What this Montessori teacher looks for in a toy

Montessori teacher, Christina Clemer, talks about the four guidelines to follow when choosing toys for your Tot

As a Montessori teacher, it has been so much fun for me to apply the Montessori philosophy when choosing my son’s toys. This doesn’t mean that all of his toys come from a special Montessori shop – in fact, very few of them do!

Instead, I follow these simple guidelines when choosing his toys to ensure he has timeless pieces that will spark his creativity and challenge his expanding skills.

Natural Materials

Toys made of natural materials like wood, cloth, and metal, are beautiful and draw children to them.  It is a common misconception that children want or need everything to be brightly colored. This can be visually overwhelming to a child, just like it can be to an adult.

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Toys made from natural materials also provide more diverse sensorial experiences than plastic toys. They offer more textures, while metal toys offer interesting differences in temperature.  For example, this real little wood and steel toolbox is infinitely more interesting than a plastic set. This ceramic tea set and chef’s cooking set are also beautiful natural options.  Even the littlest tot can appreciate beautiful, natural materials with these wooden animal instruments.

Open-ended

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If I could choose only one toy for a child, it would be a beautiful set of wooden blocks, the quintessential open-ended toy.  Thank goodness we don’t have to choose just one though, with so many beautiful sets available, like these H Blocks, Building Blocks, or Eco Bricks.

Blocks are an excellent toy because they allow a child to create without expectations. A child might build a tower taller than himself or a sprawling city – the options are limitless and this encourages focus, concentration and creativity.

Simple

Montessori toys may sound fancy, but in reality, they are the opposite. They are simple. They do not include lights, electronic sounds, or cartoon logos.

Choosing simple toys helps children learn to appreciate beauty and to create their own entertainment.

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This lovely play kitchen, made from birch and maple, provides a backdrop for creative play, but it is simple enough to allow the child to direct the play.  It could be a restaurant kitchen, or a home kitchen, or whatever else the child chooses.  Similarly, simple wooden animals are preferable to their plastic counterparts that talk and make animal sounds because the streamlined version allows the child to make his own animal sounds, to create his own games.

Control of Error

Montessori materials are all designed with what we call a “control of error”. This means that the materials are designed in a manner to help the child know if he has done something correctly. The simplest example of this is a puzzle. The child knows he’s completed it correctly if all of the pieces fit.

Control of error is important because it keeps children from looking to adults to tell them they’ve done something correctly.  It encourages children to be active explorers of their own world and to judge their work for themselves.

While many Montessori-friendly toys are totally open-ended, others do have a specific purpose, like this beautiful set of stacking spheres.  This doesn’t mean the toy can’t be explored in other ways, but it was clearly designed for the child to stack the spheres on the rods.

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With toys like this, I look for control of error.  With the stacking spheres, the child will know he’s done it correctly because there are just enough of each color to fill the correct rod.  If he’s younger and stacks them randomly, that’s okay too!  But if he’s ready for the greater challenge, he will know when he’s succeeded.

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Other toys with a built-in control of error include these Asymmetrical Arches and Animal Puzzle. Each of these lets the child judge for himself if he’s completed it correctly.

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Another wonderful toy with built in control of error is this clever Balancing Cactus. The Balancing Cactus is all about strategy and it encourages cooperative play. Children build the cactus piece-by-piece, being careful to gently place each piece so that it doesn’t topple over. It’s a fun game for the whole family, and it’s a great way for children to develop early math and analytical thinking skills.

Whether or not you practice the Montessori philosophy at home, choosing this type of toy helps your tot to explore his world with curiosity and wonder, acting as an engaged participant rather than being passively entertained. Natural, simple toys also last far longer, so you can take pleasure in the thought of your child giving them to his own little tot someday.