If you’ve had a kid (or worked in education) in the past 40 years, you’ve probably heard about the Montessori method. It’s a teaching technique created by Maria (you guessed it) Montessori, an Italian physician who was a proponent of mixed-age classrooms that gave students a choice of educational activities instead of teaching everyone the same lesson at once. Proof that it works? Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Julia Child, violinist Joshua Bell and, oh yeah, Beyoncé attended Montessori schools, to name just a few.
What’s the big deal about Montessori toys?
You don’t need to sign your child up for an expensive private school to give them a Montessori education—in fact, with the right toys, you can start when your baby is a newborn.
In a Montessori classroom, kids play independently in rotating stations, with hands-on learning materials. For instance, one child might learn to sew a button, while just a few feet away, another kid mixes vials of red and blue food coloring to make purple. And while almost anything around the house can become a teaching tool, some Montessori-approved toys can easily teach the same lessons.
Are Montessori teaching tools more effective than traditional toys? Possibly. In a 2006 study published in Science magazine, two psychologists compared a group of 5-year-olds who attended a Montessori school versus a group of kids who attended a traditional preschool. The Montessori group scored better in math, social skills, theory of mind and letter-word identification. Not too shabby.
What is different about a Montessori toy?
Montessori toys are usually wooden and simply designed—there’s definitely nothing that lights up or talks. They tend to be passive toys, so instead of doing something on their own and allowing your child to just watch, they are operated entirely by your kid. Additionally, they tend to be rooted in reality, so you won’t see any anthropomorphic animals or cartoons. Instead, they’ll typically focus on helping your child learn just one task (for example, counting with multicolored rods) instead of getting bogged down with all sorts of bells, whistles and other distractions.
Here, 21 Montessori teaching tools that will basically make your kid a genius (or at least teach them a thing or two).
1. Montessori Kicking Cotton Puzzle Ball (Newborn)
There’s a little jingle bell inside this plush ball, so you can hang it near your baby’s feet and encourage her to kick it as soon as you bring her home from the hospital. As she begins to grab objects, she’ll enjoy exploring the ball’s texture and eventually learn to throw and catch it. Best $16 we’ve ever spent.
2. Organic Wood Montessori Baby Rattle (Newborn)
Before your Great-Aunt Beatrice buys you a cheap plastic rattle, stick this one on your registry. Made in the United States with ethically harvested maple and birch, this sensory toy is totally safe for your baby to chew to her heart’s content. The three rings make a satisfying sound when you shake the rattle, and when your baby gets a little older, they can be used as a counting tool.
3. Little Dove Wood Baby Gym (3 Months)
Once your baby starts grabbing and swiping, he’s ready for this minimalist activity gym. It’s a little pricey because it’s made from unfinished pine, but he’ll fall in love with it all over again as he starts sitting up on his own, teething and pulling himself up.
4. Montessori Object Permanence Box with Tray and Ball (8 Months)
Like many toys on this list, this one works on motor skills and hand-eye coordination, but it’s also a fun way for babies to learn about cause and effect.
$23 at Amazon
5. Melissa and Doug Rainbow Stacker (18 Months)
You may have had one of these guys when you were a kid. The colorful stacking rings help develop coordination and concentration, and when he’s a little older, he’ll learn all about colors and counting too.
6. Boxiki Kids Musical Instrument Set (2 Years)
Your mini loves making music, so give her a set of real percussion instruments that her tiny hands can easily hold. (But sorry, they probably won’t improve your kid’s taste in music. Cue “Baby Shark.”)
7. Top Bright Pretend Play Kitchen Set (2 Years)
In a Montessori household, kids join their family in the kitchen to help make meals as early as possible—but for imaginative solo play, this wooden fruit and veggie set that can be “cut” with a play knife is a fun way to practice.
8. Peg Board Set (3 Years)
As your toddler plays with this set, she’ll become familiar with color recognition, sorting and counting while developing her fine motor skills. Not too shabby.
9. Wooden Animals Stacking Blocks Balancing Game (3 Years)
As your kiddo tries to balance the boat and keep all those adorable creatures on board, she’ll use her critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Fun and educational.
10. Fold & Go Barn With Seven Animal Play Figures (3 Years)
Montessori toys are lifelike (no unicorns or fairies here), which gives kids the opportunity to learn about the world around them. Give them this fun set first, then take them to the petting zoo to see the real thing.
11. Toddler Busy Board (3 Years)
The Montessori teaching method encourages independence and skill-based learning—teach your kiddo to dress herself with this fun sensory board that allows her to fasten buckles, zip zippers, tie laces and fasten buttons.
12. Melissa and Doug Primary Lacing Beads (3 Years)
Oh, lacing beads onto a cord, you might be thinking. My kid is going to get bored of that in five seconds. But you’d be surprised how much fun he’ll have stacking the colorful, different shaped beads, then popping them off and starting all over again.
13. The Original Montessori Phonetic Reading Blocks (4 Years)
Created by a Montessori teacher, these twistable blocks will help your beginner reader familiarize himself with all five vowel sounds plus 13 consonants, creating a total of 80 words. (He’ll be tearing through Harry Potter before you know it.)
14. Wooden Number Cards and Counting Rods (4 Years)
This colorful game helps teach preschoolers math skills and color recognition. The wooden design is a standard feature in Montessori toys, which embrace eco-friendly and natural materials.
15. Kids’ Cleaning Set (5 Years)
This isn’t just a way for you to get a clean living room (but that’s an added bonus). Montessori strives to teach independence and responsibility, and this child-size cleaning set is the perfect tool to do exactly that. The key is to make sure that the cleaning supplies are the right size, so that the tasks aren’t too hard to complete.
$26 at Amazon
16. Star Flex Creative Connecting Construction Kit for Kids (5 Years)
Just because Montessori toys tend to be low-tech doesn’t mean they can’t support STEM learning. This brainy kit will help develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and creativity, getting them one step closer to that engineering degree.
$18 at Amazon
17. Rainbow-Colored Counting Bears with Cups (6 Years)
For older kids, this colorful set will help teach addition and subtraction. (Meanwhile, parents will learn how to zigzag across the living room to avoid stepping on these cute little bears.)
$13 at Amazon
18. Melissa and Doug Multi-Craft Weaving Loom (7 Years)
Once your kiddo gets the hang of weaving, she can make a scarf, a tasseled coaster, a carryall bag, a drawstring pouch or whatever else her imagination can dream up. The loom comes with 91 yards of rainbow yarn, but the creative opportunities are endless.
19. Snap Circuits Classic Electronics Exploration Kit (8 Years)
OK, this kit is on the pricey side, but seeing the look on your kid’s face when she realizes she can make her own lie detector test is priceless. This working circuit board can also make hundreds of other projects, including an AM radio and a touch lamp.
20. hand2mind Plastic Rainbow Fraction Tower Linking Cubes (9 Years)
If your kid is a visual learner, he’ll feel a lot more comfortable with math if he’s able to work with these colorful cubes featuring nine values of fractions. (And let’s face it, you could use a refresher on fractions while he’s at it...)
21. Wreck This Journal: Now in Color by Keri Smith (10 Years)
Your 10-year-old is definitely too cool for toys, but she won’t be above this incredibly cool book that helps inspire the creative process. She’ll be encouraged to rip out pages, splatter mud on them and toss the book down the stairs. It’s tons of fun, but it will also help her express her artistic voice while throwing perfectionism out the window.
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