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. 

Montessori Birthday Gift Ideas



Montessori Birthdays hold a special place in my heart. A “Celebration of Life”. 

It couldn’t have a more fitting title. 

I’m often asked what my recommendations are for gifts that fit with Montessori values. There are many fantastic options out there, so I thought I would offer a unique perspective on gift ideas for the 3 year old. Or rather, Quentin would. 

Being a “Montessori from Birth” child, coupled with the fact that he attends an extended day Montessori school 5 days a week, I thought it would be interesting to sit with him in his Montessori Space and see what he could come up with for gift ideas. 

Me: “Quentin, what would you give a friend for their Birthday?”

Quentin: “Candy.”

Me: “Yes, but what about something to play with. What are your favourite toys?”

Quentin: “I like my animals and buildings and you have to have a tractor for a farm. Oh! And I like my picture cards and alphabet cuz you can make all the sounds and match them and I know all the sounds and the words and that’s gonna make me read soon.” 

Me: “Ok. What about things to play with outside. What do you like to do outside?” 

Quentin: “I like to ride my bike cuz it’s fast. I got a new wheelbarrow and my working things for outside and I have real working gloves cuz, yah, sometimes your fingers get dirty and I don’t like that. And you know what Mama? I got rhythm bells too and those are for big boys cuz you have to ring gently or it’s a bad sound but I like them.” 

He sort of wandered off after that, but I thought his answers were sufficient. 

He came back later and helped me find the images to make the above picture. 

Starting at the top left: Bruder TractorBruder Recycling Truck (his upcoming Birthday gift), Rhythm BellsEarly Rider LiteSchleich animals,  Wheelbarrow & Tools

Despite the “toddler-esk” nature of his answers, some interesting things stood out. He likes to play with beautiful, reality based, good quality things. These qualities all fit within Montessori values. 

The animals and buildings he’s referring to are his Schleich animals and his Safari Toob Landmarks seen here. Both offer detailed replicas of real world things. Bruder vehicles are built to scale and have moveable parts but, (and here’s the best part) have no sounds, flashing lights or batteries. It’s all the child’s imagination. His bike, wheelbarrow and garden tools (“working things”) allow him to be out and exploring the world, but in a real way. Unlike typical toddler musical instruments, his rhythm bells offer a true to tone sound, allow him creativity with the musical scale and help him practice gentleness. 

When I’m looking for a Montessori friendly gift, I look for something well made, reality based and ultimately something that could grow with the child. I also try to “Follow the Child” as best I can. If the child likes art, some good paints and brushes with a nice art pad is always appreciated. There are endless real child sized tools for a budding chef or carpenter at Montessori Services. Most importantly, the gift of something homemade and from the heart can often be the best gift of all.

I came to find him when I had the picture ready to see what he thought. 

“But Mama, you forgot to do the candy.” 

Our Montessori Shelves 14 Months

A bit of a flashback, but for those of you who are curious:

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Our Montessori Shelves 14 Months
Top shelf: basket of plastic Schleich animals for matching mother to baby, a pouring activity, shape puzzle and homemade imbucare box

Bottom shelf: wooden acorn colour matching, homemade ring stacker, clothes pin pincer grasp activity and Pom Pom fine moter push activity

Our Shelves at 2 1/2

How did we get here? A two and a half year old. A school boy. With Quentin in Montessori school during the week, I am even more aware of the fact that I want his home materials to compliment, not compete with his school day.
I don’t have time to pull together themes, these activities are simply based on my observations of him and my knowledge of his stage of development.

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Top shelf: Marble maze (Anthony’s), zipper dressing frame, marbles, wooden marble run blocks

Middle shelf: Pasting tray (with veggie pics), felt button tree & leaves, box of numbers & penguin counters, cylinder sequencing puzzle

Bottom shelf: playdough & tools, lock box, geometric shapes, short to tall sequencing puzzle

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Top shelf: Lighttable, brass bell, nature tray, globe

Middle shelf: plastic objects & matching cards (currently lifecycle of sea turtle), Mystery Bag & objects (currently textured tiles), cutting practice, pencil crayons & notebook

Bottom shelf: vocabulary matching cards (currently veggies), colour cards, sandpaper numbers & letters books, threading beads.

These activities are not used every day. It is more often that he will choose one to work with for a period of time before his bedtime routine. On the weekends he will use more. I like to leave the materials out for a good long time to make sure that he’s really been able to get a chance to use them.

We also have some quiet “open ended” toys out. The wooden train set gets regular use. There is a basket of blocks, and some accurate construction vehicles that he uses often. A tub of musical instruments gets us dancing around the line. His barn is a favourite and the only toy in his bedroom.

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My Montessori storage cupboard needs a good clean out and overhaul. It seems he has just gone through a large change in ability and many activities are no longer right for him. I’m trying to come up with ideas of how to hand things down to other Montessori families. If anyone has ideas I’d love to hear them.

It’s hard to believe he is growing up this quickly.

What’s on our shelves

I promised I would post this and so here it is. These are the main ideas or experiences we have on Quentin’s shelves at almost 24 Months. We rotate them as needed but I’ve tried to keep it really simple. A puzzle out for a puzzle in, a wet pouring out for a wet pouring in, a colour activity…well, I’m sure you get the idea.

