Maria Montessori in her method of education and raising children emphasized natural beautiful real materials that are healthy, safe and innately enjoyable for children. She also emphasized simplicity, and on setting up a controlled environment where children are able to learn on their own, through their own explorations.
In the first Montessori school in Rome, there were dolls and imaginative toys, but Maria Montessori discovered early on that, given the choice, "children always preferred to learn about and to study and interact with the real world in all its glory." However, this does not mean that children should be precluded from such a play, especially if these imaginative toys represent a real-life situation and are aesthetically pleasing.
So, the vast majority of Montessori toys that are not books are made of wood and are usually quite simple–no flashing lights, sounds or whistles ... No cartoon characters, nor flying horses or purple bunnies. Just simple elegant shapes wooden toys with simple moving parts like wheels or a rope. Dr. Montessori also stressed that too many toys at child's disposal might be confusing and that too many options will eventually lead to child's overwhelm and overstimulation. However, she also believed that the child can use and enjoy few well-chosen simple, elegant and natural toys (preferably representing a real-life situation) in order to learn new skills and explore the world in a spirit of an adventure.
Below is an excerpt from The Joyful Child, Montessori from Birth to Three by Susan Mayclin Stephenson:
AGE 1-3 YEARS - TOYS
When picking out a toy for a child, imagine just what she will do with it. Does it invite purposeful activity? Decision making? Imagination? For how long will my child play with it? Will it encourage the child to explore, to spend time with it? There are many wonderful wooden or cloth imaginative toys available to children, but often what is missing is toys with purpose. These toys lay the foundation for richer work of the imagination.
Imagination is a wonderful tool of humans, but it cannot be created out of nothing. Creative imagination is based on, and directly related to, the quality of sensorial experiences in the real world. A rich imagination enables one to picture a solution (solving a puzzle for example) and to work toward it. The more experience a child has with real purposeful activity and solving problems, the more useful, creative, and effective her imagination will become.
We have selected, or created, manipulative toys that have a wide variety of challenges. For most of them there is a beginning and an end, and the completion of the activity is inherent in the material. For example then the child has put all of the discs in the box with discs, she has successfully complete a cycle of activity, feels a great deal of satisfaction, and is often ready to repeat the activity.
Eye-hand coordination is developed when it is obvious that a toy goes together in a particular way, for example a cube in a square hole and a sphere in a round hole. It is no small thing for a child to learn to direct her muscles to do what her eyes see should be done. And the challenge of such activities helps the child develop coordination and concentration. All of this must be considered when selecting toys for the child at this developmental stage.
The use of wood instead of plastic helps the child appreciate the natural world, the colors, shades and grains of wood, and the varying weight of wooden toys in a variety of sizes and densities. Quality shows a respect for the child and teaches the child respect for belongings. Beauty and durability are important at all ages for the child's tastes are being formed at this time of life. A beautiful home or a beautiful world can only be created by those who have learned to appreciate living with beauty.
Organizing and Rotating Toys
Toys should be kept in the area where the family lives, not only in the child's room. Shelves are much more satisfying than toy boxes. Having order in the environment creates a feeling of security in the child, and trust in the environment. Baskets, trays, or small boxes neatly arranged on low shelves can be very helpful in creating this order.
If you watch a child you will see which toys he plays with most and which ones just get dropped and forgotten. Try to keep only as many toys available to the child as can be kept neat, and uncrowded, in baskets on a shelf.
Learning to Put Toys Away
Limiting the number of toys available at any one moment, and having a place for every toy, helps with the task of teaching the child to put toys away. But most important is the example set by the others in the environment. If the adult carefully and continually puts the pieces of puzzles or toys back in the basket in front of the child, she will eventually imitate and join in the activity. Sometimes the "putting away" into baskets is the most enjoyable part of play at this age. In a Montessori infant community this lesson is much easier than in the home because the teacher is dedicated to the child completely, all day long. She will constantly put things away, carefully, slowly, and as the child becomes aware of this he naturally wants to learn to do this—just as he wants to learn everything else.
Of course it is much easier to get into the habit of putting a toy away when it is obvious where it goes on the shelf, when every toy has a place where it belongs. It is more difficult when all of the toys are being played with at once, and all the shelves empty, so it helps to get into the habit of putting a toy away before getting out another—again, the adult does this and is eventually imitated by the child. The parent can make a game of "putting away" instead of thinking of it as a distasteful chore.
Respecting Work and Concentration
One of the most important things we can do for child is to respect her concentration. When the child is engaged in something safe and purposeful (an activity requiring effort of both the mind and body—not watching TV!) this is considered an important work, and the adult's role is to respect and protect it.
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