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. 

Toddler matching activities: Farm animal Mother and Baby

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Since Quentin seems to be right at the beginning of a Sensitive Period for matching, I thought we would try some animals.

A few months ago I had borrowed a “Farm Animal” tub from our local toy library. We kept 6 in a basket on his shelves. At 15 months (13 corrected) he’s making the connection that every object everywhere has a name. “Dat?!” He would demand, pulling a pig from the basket. “Pig” I would assure him, trying to convince him (and myself) that the thing he was seeing was a pig despite its complete lack of any realistic features.

The Montessori pedagogy advocates for the use of real images (and real anything else) for children under the age of Cycle 2 (ages 6-9).

By showing care in the toys you choose for your child, you are showing him that he is important to you. You are sharing what is beautiful and meaningful to you in life. You thereby help your child in turn look for beauty and logic in the world around him.

-Polk Lillard and Lillard Jessen, Montessori from the Start

We decided to return the tub and purchase some Scheilch animals instead. Although plastic and not a natural material, I feel their realism outweighs that aspect.

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Quentin fell in love with them immediately. When he chooses them from his shelves, he takes out each one from the basket and places them standing up. He is aware that there is a “big” one and a “little one”, but doesn’t match them together every time.

This time when he asks “Dat?!” he smiles when I say “Pig”, satisfied with my answer.

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