A question I hear over and over is "What's a good toy for my child at ____ age ?" or "What makes a toy Montessori or RIE?" I love this question. Children's play is essential to their growth and deserves thoughtful consideration. Having a collection of well matched toys or play objects for your child can make a big difference in how she plays and what she is learning. The best toys consider what your child is most interested in, are simple, beautiful, well-made, and serve a purpose. But just having these magically matched toys is only part of the answer. What makes these toys Montessori or RIE is how you store, present, and care for them in your home.
Purpose of Toys
When your child is playing, she is doing critical work that will build who she is and how she views the world. Any object can be considered a play object, especially with very young children, so we must consider what our child is learning from this toy. What is the toy promoting? Will it help with motor development? Maybe it imitates real life, or is a canvas for creativity. Many toys have multiple intended purposes, and infinite possibilities for play (like a simple doll). Match the purpose of the toy with the work of the child at each age, and you're off to a good start.
A fixed toy has a very narrow purpose or identity. An Elmo doll can only ever be Elmo. Having fixed toys narrows the depth and creativity of play possible. Sometimes, these toys even dictate how to play with them. For the most part, these are toys to avoid. Let's say instead of that Elmo doll you had a plain cloth stuffed doll. Now, you can choose the gender, age, role, and character of that doll, and pick something completely different tomorrow!
Entertainment and Passive Play vs. Active Learning
"Active toys make for passive babies" --Magda Gerber
Young child are fascinated by the world, and rightly so. There is SO much to see and do, things to explore and information to acquire. We humans are born with this strong inner guide to develop all the skills we need to function well on our own. This means that it is very easy for a young child to be held captive, mesmerized, and distracted by objects. In a natural world, this helps us problem solve, learn the properties of matter, strengthen our muscles, and build connections in our brains. Introduce a toy that takes advantage of this, and you short-circuit that child's development.
One of the most important factors in choosing toys that follow along with RIE, Montessori, Waldorf, and other developmental-based models is this idea of active learning. Who is doing more, the child or the toy? If it's the toy, your child is being entertained, and loses the opportunity to really learn. The best toys do nothing on their own and are quite boring until a child brings them to life through play.
What to Pick?
Anything you bring into your home for your children should be something that you also like and enjoy. No, I don't mean that you need to enjoy it in the same way your two year old does, but if you find it obnoxious, get it out! Toys should be beautiful, inviting, and inspiring. If it looks cheap and ugly, your child will treat it that way.
Follow your child's interests.
Does your four year old love horses? Get books about horses, find small model horses in various breeds, and something to create a farm for them.
Choose quality over quantity
Quality toys will last longer, demand respect and care, are less likely to break and injure a child, and tend to be more beautiful. What message do we send to our children when we constantly throw out broken toys and get a new one? Take the $10 you would have spent on 5 plastic shovels and get a sturdy metal one instead. A handful of well-made toys will outlast your child's interest in them. Having more toys can actually inhibit creative and productive play!
How to set it up
Offer fewer choices
Children who have more toys to play with tend to be more bored than children who have a few well-loved toys. It's the paradox of choice. With so much to choose from, children get overwhelmed and the play becomes about deciding which toys to use or how many can I use and not about creative, open-ended play. You can always rotate through that awesome collection of puzzles your Aunt Millie sent you.
Toys that are disorganized and stored in a big heap are difficult to play with. It's hard to see everything available and can encourage digging and tossing aside. A heap of toys also sends the message that the toys aren't worth caring for. Why would you bother if it's just going back in the pile anyways? Create a special space for each toy or item on a shelf, on the floor, or in a box.
Offer simple demonstrations of what to do and how to do it, when asked (or when needed). It's very easy to put our adult goals into a play activity, which can stunt children's creativity, leadership skills, and independence. Let your child lead the game, especially if it's imagination based. If you are playing with nesting cups, don't suggest that the only way to use them is to nest the cups correctly.