Montessori-inspired Gift Ideas for Toddlers & Pre-Schoolers

Toys, besides books, are one of the biggest question marks for parents who try to embrace the Montessori education at home.
There's a lot of talking about 'Montessori Toys' and you can also get a never-ending list of totally random results when searching these keywords on Amazon. I suppose this is what grandparents do when they try to figure out an appropriate gift for their Montessori-educated grandchildren:)

But what is 'Montessori play' all about? 

The Montessori pedagogy does not make use of toys but uses 'materials' instead: these are a set of wooden objects that were carefully designed by Maria Montessori herself in the 20's and carefully crafted by the Dutch Nienhuis according to her scientific specifications. Today, Nienhuis still liaises directly with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), supplying materials to all AMI certified schools worldwide.  If you have never seen some original Montessori materials, you can have a look here . 
They are expensive materials of incredibly high quality, and they are meant to be used as a set in the classroom, in a prepared environment, and presented by a trained teacher.

As parents, we are not expected to use this stuff. Phew.:) 

If you don't have a certified Montessori school close to where you live and your child does not attend one, it still wouldn't make much sense to invest in such objects, as they truly are not toys. Even in a home-schooling setting, the activities with the materials are tackled following a certain order, as some materials/activities prepare to others. Which means that having only a few of them just wouldn't work. 
Plus, home is not school: it's not just the object teaching something to the child, as the child interacts with the objects while he also interacts with his peers, which is why in Montessori education larger classrooms are recognised to function better than small ones (ideally 25-30, with a 1:10 teacher-student ratio), as opposite to traditional education.

So, what can parents do at home? Either your child can or cannot get a Montessori education in a certified school, there is a lot that we can do at home to encourage child-led play, motor skills development, curiosity, motivated work and ultimately independence and self-confidence. 
Even without spending thousands of pounds in Ninhuis materials, we can buy responsibly a limited number of good quality toys and tools to support the child's work at home and its development, staying somehow consistent with the Montessori philosophy.

I made a hopefully handy list of my favourite gift ideas in a handy list on Amazon which you can find here:
This list includes some premium toy brands like Schleich animalsPlan ToysGrimm's and Wobbel, which you will more easily find elsewhere online as they are not fulfilled by Amazon.
Check different retailers like Babipur and Myriad Natural Toys for a better pricing, better service and a wider product range.
Wobbel board with Felt, shop @Babipur
Tri-Climb Pikler Triangle available @Babipur

There are also several objects for practical life activities which you might find more easily on Absorbent Minds if you live in the UK, or in the homeware shop around the corner:)

Lastly, if you are looking for a good MP3 player for your toddler, definitely look into the Ocarina Player: it's super sturdy, very easy to control for toddlers, and with no screen! Which is a rarity today. Children expect a screen to look at all the time, even when they listen to the music (even if it's just to stare at the Album cover on Spotify). Educate to listen. Consider audiobooks as well.
Ocarina MP3 Player Xmas edition
Finally, if you are interested in investing in some very good quality furniture for kids, look no further and head to Community Playthings . I particularly recommend their adjustable tables and chairs: they are much more expensive than IKEA ones, I know, but they are well worth the money. They are not as lightweight and therefore don't move around, allowing the child to sit properly and work. They are much safer, beautiful and long-lasting.

Here are a few easy rules to follow when looking for Montessori-appropriate gift ideas:

1. Choose wood over plastic. It's not just a matter of sustainability (still, a compelling message to pass onto our children): from a sensorial perspective plastic is a boring material.
It's weightless, smooth and unbreakable: it might for sure make our life easier but it doesn't 'teach' much to our little ones. Children learn through touch and using their hands, they need to feel different textures, carry different weights, handle different materials in order to develop fine motor skills, which are essential for practical living of course, and also go hand in hand with their brain's development.

2. Don't overdo with colours. Colours might seem a good idea, children love colours. However, when it comes to play (which Montessorians prefer to call 'work') colours can be extremely distracting. Consider how many colours the object you want to buy features, and what they are for. If there is a natural version of the same toy, go for that one. 
One of the most iconic Montessori materials, The Pink Tower, is indeed just pink. In Montessori materials only one quality changes at a time, and in the pink tower it's all about the size of the cubes.

For the Grimm's Tunnel in the photo above for example, I chose the natural version as the colours would distract my daughters from working out the size of the arches, and at some point they would know the order by heart because of the colours (as it happens with the conical tower).
Colours work well on many role play objects, but not as much in building blocks and Jigsaw puzzles, where they seem to limit creativity (counterintuitive, I know, but it does make sense doesn't it? :)

3. When it comes to practical life, always prefer real over pretend. Imagine to be given a plastic knife in your bedroom and some plastic fruit and veg to 'play' with, while all you want to do is helping mum and dad out in the kitchen to prepare the family meal. How would you feel? :)
Of course it would be frustrating. 
Children enjoy helping out in the home, doing exactly what we do: allowing them to learn and to help is not a worthy activity compared to imaginative play, just the opposite: engaging with our children in daily chores is real fun for them and it boosts their self-confidence, because they learn to do what their role models do, and they also feel they can help, that they are needed within the family. 
So why not to go for a real miniature cleaning set, or a set of ceramic small plates that they can handle independently when they make themselves a snack, or some real cooking tools? 
Just look out for smaller sizes of your own tools, they all do exist with no need for the toy section on Amazon.

4. Avoid 'fake' (and original) Montessori materials.  You shouldn't be using any Montessori material at home, for the reasons explained above. If your child attends a Montessori school, that's a good reason to avoid them in first place, as the risk to make 'mistakes' and confuse the child is quite high. Plus, if the child does attend a Montessori school, he's probably had enough, and deserves some time for unstructured play at home rather than working randomly with some materials again.
If for any reason you do want to purchase them, Absorbent Minds sells some good quality reproductions,  as well as Nienhuis materials. However, always check the reproduction against the original as it's often somehow different. The Knobbed Cylinders for example, are typically reproduced in a smaller version with five cylinders instead of ten. The thing is, all materials were developed in tens, to teach the decimal system. If you change that, you are basically changing the game rules:)

5. When choosing alphabet books or early literacy equipment and toys, be mindful of the font used:  children learn print first in Montessori Children's Houses, but capital letters are the preferred options in mainstream toys, which can be very confusing.  If the child attends a traditional school, bear in mind  that this can be an  issue and double check with the parent or teacher which one the child is taught first. Children in kindergarten don'y need a huge number of alphabet books or pre-reading materials. Look at good-quality stuff when it comes to supporting language skills.

Large Movable Alphabet, international print, available @AbsorbentMinds
6. Keep it simple. The more the toy does, the less the child does. It's as simple as that. It's the case of battery-operated toys, and all toys offering some sort of sensorial stimulation which the child ends up absorbing passively. The more essential the design, the more it will foster  creativity and open-ended play.

7. Buy responsibly, buy less. Children can get very confused when they are surrounded by too much stuff, and stop seeing much of the stuff they have around, we all know that. If we are piling up things in boxes, it's probably time to put away something, either in the garage for a while, to be rediscovered with increased enthusiasm in a few months, or to be taken to the nearest charity shop.
Beautiful toys last longer as they stimulate the child's imagination and sensorial experience, and we don't get tired to see them around. Children also need to be educated to beauty, being surrounded by beautifully crafted things, acknowledging the work behind them: if they are surrounded by cheap, plastic stuff that comes, breaks and gets thrown away, this cannot happen.

8. Once you've made your shopping choices and your child is playing, do not interrupt, do not direct, do not offer unsolicited advice :)
Happy working!


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