Montessori schools are based in ideals of curiosity and independence. When it comes to the toys used to encourage these principles, Montessori classrooms often opt for wooden toys versus toys you might find in other classroom settings.
Montessori prefers toys made of wood and other natural materials as they allow for imaginative play and encourage exploration. They are also safer since they are free from chemicals one might find in plastic. And wooden toys allow young minds to roam without the distraction of recorded sounds or overwhelming color palettes.
In settings where learning is child-guided, it is essential for children to have fewer distractions, and toys that will ultimately aid and direct learning rather than hinder it. Wooden toys are an essential learning tool in Montessorian classrooms and with good reason.
Why Does Montessori Use Wooden Toys?
A Montessori school is different than a traditional school because the teachers are less like lecturers and more like pillars of guidance within the classroom. Classrooms are typically very different than what we’ve become accustomed to in traditional settings.
There are children of various ages and opportunities for both group collaboration and independent work depending on what a child chooses in a given situation. Desks are few and far between, and free-range play is encouraged. Toys (also called materials) are at the forefront of Montessori-style learning and have been chosen with great consideration.
With that being said, toys are going to look different than you might see in a typical daycare center or public-school classroom. If you think about it from a student perspective, it would be quite overwhelming to walk into a room with an abundance of colorful toys lining play areas.
Between the noises that a lot of plastic toys can produce (think buttons and switches with pre-recorded animal sounds or automotive sounds, for instance) and light-up features, a setting like this can create a major case of sensory overload. How in the world would a child know where to start when every single toy piques their interest?
Wooden Toys Keep Play Simple
That is where the simplicity of natural wooden toys comes in. Wooden toys are more organic and muted in both aesthetics and function. This creates for a much smaller mental load just upon first glance, and also allows plenty of room for problem solving and creative thinking.
With fewer options to gawk at, children also use the toy they pick for much longer periods and stay focused on the task at hand. Montessori classrooms allow children a great deal of autonomy, and wooden toys set students up for success.
They encourage concentration and skill mastery, rather than something to fill time or distract them in transitional periods throughout the day. These toys are seen as a learning instrument rather than just something to play with and keep little hands busy.
Benefits of Natural Toys
Wooden toys are beneficial for a handful of reasons. Beyond looking a bit more visually pleasing, they also reinforce a lot of principles and values from the core of the Montessori curriculum.
Natural Toys Aid in Sensory Development
A lot of plastic toys are hollowed out or unrealistically dense versions of what they are designed to look like. When a child is playing with wooden toys, there are varying weights, density, and sizes. This increases awareness of the world around them, allowing their perception of different items around them to expand and be more realistic.
They also allow students to experiment with different feelings (i.e. natural grain of the wood, temperature based on how long they have played) that one would not find in most plastic toys.
Wooden Toys are Often More Realistic
Some plastic toys are shaped like one thing but include different buttons or features that make different sounds that would come from a different shaped or different looking object. While it is seemingly convenient to have a multifunctional toy, it can also be misleading and counterintuitive.
Young minds have a hard time conceptualizing this type of information. If you have a car shaped toy that has a function that allows it to also sound like a train and an airplane, there is a mixed message being sent.
Wooden toys are more literal and often have cause and effect type functions that better develop a sense of reality. These types of toys are grounding and better exemplify the real world around us which is definitely key when exploring it on their own terms. It also allows for them to take the skills these toys are teaching them and apply them throughout the day, and eventually at home when faced with similar mechanisms.
Natural Toys Have a Smaller Environmental Impact
The environment was a big concern of the woman who developed the Montessori curriculum. They are far more durable. They can endure many more rounds of play without nearly as much wear and tear. Therefore, one Montessori classroom could be using the same set of toys for years without having to recycle them. Coming from a purely environmentalist standpoint, a Montessori classroom is not going to produce any long-term waste.
A plastic toy, no matter how long one classroom keeps it, will end up in a landfill. Wooden toys break down much faster and leave a much smaller, if not non-existent, carbon footprint. While these toys offer plenty of developmental benefits to Montessori students, they also uphold one of the core values of the teaching in their environmental friendliness that makes them a win for current students, and the world around them alike.
Why Do Montessori Schools and Parents Avoid Plastic?
There is also a safety concern that influences the decision for wooden toys. Wooden toys are valued because they come from the earth, and in turn create a deeper connection to the elements around them. With that comes a sense of safety.
A lot of Montessori parent blogs suggest that they (they, being Montessori families) do not allow plastic toys into their home because of BPA and other harmful toxins that reside in all plastic materials. Lead is a leading toxin found in especially cheap plastic toys that has a ton of negative impacts on brain development, and it is disheartening to think that children could be exposed to it without their knowledge.
Often times, toys end up in the mouths of whoever is playing with them. There is a peace of mind within the Montessori community when it comes to this issue because it does not pose a threat with the toys they allow in their home and the toys that their schools allow into the classroom. There are lines of Montessori toys that are not hard to find, such as Monti Kids subscription service, and they have non-toxic wood paints or finishes to allow for completely safe play.
Aside from BPA concerns, a lot of plastic toys include batteries, external magnets, tiny screws to fasten the back over the batteries- these are things that no parent wants to worry about their child swallowing, especially less communicative little ones. These features are easy to forget about in passing, but once you list all of these possibilities, it becomes clear that wooden toys are definitely a winner in the safety department.
They are also much less likely to break into smaller pieces when thrown or dropped. Overall, they are the safest choice for little hands and mouths of all ages and can be played with daily without most of the worries that come with a traditional plastic toy.
Knowing what we now know about the Montessori Method, wooden toys are a better choice for many reasons. Their realistic shapes and functions, their aesthetic, and the environmental and safety aspects all contribute to their superiority to plastic alternatives.
See also: Montessori approved toys for toddlers and Montessori approved toys for babies