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Must Toys Be “Educational”?

Many of us have seen a young child more interested in the wrapping paper than the gift; or watched as a child played with just a string and a popsicle stick or a large empty box. Maria Montessori observed the same phenomenon at her first job as a doctor in an Italian asylum; the children had no toys, so they played with the crumbs under the dinner table.

Today stores are filled with toys to attract the eye of children and adults alike. Many promise parents that the toy is educational. Some include instructions for adults on how to expand the learning. What do our children need? How do we know what is best?

The simple answer is that children don’t need elaborate playthings. They learn from whatever is in their environment.

Observing young children carefully, Maria Montessori gave us a deeper understanding of how children learn. Applying some of these basic principles will help you choose appropriate toys for your children.

Select the Beautiful, Natural, and Long Lasting

What are the activities your child needs and will enjoy? What will be used frequently, beyond the initial fascination?

Choose toys, tools, and other everyday items that are a good fit for your child both physically and developmentally. Look for attractive and well-made toys. For example, smooth wooden blocks are preferable to light plastic ones. As Tim Selden reminds us in How to Raise an Amazing Child, “Children respond to the beauty of wood, glass, silver, brass, and similar natural materials.”

Take your cue from the Montessori classroom and arrange these enticing items on low shelves so your child can choose what to do. Limit the number of toys, and switch them from time to time. Too many choices are distracting for the young child. With open shelves, there is no frantic search for the last puzzle piece in the bottom of the loaded toy box! A selection of only a few books on the shelf or in a basket keeps the child interested.

Choose real child-sized items so that children can imitate what mom or dad do. A child-sized rake or hammermakes for success, as does the small pitcher to pour milk. Why invest in a toy kitchen or workshop when what the child truly wants is to build