Montessori and plastic animals: A lifetime of learning

It’s no secret we love Schleich animals. Our Montessori Grammar Farm has grown from its humble beginnings and remains one of our most used open ended toys we have. 

We first wrote about our use of Schleich figurines here. At 13 months (corrected age because he is a preemie) Quentin used a small selection of animals familiar to him for vocabulary work, and exploration. People often ask us to clarify the use of plastic over wood, especially when the Montessori pedagogy is known for its use of natural materials. 

The answer is a simple one. Reality based material trumps natural material every time. It is far more important for a child to see that a cow has four hooved feet that are distinctly different from a pigs cloven feet than for every material to be made of a natural material. 

It is also extremely important to note that the Montessori pedagogy advocates for real world experiences for children. So although having all the African animals is very sweet looking on your shelves, your young child will have no concept of how tall a giraffe really is, or the size difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee unless they have had a chance to see these animals in real life. It’s for this reason that we chose North American farm animals as the animals we first introduced to Quentin. And as it turns out (five years later) these and his Forest animals are the only ones he’s ever needed models of. 

We wrote this post two years ago as his farm had expanded and the animals he originally had were still holding up. 

This is his farm today. 

He has used it in many Montessori language works such as “Nouns in the Environment” “Logical Adverbs” and simply just word building with the Moveable Alphabet. 

And of course, most importantly he uses it to play. The animals pictured are the same ones he used when he was 13 months. This is the reason we choose Schleich. Because they look as new as they did 5 years ago. 

Opened ended play is an overlooked piece of Montessori because many confuse it with fantasy play which is not condoned in Montessori. Imaginative, child led reality based play is very much encouraged. So his horses definitely don’t fly, or talk (because those are untrue concepts perpetuated by adults to children) they most definitely, nibble hay, gallop quickly, prance slowly and fall into the category of Mammal. 

This kind of play helps a child understand their world and gives an adult endless opportunities to open up age appropriate conversations with kids. Everything from vocabulary building in toddlers to life cycles for preschoolers to “A day in the life of a farmer” sequencing for elementary kids. 

So while I go back to driving the tractor up to the orchard to harvest the ripe apples, consider adding animal figurines in a purposeful way to your child’s environment. Think about the ways you can open your child’s eyes to the beauty of the animal world and it may surprise you what you learn together. 


10 Replies to “Montessori and plastic animals: A lifetime of learning”

  1. Hi Beth! I agree with you, we also have Schleich animals (most dinosaurs but also some african and european ones), they are so beautiful and good quality. I have never thought about what you said, that is important to the child know how long the jiraffe is ecc, but I think you are right. Here we have very few farm animals, my son always love african animals, insects, reptiles, so I followed his interests. We go to the zoo sometimes and he loves documentaries about animals, we also went in a safari park and he had a blast to see lions next our car. I always try to follow his lead.
    Very nice post, I love your instagram account.

  2. Since you say his animals never talk or fly, how do you react when he says that they do? Or if a cow wants to eat meat. Would you wait and prepare a presentation on what animals eat and that they don’t talk, or would you tell him in the moment? This always interested me in a home environment!

    1. Interesting question. Because in Montessori we first present real life experiences and then slowly move to abstract, he saw a real cow before he had a model of it. So he observed for himself that they don’t speak, or fly. This was of course done in infancy but the reality based knowledge has carried through.

      This is what we are talking about in the post. Because he has never been introduced to adult led fantasy play, it’s never occurred to him that cows may talk. He has simply observed real animals in their environments and made his own baseline for knowledge that he has expanded on with the help of adults always giving him true facts.

      1. So he has never come up with his own fantasy play? Or if a child sees a poster or book that is fantasy play, would you correct their fantasy?

      2. The Montessori pedagogy models and guides children in the concrete rather than the abstract when a child is under 6 years of age and the reasoning areas of their brain are forming critical pathways. Some Guides may choose to gently redirect the child. Others simply ask the child “Is that a real or pretend thing?”
        Because he has been submersed in Montessori since infancy he has had little experience with fantasy. He has never had books with talking animals, fairies, or any other adult made fantasy. As an example he has recently seen garden gnomes and fairies displayed on people’s lawns. He knows they are not real because when he has asked either at home or at school, all Montessorians that surround him give him the same answer: Those are ideas made up by adults, not real things.
        However, he is also surrounded by children who have not had as much experience with Montessori. He will happily play their game of Batman etc because he enjoys being included. But he is critically aware of his environment. He is able to make sound educated guesses about things he has yet experienced first hand because he has been grounded in the concrete first. He prefers to centre his imaginative play around reality as mentioned in the post as there is an entire universe of never ending possibilities.

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