler. Plus, there’s a really easy recipe for make-your-own play dough that’s gluten-free, in case your kid wants to taste test it first like mine always does.
O’Neill says her recipe she uses for making play dough includes:
- 1/2 cup flour (rice flour if gluten-free)
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 cup salt
- 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
- 1 cup water
- 1 teaspoon cooking oil
- Food coloring, if desired
Mix ingredients. Cook and stir on low heat for three minutes or until it forms a ball. Cool completely before storing it in a sealable plastic bag.
11. Mini Spray Bottle/Mini Pitchers/Mini Hairbrush
The mini spray bottle with water is especially great for toddlers, as they can “mist” plants, spray tables down to wipe them, and even “clean” windows. The mini pitcher allows them to water bigger plants, fill pet water bowls, fill their own glasses with water, etc. And the mini hairbrush lets them take ownership of their hygiene and teaches them a practical life skill. Toddlers just want to help, and not only does it make them happy, but they’re learning practical life skills, too. A Montessori win-win.
12. Object Permanence Toy
Kids love peek-a-boo because they're learning about object permanence: the fact that when something disappears, it can actually still be there. If you're tired of playing peek-a-boo, this object permanence toy helps with those skills in the same fun way. They'll also be working on hand-eye coordination by trying to get the ball in the hole. Plus, it’s purposeful, self-correcting, and works on fine motor skills, while also working on the understanding of object permanence, O’Neill adds.
13. Threading/Lacing Activity
Threading is self-correcting, goal-oriented, and something the child can successfully complete on their own. Plus, it works on fine motor skills. Definitely Montessori. You can use larger themed “beads” for younger kids, and actual beads for older kids. Or you can always use macaroni and a shoelace or pipe cleaner.
14. Matching Objects To Card Games
Matching objects to card games take miniature realistic objects and have the child “match” them to laminated cards with the object’s name and realistic photo. My son is obsessed with these and his vocabulary exploded once we started having him play with these when he was 20 months old.
15. Shape-Sorting Cube
A toy like this is great for littles perfecting their hand-eye coordination. Older kids can also try to name the shapes and colors. However, O’Neill says, “This particular toy listed is more of a grey area for me. On one hand, it is a lot like the shape-sorting puzzle activity, but there are just a few too many shapes for a toddler for my comfort — it would be a great toy for an older child though (like 2.5 to 3 maybe even 4 years old)."
16. Geometric Stacker Toy
“Stacker toys are pretty standard Montessori toys, especially for infants and toddlers. Ideally, this would only have one kind of stacker per toy, but this particular one would be suitable for an older child,” O’Neill says.
Kathryn O’Neill, Montessori Toddler educator in Atlanta, Georgia
Davies, S., & Imai, H. (2019). ‘The Montessori Toddler: A parent's guide to raising a curious and responsible human being.’ New York: Workman Publishing.
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