You’ve probably heard the term “Montessori” tossed around in connection with preschool or kindergarten, so if you have a baby or toddler, you might have dismissed it as something to look into down the line. But the truth is, the Montessori method isn’t just an approach to academic learning—it can help guide baby’s development right from the get-go. “The method actually starts at birth and continues through elementary school and on into adolescence,” says Kathryn Holm, MEd, a 0-3 Montessori educator based in Los Angeles. An easy way to start applying the Montessori method at home with your little one? By stocking your child’s playroom with age-appropriate Montessori toys.
What Is the Montessori Method?
Developed by Maria Montessori, MD, in 1897, the Montessori Method is a child-centered approach to education and development that embraces hands-on, multi-sensory activities that kids can engage in at their own pace.
Based on Montessori’s observations of how children naturally learn, the method encourages parents and teachers to create a space full of developmentally appropriate toys and games, and then let kids choose for themselves which ones they want to play with. “Learning is internally driven,” says Angeline Lillard, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and best-selling author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. “To practice the Montessori method, we simply need to provide the proper environments without obstacles.” That means items in a Montessori-style room should be within your little one’s reach, placed on low, open shelves. Your role? To observe and gently guide your child as he learns, without directing his play. “The goal is to lovingly usher children toward independence,” Holm explains.
The Montessori method also emphasizes learning through all of the senses, not just by listening and observing—so touching, tasting, smelling and generally being out in nature are considered just as important as hearing Mom or Dad read a story. And the payoffs can be big: According to a 2017 study, preschoolers who were enrolled in Montessori programs had better academic achievement, social understanding and exectuve function skills (like paying attention and managing time) than those who weren’t. They also simply enjoyed learning more than non-Montessori kids.
What Are Montessori Toys?
The playroom is the perfect place to introduce your child to the Montessori method. But when stocking the shelves, how do you know what qualifies as a Montessori toy? Here’s what to look for:
• Natural materials. Toys made of wood, wool, cotton, metal, ceramic and even rock are Montessori staples, since they connect children to nature and are generally safer to mouth. Plus, “different textures, temperatures and weights help children refine their senses and give them more to learn about when holding a toy,” Holm says.
• No bells and whistles. Montessori toys are designed to encourage kids to explore and discover independently. So instead of going for tricked out toys that move and make sounds on their own, opt for passive toys that require your child to physically manipulate them and incorporate them into their pretend play.
• Realistic playthings. Montessori toys tend to be lifelike and rooted in reality, providing a great learning opportunity about the world around us. “Infants and young children don’t have a framework for what’s real and what’s fake,” Holm explains. “To them, a unicorn is just as likely to exist as a rhinoceros, because how would they know any different? It’s very confusing for them when we teach them about something and then says it’s not real.” Choosing between a stuffed dragon or elephant? Go with the animal that you and your child can later see and learn about in the zoo.
• One-task learning toys. Look for teaching toys that hone one skill at a time. Montessori toys should also have what’s called a built-in “control of error,” meaning kids will know if they’ve completed the task correctly.
• Toys with a purpose. Montessori toys can also be child-size items that allow kids to independently engage in job-like activities, like raking leaves. “Purpose draws a child in,” Holm says. ‘It makes him or her feel like a competent and important part of their world.”
With so many adorable Montessori toys now on the market, it can be tempting to cram your child’s nursery with a slew of playthings. Don’t. Or at least, don’t have them out all at once. “Part of the Montessori method is to only give children a few choices at a time, as not to overwhelm their young minds,” Lillard says. When faced with a looming pile of toys to choose from, it can be hard for kids to hone their concentration skills and ability to see an activity through to the end.
Montessori Toys for Babies
Babies grow and develop at an astounding pace, so make sure the toys you offer are right for your child’s age and stage. “Continue to rotate age-appropriate toys,” Holm says. “This will help your child achieve what he or she is trying to learn.” Here, some of our favorite Montessori toys for babies.
