It was about halfway through our tour of the local Montessori school when I began to realize that the "Montessori way" was vastly different than the noisy, busy world my child had been surrounded by ever since we bought him his first "Musical Rainforest Bouncer."
The kids in this classroom—all of them between the ages of 2 and 4—were quietly (!) sitting at tables engaged in peculiar-looking activities that were, it turned out, specifically "Montessorian": A little girl scooped up tiny felt balls with a set of tongs and dropped them into little glass bowls; a boy slid small wooden cylinders into a board full of perfectly-sized holes; A small child tinkered with a markedly realistic-looking puzzle of the human body. All of these "toys," I was told, would help with things like handwriting, math skills, problem-solving.
There were no dress-up closets. No Disney characters. No noisy toys or rainbow-bright wall decorations. It was actually... peaceful (a word, by the way, that I've never used to describe my hectic home). I remember asking the teacher, How are they all so quiet? To which, she pleasantly replied something along the lines of, "Oh, well, they're just busy working."
Fun fact: Montessorians actually teach children to refer to their independent learning time as "work" in the classroom. It's a word Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who founded the movement in the early 1900s, believed captured the weight of all that learning.
Of course, you don't need to enroll your child into a Montessori school to reap all those early-learning benefits (this study showed that kids who attended a Montessori preschool advanced more rapidly on math and literacy tests over a course of three years than students who went to a more traditional school). Montessori-style toys—of which there are aplenty—can help plant those early seeds now.
"Montessori is very much an attitude and a lifestyle first," said Stacy Keane, head of learning at Monti Kids, a company that sends curated Montessori subscription boxes to children ages 0-3. "It’s an approach to trusting your child and creating a space where they can be independent."
A toy generally meets Montessori standards if it has the following characteristics:
It is made of natural materials. Teaching and exploring the natural world is at the heart of the Montessori way, so steer away from bright plastic toys and opt for more subdued (or realistic) colors and natural materials such as wood, cotton, or metal.
It is simple (no electric parts). Electric toys tend to direct the play a certain way, while Montessori toys are generally simple (which proponents believe helps kids focus better) and open-ended. The colors are also usually based on the natural world—either neutral wood simple rainbow mixed with wood, and you won't find batteries or electric cords.
It is realistic rather than fantastical. Since young children don't yet understand what's real and what's imaginary, the Montessori method aims to teach about the real world so kids can make sense of it better. That means, when it comes to babies and toddlers, opt for a wooden dollhouse or realistic horse stable instead of a Frozen ice castle or fairy hut; a realistic-looking tiger toy rather than the one that talks and sings; or an alphabet book that uses photos of real things rather than cartoons.
It teaches a particular skill set. Most Montessori toys have a particular skill they're trying to build. A puzzle, for instance, helps build hand-eye coordination, motor planning, or shape recognition. A ball drop box toy helps teach babies "object permanence" (which means, just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it's gone).
Looking for some new toys to add to the shelf? Here are our favorite Montessori toys for toddlers:
BEST FOR KIDS WHO WANT TO HAMMER: Punch and Drop Box
This wooden punch and drop toy allows toddlers to bang all they want and learn about cause-and-effect, as well as object permanence, in the process. They hammer at the ball; it drops down. It's simple—and your toddler will be enthralled.
BEST FOR OPEN-ENDED PLAY: Play Scarves
Whether it's a peekaboo scarf for your infant, a dance prop for your toddler, or a costume cape for your 3-year-old, these silky polyester play scarves are perfect for open-ended play. They're also machine-washable for easy cleanup.
Cost: $38.99 on Amazon
BEST FOR BUILDING PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS: Simple Shapes Puzzle
Puzzles can be immensely frustrating for toddlers because many of them are too hard, and therefore more discouraging than inspiring. Not so with this three-piece wooden shape puzzle, which helps toddlers learn simple shapes without the puzzle-angst. It's got only three pieces, and they're chunky enough for little hands to easily grasp and fit into the board. For something a little more advanced, this six shape puzzle with an expandable shape set from Hape can grow with your toddler.
Cost: $15.99 on Amazon
BEST STACKING TOY: Rainbow Arc Stacker
Not only does this toy help toddlers develop problem-solving skills as they figure out which pieces of the rainbow fit together; it can also be used for creative play by using each layer as curved pieces to make people, faces and animal shapes.
