How to Choose Montessori Gifts

Finding the right toy or gift for a child in a Montessori family can be difficult for the uninitiated.  There are a lot of seemingly arbitrary rules, and many common toys and baby items are frequently not permitted in the household.

Montessori families spend a lot of effort carefully curating the items in their homes, and receiving gifts that don't match their needs can be a source of stress.  Well-meaning friends or relatives often gift items that don't work with the Montessori home environment, which forces families to choose between refusing the gift and risking hurt feelings, or accepting a gift just to save face and putting it in storage.

Fortunately, the rules for what makes a good gift are fairly straightforward, and there are lots of options to choose from for any age group.

This page contains affiliate links, which help make it possible to bring you this Montessori gift guide.  If you purchase an item through one of the links below, we might earn a small commission for referring you, but it won't cost you any extra.


How to Know What to Give

If parents provide a wish list, stick strictly to the list.  Otherwise, select a "safe" item from our gift guides for Montessori families.  Select the child's age from the "Find a Gift" drop-down menu at the top of this page, and you'll find a long list of gifts that would be a welcome addition to any Montessori space.

The best toys for children are simple objects that require input from the child to come to life.  Things like a plain doll, blocks, building sets, a wooden push duck, a rocker board, or a plain ball are all good choices, depending on the child's age.  You'll find all these items in our gift guides.


Items to Avoid

Anything electronic, especially "learning" toys

Young children are neurologically wired to endlessly repeat actions that they find stimulating.  This helps them practice and quickly develop skills like muscle strength, motor control, and speech.  Toys that reward unproductive actions (like pressing a button) with exciting and attention-grabbing results (like playing recorded noises, blinking lights, and vibrations) tend to hijack a child's neurological reward system and distract them from their important developmental work. 

A child who normally spends her free time flopping around on the carpet might be very interested in repeatedly pressing a button to make a toy sing a song instead.  But flopping around on the carpet is important work that is developing her muscle strength and motor control, and repeatedly pressing a magic button is distracting her from her work.


Materials that Restrict Natural Movement

Young children spend a lot of time working on improving muscle strength and motor control, so it's important to avoid interfering with their free movement.  Car seats and high chairs are fine for short periods, but a child's play time should be as unrestricted as possible.

Some toys like "activity chairs" are designed to contain a small child while surrounding them with interesting objects.  Aside from distracting the child from their normal developmental activities, these materials make it impossible for a child to work on their muscle strength and motor control.  Instead of placing a child in an activity chair, Montessori advocates for placing a child on a soft mat on the floor, and making one or two toys available if age-appropriate.

Other materials like seated baby walkers are supposed to assist with movement, but are actually harmful for a child's development.  Seated walkers encourage a child to develop an unnatural gait before they're ready to walk, which can make learning to walk more difficult.  They also require adult intervention to start and stop the activity, so the child isn't allowed to control her own activity.  Instead, Montessori advocates using a walker wagon, which assists in pulling up and walking in a way that doesn't negatively affect the child's gait, and allows the child to choose when to start and stop using the material.


"Fixed" Toys

The best toys for children are adaptable to their imagination.  An toy with a fixed identity can only ever be that identity.  An Elmo doll, for instance, will always be Elmo.  But a plain cloth doll could be any gender, age, role or character, subject to the child's imagination.  And tomorrow, it could be something completely different.


Montessori Classroom Materials

It might seem like materials from a Montessori classroom would be the perfect toys for Montessori families.  But Montessori teachers are trained to present classroom materials in a very specific way.  Having these materials at home is less helpful than having them in a classroom with a trained guide, and having copies at home can destroy some of the allure that makes them so useful in the classroom.

A few Montessori classroom materials are good choices to have in the home like books, basic vocabulary games, and practical life activities.  You'll find these materials in our gift guides, sorted by age group, in the "Find a Gift" drop-down menu at the top of this page.


Too Many Toys

Our consumer culture might suggest that more stuff is better, but especially with children's toys, that's just not the case.  Too many choices can inhibit productive play.  If children are presented with more than a few choices at a time, they'll often spend more time switching between toys than actual productive play.

Montessori families with too many toys can put most of the toys in storage, and periodically rotate a few toys at a time into the play area.  When looking for gifts for a child, consider whether another toy in storage is really your best use of resources.


Anything not age-appropriate

Children quickly progress through developmental stages, so their needs and interests change drastically depending on their age.  Items that might have fascinated them at a younger age can become boring once they've mastered certain skills.  Items that are too advanced can be confusing or even hazardous for younger children.  When buying gifts for young children, it's usually best to choose a material that they're ready for now, or will be ready for within a few months.


Anything imposing lifestyle choices on the recipient

There are some choices that are personal, and there is no "right" decision for everyone.  You shouldn't gift someone cloth diapers unless they've specifically told you that they want cloth diapers.  You shouldn't gift a stroller, a carrier, or a car seat to someone who hasn't asked for one, and preferably you should only give them the exact model they asked for.  You shouldn't gift a floor bed or a crib to someone who hasn't decided which one they will use.

We have omitted these types of gifts from our gift guides to help you avoid selecting something that's not appropriate.  Parents can find a more complete list, including lots of items that require a personal choice in The Catalog at The Prepared Environment.


Alternatives to Toys

Toys are not the only gifts that children enjoy. Intangible gifts can be just as valuable as material possessions. 

Taking the time to walk through the neighborhood at a child's pace, or sitting and reading a child's favorite book can provide a more memorable experiences than a physical gift ever could.  For families with newborns, offering to help with meals or errands, or providing a paid cleaning service can alleviate some of the stress of the first few months, which is a wonderful gift for the entire family.

Practical life gifts like clothing or baby accessories can enhance a child's quality of life while freeing up the family's finances to commit to other, more enjoyable activities.


Find a Gift

To browse gift ideas for Montessori families including toys and other practical life materials, select an age group from the "Find a Gift" drop-down menu at the top of this page, or click here to see the age group list.

Dan Greatley