Many of the standard classics make for perfect Montessori toys. Case in point: This PlanToys wooden rolling rattle. It’s colors, sounds and motion encourage gross motor movement in babies who are itching to crawl. Keeping with the Montessori style of learning, make sure you offer this rattle when baby’s developmentally ready—non-crawlers would get discouraged if their rattle were to roll away!
Buy it: PlanToys Roller, 6 months+, $15, Amazon.com
This mobile isn’t only super-stylish, but it hits all the right Montessori notes. Unlike wind-up, battery-operated mobiles, this one, made of wood fibers, moves with the air. When baby feels a small draft and then sees the mobile move, he’s learning cause and effect—and it’s extremely captivating. Another plus: It features just five airplanes. “When there’s more than that, it becomes hard for your infant to focus on one object,” Holm says.
Buy it: Airplane Mobile, 0 months+, $60, PotteryBarnKids.com
Classic Skwish toy
Who said Montessori wooden toys can’t be bright and colorful? With its thin, smooth, lightweight wooden dowels and elastic cords, the Skwish is pretty much the perfect clutch toy for baby’s budding motor skills. Little ones love to smoosh the toy down and watch it pop up, slide the beads back and forth, and listen to the toy’s gentle rattling sound. It’s made of sustainable wood and sports a nontoxic, water-based finish, making it safe for baby to mouth.
Buy it: Manhattan Toy Clasisic Skwish, 0 months+, $10, Target.com
Baby gyms are often too much: Too loud, too busy, too bright. But this wooden one from Ikea is just right. It excites baby’s senses and stimulates hand-eye coordination without overwhelming. Little ones love the feel of the wooden toys and the sound they make when clinking together. Plus, you can slide one hanging toy in at a time and rotate it daily—very Montessori.
Buy it: Leka baby gym, 0-18 months, $30, Ikea.com
This simple rattle is a great first foray into music-making toys. “For small babies, you want a rattle that’s thin, encouraging an intentional whole hand grasp,” Holm says. You also want one that’s lightweight and fits perfectly in teeny hands, so your baby can make some music all by herself. Each time your child elicits a soft jingle from the rattle, she learns about cause and effect. Bonus: The wood and metal are spot-on Montessori materials.
Buy it: Bell Rattle, 0-2 months, $8, Beginningmontessori.com
Baby teether ball
Okay, so this baby teether isn’t exactly made from natural materials, but it’s still a great Montessori toy. Why? The soft nubs are easy for baby to grasp and mouth; it won’t roll away and frustrate young babies; it squeaks when squeezed, showing cause and effect; and finally, it’s just one color. “This helps for language development,” Holm says. “For instance, you can say to your baby ‘I have the red ball. You're holding the green ball.’” And don’t worry, this teether ball is phthalate-free and doesn’t have that icky plastic smell—in fact, it has a light vanilla scent that’s pretty yummy.
Buy it: Toysmith Baby Teether Ball, 6months+, $6, Jet.com
Punch and drop toy
For really little ones, simply take the hammer away and let baby explore with his hands. “Pushing the ball though the holes is great for strengthening baby’s hands. This activity fosters hand-eye coordination too,” Holm says. Once baby is about a year old, feel free to hand the hammer back over. Bonus: This toy is made of recycled wood.
Buy it: PlanToys Punch And Drop, 1-8 years, $15, ToysRUs.com
Infants love to explore (and mouth) the soft, smooth texture of silk. You can hang these from a play gym for baby to visually track and reach for, use them in a rousing game of peekaboo or add them to a small basket of various fabrics for your inquisitive child to dump and explore.
Buy it: 7-Piece Play Silks Set, all ages, $70, MagicCabin.com
Object permanence toy with tray
This is one of the most classic Montessori toys. It’s designed to encourage baby’s motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and is a super-fun way to learn about cause and effect. The ball disappears...and there it is again!
