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 toys that start will l 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 that start with n for show and tell 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.