What the heck are Montessori toys, anyway?
By Olynda Smith, AMS Certified Early Childhood Montessori Teacher
A quick search for educational toys is sure to reveal a number of toys described as Montessori toys. If you are confused about what a Montessori toy is, you are not alone. There is a good reason for your confusion.
Here is why: a “Montessori toy” both is and isn’t a real thing ...Before I explain exactly what I mean and clear up some of the confusion - I’ll say that the term Montessori toy can be a very helpful shorthand. This, ideally, lets parents know that a toy follows the criteria that Montessorians find so very important to a child’s development, wellbeing and early education.
Maria Montessori did not designate anything as a Montessori toy. She called items used in the classroom materials or works. These materials are an essential component of the Montessori educational system and they work best within the bigger context of the classroom. Without the specific lessons, philosophy and interactions between students and teachers the full power of the materials is greatly diminished.
The label Montessori toy is rather new. It is not something that has always existed within the Montessori framework. There are no clear lines drawn in the sand about what technically is or isn’t a Montessori toy. Anyone could label anything as a Montessori toy. So in this way there is no such thing as a Montessori toy. The most helpful way to judge a toy’s “Montessoriness” or better yet, it’s helpfulness to your child is by understanding the elements a Montessorian might look for in a toy and why.
The 5 elements that make a Montessori toy and why they matter.
While there is no official criteria for calling something a Montessori toy, we here at Tiny Earth think of Montessori toys as toys that are compatible with Montessori education. These are toys that give your child support as they grow and learn without attempting to recreate the classroom. These toys follow guidelines that Montessorians believe are important for children’s early learning and wellbeing. These guidelines are not exclusive to Montessori! Your Montessori teacher would be thrilled for you to have these toys at home, and so would most other early childhood educators.
Monti Kids is a company that is knocking it out of the park with all their toy designs. They know Montessori deeply and the beautiful toys they offer hit all the guidelines below. That is one of the many reasons we are thrilled to be able to offer members access to rent their toys from us! Now, here are 5 elements that we believe are essential for Montessori toys:
As Zahra Kassam, founder of Monti Kids, says in her powerful TED talk, “These toys are child-powered, not battery powered.” They run on the imagination and action of children. They do not have batteries or any other power source. They do not talk, beep, recite the alphabet or do anything else unless the child picks it up and works with it. Other ways to describe these kinds of toys is Passive, low-stimulation, or simple toys. These toys have the huge benefit of helping children increase concentration, creativity, curiosity and independence. They also add to a peaceful atmosphere.
Toys that are skill-oriented are intended to be played with in a specific way that helps a child develop a skill or deeper understanding. Puzzles, stacking rings, and lock boards are good examples. Often the skill that is being developed is isolated, so that children can focus on one thing at a time. Ideally, the toy is also “self correcting”, which means that it has built in elements that let a child know if they have mastered a skill. For example, when working with a simple tray puzzle, a child will know when they get the piece in the correct spot because the cutouts are all different shapes. These toys are simple, focused, and self-correcting. This makes them wonderful for helping children develop specific skills or learn specific concepts.
If it’s not skill-oriented, a Montessori toy is likely to be open-ended. Open-ended toys, like blocks or a set of dolls, don’t have a specific goal in mind. Children can enjoy playing with them as they wish. While the majority of items in a Montessori classroom are skill oriented, the home environment benefits greatly from having a mix of both. Open ended play supports children’s creativity, problem solving skills and ability to create plans and execute them.
It is so important to have toys that function as intended with little to no help from adults. This means taking into account smaller hands, and age appropriate motor skills. We all can get frustrated or disheartened when the tools we are using are not working as they should! Montessori toys are time tested to make sure they work for the age group they are intended for. When toys are fully functional in this way they foster independence, resilience and confidence.
Beauty and Natural Materials
Young children are so sensitive to their surroundings. Their senses are wide open, and they are learning a great deal about our world through those senses. If we can provide a sense of beauty in the environment, children absorb an understanding of harmony, order and beauty. When children play with toys made of natural materials, like wood, it is not only a win for the planet, but also helps children learn about the natural world. Having this experience and understanding at a young age serves them as they continue to grow and make sense of our world.