Cost: $22.99 on Amazon
BEST FOR CHALLENGING LITTLE SMARTIES: Shape Sorting Puzzle Cube
This small wooden cube will keep your little Einstein focused for as long as it takes for him to figure out how to get the 12 shapes into their respective holes. While she's busy working, she'll be building spatial awareness and problem-solving skills. It's not easy either, so it can also help build that all-important "frustration tolerance" trait, too.
Cost: $19.99 on Amazon
BEST FOR TEACHING ABOUT ZOO ANIMALS: Boley 12-Piece Safari Set
These realistic-looking safari animals will help kids learn what wild animals really look like, as opposed to seeing cartoon versions of them on TV. The set comes with 12 animals including giraffe, zebras, elephants, tigers, lions, rhinos and zebras.
Cost: $19.95 on Amazon.
BEST FOR BUILDING RESPONSIBILITY: Melissa & Doug Cleaning Set
The Montessori way encourages kids to help out in the household as a way to build responsibility. And this kid-sized cleaning set lets littles learn to clean with tools that actually work (as opposed to toys that are just for play). The child-sized mop, duster, broom and dust pan look and work like their grown-up counterparts, so your child can feel like he's really helping with the cleaning. Not to mention, your little cleaner will also be building fine motor skills and coordination (not so bad for Mom and Dad, either!).
Cost: $23.99 on Amazon
BEST FOR FINE MOTOR SKILLS BUILDING: Montessori Busy Board
Zippers, buckles and latches, oh my! This busy board is chock full of useful learning tools that'll teach toddlers how to zip and unzip, tie, latch, buckle, spin, Velcro, and click — as well as navigate a bead through a small labyrinth. As little fingers work to figure out the ins and outs of all these latches, they'll be amping up their fine motor skills and hand eye coordination.
Cost: $44.95 on Amazon
BEST CLASSIC MONTESSORI TOY: Knobbed Cylinder Blocks
Your child will learn about depth and space as he tries to fit the different-sized pegs into the holes of varying depths. A Montessori classic, this toy can enhance fine motor skills, spacial reasoning, and dexterity.
Cost: $23.99 on Amazon
BEST FOR MOVING AND GROOVING: Wooden Wobble Balance Board
Not all Montessori toys need to keep kids sitting still. This wobble board helps kids build fine motor skills as they rock back and forth while working to keep their balance. Of course, kids will do more than just balance on it—and the open-ended shape means it could also be a toy tunnel... a slide... a bridge... a stepping stone.. or whatever else your child can dream up.
Cost: $69.99 on Amazon
BEST SPLURGE: The Learning Tower
It's an expensive buy, but this addition to your kitchen (you can also use it as a step stool, puppet theater and more) will get your kids excited about helping you out in the meal-prepping. Let your toddler help mash (or even cut, with a blunt knife) bananas, toss the salad, or roll the dough. This real-life experience can be as fun as any toy—and helps empower your child and encourages real-world interactions between children and caregivers. It has several height notches built-in, so can grow with your child.
Cost: $199 on Amazon
BEST TOY THE OLDER SIBS WILL WANT TO PLAY WITH, TOO: Trihorse Wooden Marble Run
Kids will hone their visual tracking skills and motor skills as they watch the various objects (it comes with six sliding wooden objects including a clown, a flower and 4 balls) roll down the ramps at varying speeds. Your kiddo might make more sense of this as he grows, but it's a toy that'll mesmerize your 1-year-old as much as your 3 or 4-year-old. Keep it in the toy rotation, long-term.
Cost: $79.99 on Amazon
BEST FOR FUTURE DOCTORS: Wooden Body Puzzle
Kids can learn what's under their skin as they put together realistically-pictured layers of the body, one on top of another (skin, muscles, organs & bones). It can be a tricky puzzle to solve—younger kids may need some adult assistance to figure it out at first—but speaking from experience, this is one of those toys that kids will appreciate long after their toddler years.
Full disclosure: This toy is best for kids ages 3 and up, but I'm biased toward it because it's the thing my son wanted to play with every day his first year at Montessori school. (But that's what makes it so awesome!) You might need to guide your child through this at first, but eventually they'll be able to do it themselves.
Cost: $16.99 on Amazon