Buy it: Object Permanence with Tray, 8 months+, $19, PinkMontessori.com
Montessori Toys for Toddlers
Looking for great Montessori toys for your toddler? Remember to always offer developmentally appropriate playthings: A one-year-old toddler needs very different stimulation from her toys than a 3-year-old toddler. Here, a roundup of some of the best Montessori toys for a range of toddler ages.
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Toddler-size cleaning toys
Toddlers love to help around the house, and this set of child-size tidying supplies hits the spot. “If you give your toddler tools that are the right size, it makes many tasks that are otherwise too hard to complete possible,” Holm says, giving him a sense of independence and responsibility.
Buy it: Melissa & Doug Let’s Play House! Dust, Sweep & Mop, 3 years+, $27, Target.com
Wooden shapes puzzle
Puzzles can be tricky for toddlers—that is, if you introduce a hard one too soon. This wooden game, however, is sure to set the path for a lifelong love of brain-teasers. It features just four different shapes and colors, and each piece is easy to grasp. Use this to teach motor skills, shape and color identification and early counting.
Buy it: Hape First Shapes Wooden Puzzle, 1-2 years, $10, ForSmallHands.com
Wooden stacking rings
This colorful classic is among people’s favorite Montessori toys for toddlers. It helps young ones work on their fine motor skills and cause and effect know-how as they place the rings on the post and bat the wobbly base. Plus, it introduces your child to the concept of relative size as she sorts and stacks from big to little.
Buy it: Classic Wooden Stacking Rings, 18 months - 5 years, $20, Lehmans.com
Barn playset with animals
While these plastic figurines may seem far from ideal Montessori toys, they’re actually in keeping with the Montessori preference for giving children lifelike playthings to spark learning opportunities. “With a realistic-looking horse, you can name all of the body parts, pointing out little details like their hoofs, eyes and ears,” Holm says. “If you had a wooden horse with soft lines and little detail, you’d be limited.”
Buy it: Schleich Large Red Barn Playset with Animals, 3 years+, $100, Cabelas.com
Mirror blocks set
Wooden building blocks are a playroom staple, and for good reason: They’re perfect for open-ended play; they bolster imagination and fine-motor development; and they teach cause and effect. Some might even say wooden blocks are the ultimate Montessori toys. These take traditional blocks to the next level by offering an additional sensory high point: Mirrors!
Buy it: 10-Piece Guidecraft Mirror Blocks Set, 2 years+, $35, Walmart.com
Pint-size table and chairs set
When it comes to the Montessori method, a child’s furniture is as important as her toys. An easy-to-access table and chair set—that’s not cluttered with design elements, like the alphabet or chalkboards—will give your toddler space to experiment and boost her sense of independence. Plus, parents will love that this scaled-down table, featuring solid birch wood legs, is anything but an eyesore.
Buy it: Pint Sized Table and Chairs Set, 1-3 years, $198, LandOfNod.com
Sink and stove set
When it’s not safe (or practical) to let your toddler play in your kitchen sink, this Splish Splash Sink and Stove from Little Tikes is a great stand-in. Why? Because the faucet actually works! With the push of the pump, your little one can release a flow of water and practice scrubbing veggies and washing his own plate.
Buy it: Little Tikes Splish Splash Sink & Stove, 3 years+, $20, ToysRUs.com
Think low-tech Montessori toys don’t support STEM learning? Pish posh. Cubetto is a screen-free way to teach older toddlers the basics of computer programming. And yes, it falls under the Montessori umbrella: It’s hands-on, child-centered and autodidactic, meaning kids teach themselves. Heck, it’s even made of wood! Because Cubetto is free of bright colors and loud noises, children are able to focus on the (super-fun) task at hand: Programing a smiley wooden robot to move. (Not sold? The toy was actually researched in Montessori schools.)
Buy it: Cubetto Playset, 3 years+, $225, PrimoToys.com
Published January 2018
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