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A Montessori Approach to Choosing New Toys and Activities

There are so many amazing toys, games, and materials available for purchase in today's world. And there are so many amazing DIY ideas and possibilities shared around the internet. All of which look beautiful and engaging and lovely. But, have you ever purchased or made something, put it on your shelves and then your child totally ignores it? I know that I have. 



And typically for me that happens when I have been sucked into how something looks or feels and not necessarily if it fits the needs of my child. I wanted to share how I think about materials and when to add them. For us, a material (either DIY or purchased) almost always flops if I don't think about it in this way. So for me to see something as a "need" it needs to fit both an interest and a skill for my child. 
A look at how to think about interests and skills to determine when you should add a new toy or material to your home. Montessori parenting advice to making sure your child's play needs are met through the activities you choose.
I created this visual to help think about it. It's that light blue part that is the sweet spot. That's where I find deep engagement, making it "worth it" to add the item to our home. 

Interest

I've broken down interests into three broad areas. You could probably break it down further, but this is how I like to think about it. The free main categories are: 
  • Overt Interest: These are things that your child is actively talking about, notice, and understand that they are things they "like." This is stuff that your child actively knows and seeks out. This could be ANYTHING from trains, to birds, to playing blocks, to street signs. This is the stuff that makes your kid excited on a day to day basis. This is the "what" they are playing or playing with. 
  • Observed Interest: This is stuff that you've noticed that your child might not actually pick up on. I like to think of this as the "how" your child is playing. Do they like to move things from place to place (transportation schema), for example? Or do they like to line things up, put things together, take things apart, etc. Your child might not overtly know that they are playing this way, but you can see it. 
  • Developmental Interest: This is the "why" your child is playing or interested in something. This comes from the deep developmental stages - sensitive periods - that Maria Montessori discovered that drive children's behavior. 
Noticing each of these will come through observation of your child. And in your observations, you might notice that something hits just one of these categories, or you might see something that is a repeated interest. The more interest I see, the more likely I am to make sure that is represented in the materials I choose to put out. 

Skill

I think of skills as actions - either physical or emotional - that your child is building to function in your home and in the world. They can be broad like "fine motor" or more narrow like "cutting with scissors." Like interests, I've generally broken skills down into three main categories. Again a skill may fall into one or more of these at the same time. But, I want to make sure I'm only adding materials that meet at least one of these categories. 
  • Observed Need: This is stuff that your child struggles with that interferes with something they would like to do. These are skills that your child is still working on or mastering. The struggle may not cause frustration in your child, but may be something that you have just noticed. 
  • Anticipated Need: These are skills that you know your child will eventually need - either for everyday life or for school down the road. 
  • Observed Interest: Sometimes your child is super interested in a particular skill and you may observe in your child. They may or may not be aware that it is an interest, but it's something they are drawn to over and over again. 
Again, observation will be your most important tool when deciding what skills your child is actively interested in or in need of. 

Materials

When I have identified an interest and skills that my child is in need of I ask myself three questions and work through this flow chart!

A look at how to think about interests and skills to determine when you should add a new toy or material to your home. Montessori parenting advice to making sure your child's play needs are met through the activities you choose.

  • Do I own it? I think it is always important to see what we already have and if it is meeting this interest/skill need. We don't need EVERYTHING or even multiple things that are meeting a need. Just always take stock of what you have. 
  • Can I make it? I love a good DIY where available. But I recognize that sometimes I don't have the skills/time/budget to make something. A DIY is not always the cheapest available means considering time and money. 
  • Does it exist? Is there a product on the market that fits? Sometimes there is! Sometimes no. Then we want to think of a similar alternative that will as closely meet the need we see. 
And, that's sort of my process. But I wanted to leave you with an example that I did recently with Gus in mind. Here I have listed some of the interests I have noticed and some of the skills I see him working with. 
A look at how to think about interests and skills to determine when you should add a new toy or material to your home. Montessori parenting advice to making sure your child's play needs are met through the activities you choose.
On the interest side, these are things I've noticed him gravitating toward in our home environment. Pegging and connecting work has always been something he has liked. Lately, he has loved art projects and creative expression. Nora has made some necklaces that he loves to wear around and shows great interest in. 

On the skills side you also see pegging - a skill he is very interested in but has mastered. It stays on the list because it's an observed interest. Pincer grip is an anticipated need and an observed need in him. Pattern building is an anticipated need. 

With those observations, I have brain stormed a few options that may meet his current needs. I then worked through the materials chart deciding that pop beads were the best addition and most closely meet his needs at the moment! So, you can see they have made his current work shelves

A look at how to think about interests and skills to determine when you should add a new toy or material to your home. Montessori parenting advice to making sure your child's play needs are met through the activities you choose.

I hope this helped to provide some structure about how to determine when something should be added to your child's environment. It's always a balancing act and one that takes observation and a little trial and error. 

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Comments

Charlotte said…
This is a great visual, thank you! It's helpful to see it in that way.
There are some things I'm unsure about. How do you ensure the child doesn't limit themselves to what they are good at? (I know the theory is the child will naturally push themselves, but for whatever reason sometimes they need encouragement to have a more 'balanced diet' of skills - e.g. my 5 year old has never, to my knowledge, shown interest in anything maths-related, but perhaps I haven't exposed her to it because I am also weak at it). Is there a resource somewhere that breaks down all the skills that might be observed/expected at each stage so that one can look out for them? I feel like all the advice to observe the child, that you see in Montessori circles, seems to assume a certain knowledge of what skills you would expect at certain ages, even allowing for natural variation. I never quite know what to write when I want to observe

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