One of the hallmarks of the Montessori method is an emphasis on independence. I’m seeing this firsthand as—I kid you not—my seven-month-old infant came home from his first week of Montessori having learned how to hold his own bottle with two hands like a Stanley Cup champion. Simone Davies, a Montessori teacher and author of The Montessori Toddler, tells me that as parents, we can encourage our kids to master tasks at home by setting them up with autonomy-building toys and activities. To do this, she recommends following their natural interests, creating special spaces for items that they can easily access (“Have low shelves with a few activities on trays or in baskets,” she shares as an example) and having brooms and cloths nearby so they can clean up their own spills. It’s about preparing an environment that meets children’s inner needs, which Dr. Maria Montessori once summed up with the words: “Help me to do it alone.”
Here are five of Davies’ favorite toys that help foster independence:
A coin box with coins
This is a favorite in Davies’ classes. “The younger toddlers enjoy the challenge of putting the coin through the slot; the older toddlers return to this again and again to master the key to open and close,” she says. “They love to work to master the movement. The lock and the repetition helps build their concentration.” (The toy in the photo is a simple version without a lock and key.)
Davies tells us: “The youngest children are so hungry for words and pick up language like a sponge. So we can give them rich language opportunities. Instead of saying ‘doggie,’ why not make a basket with some model animals of different dog breeds? A two-year-old can learn the names like Labrador, West Highland Terrier and Great Dane with as much ease as they can the names of fruits like bananas and apples.” You can create baskets with various types of classified objects that kids see in their daily lives: vehicles, tools, kitchen items or instruments, for instance. Davies loves the Toobs sets from the company Safari Ltd.
A spray bottle and squeegee
Davies says she’s always surprised at how young children are able to use a spray bottle and squeegee—washing the windows is a favorite activity in her class. Parents, just be sure to temper your expectations: “Remember, they are more interested in the process than the product so you may not quite get streak-free windows as a result,” she adds.
A step ladder or learning tower
“Okay, so perhaps this is not classified as a toy but is highly recommended for building a child’s independence in the kitchen,” Davies says. The kids in her class love to see what is going on in the kitchen and be involved. “I simplify food preparation so they can help, from peeling and slicing bananas to washing vegetables. Older children love to make dough for bread or pizza and do food preparation activities with more steps like whisking an egg for an omelette or making their own snack.”
Montessori teachers value “process over product.” It’s the experience with the materials that’s important, not whether a kid has gotten 10/10 on a spelling worksheet. One process-based activity that Davies enjoys is painting. “Young children can be very successful at painting independently with a watercolor tablet in a small bowl, a small jar of water, a watercolor brush and a cloth,” she says. A tip: With young children, put out just one color at a time, Davies suggests. If you use a whole palette, it’ll probably turn to brown.