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Row 1: Basket of Animals used for vocabulary/matching
Art activity: crayons, paints, pasting tray, play dough
Scissor/cutting practise with strips of paper and box for scraps
Fine motor/sequencing activity: nesting dolls

Row 2: Bowling pins and ball. Thank you Essential Montessori
Vocabulary/matching cards: currently Alphabet Cards. Thanks So Awesome
Books: Letter and Number Work
Colour sorting activity: currently Primary Lacing Beads

Row 3: Practical Life Dry Transferring: currently pompoms with tongs Thanks How We Montessori
Practical Life Wet Transferring: currently water with pipette. Thanks again How We Montessori
Knobbed puzzle: a wide selection. Everything from trucks to sequencing
First jigsaw puzzle: matching adult animal to baby

Row 4: Geometric Shapes
Lock Box

I haven’t included the “outdoor” materials but I will do a separate post on them shortly as the weather is getting warmer and we are spending more time outside.

We also have a beautiful hand made zipper dressing frame made by my Mother, and of course the light box that Anthony and I made, but this for the most part is it. This is what keeps his little hands moving, and the fire in his eyes burning all day long.

Our Montessori Life: Materials at Two

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Quentin’s second birthday is fast approaching. It was time to sit back and evaluate our spaces in the home. Here’s what I found.

Our “Space” (above) is where the boys spend the majority of their time. It is big enough for Quentin to hop/roll/tumble but also to work quietly. His small table and mirror are our greatest assets in this space. He uses them every day. His blue work mat is rolled up and sits to the right of his table. He is able to get it out, unroll it and roll it up independently. Not all Montessori homes have work mats but for us it has worked well to help define his work area. He knows when he takes something off the shelves that it goes to his table or mat. It also helps him recognize that he already has a material out and needs to clean it up before getting another one. The ellipse on the floor is also not a “must have” in Montessori homes, but it was easy to do, and we play lots of movement games such as “Walking on the Line”. It is just green painters tape, and I like that it gives us opportunities to do some controlled gross motor movement. We also sit on the line to do finger plays and nursery rhymes.
On top of his shelves is the light box Anthony and I made. Quentin loves it and when he uses it on his table next to the mirror it opens up a whole new world of perspective for him. There are many good light panels/boxes out there but I suppose I should add the disclaimer that whether homemade or store bought, make sure all components are safe for indoor use (don’t get hot), aren’t too bright and aren’t used for an extended period of time especially in a dark room.
His shelves (which I will do a separate, specific post on tomorrow) house all this materials used in this space. At almost 2 we have a really good mix of all 5 areas of the Montessori classroom without looking to match it exactly. There are spaces for lots of language activities like matching cards and model animals, and spaces for sensorial activities like nesting dolls, puzzles and building blocks. There are a few early Maths spaces and some Practical Life such as pouring and transferring activities. There is also a space for art materials. A brand new addition to the top of the shelves (not pictured) is our Montessori Continents globe. Quentin knows where the water is and names it as “the Ocean” and sometimes even “the Pacific Ocean” but that is very abstract and we never really focus on it.
Our cosy reading corner and basket of books gets used frequently. We keep “research books” (as Anthony calls them) here. Non fiction books with real image pictures. Usually with animals for Quentin.
Our gross motor area with the slide and rocker are a favourite and get used every day. The rocker is light enough for Quentin to move independently. He usually moves it so that he can see himself in his work mirror when he rocks. We also keep homemade bean bags and a little container of bubble solution ready to use here.

At two years old what are our must haves for this space?
– Baskets with handles
– Wooden trays with handles
– Real image books
– Vocabulary cards
– Puzzles
– Art
– A range of activities that vary from gross motor to fine motor

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If he wishes to work, we must provide him with things on which he can exercise an intelligent activity. – Maria Montessori

Our Practical Life Areas. I didn’t include a picture of our weaning table which still sits beside Quentin’s Kitchen. The kitchen and pantry have evolved over time, but have never been more important in Quentin’s day than they are now. Having a place to store his things that he can access independently is of the utmost importance in any Montessori space. I love that we can keep them all together. He clears his dishes and tools from his table after every meal without us having to prompt him now. We keep a little glass pitcher of water on his weaning table for when he wants a drink.
The laundry line was a homemade Christmas gift from my father. It is kept in our laundry area and Quentin uses it frequently there and on the rugs in our “Space”. All of these items allow Quentin to actually contribute to our family’s day to day life. He bakes, sweeps, dusts, cleans, and does the laundry along side us. He is not in the way, he is actually helping.

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Our Care of Self area in the bathroom remains the same. Our little sink and Toileting Area has not changed much since I set them up when we first started really getting into Toilet Learning with Quentin. The only thing not shown above is the little container of soaps and creams that Quentin can access in our bathroom vanity cupboard. Our bathroom is tiny but this little area has worked really well for us. Like everywhere else we keep it tidy and well stocked and Quentin does the rest.

So that’s it really. Could we do with less? Absolutely. Do I want to add more? Of course I do. We have enough to have a good rotation of different materials that offer him a range of experiences. Many of which are homemade, second hand or come from our small community’s fantastic toy lending library. When I’m looking for something specific and well made I shop here.
Nothing really needs changing and nothing monumental is happening. Except for the fact that unbelievably, and against all odds we will very soon have a two year old.

Our Day in pictures

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It was a day that found us unexpectedly at home.

From the top left: Painting after breakfast in the work space. Magazine reading. Foose ball match between Anthony and I. Quentin watches but doesn’t try to interfere. Quentin helps with his laundry.

Middle Row: Quentin and I walk to get the mail. We spot a puddle and come back with boots on. We need eggs for baking. A trip to the market is too far for Quentin to walk. Anthony pushes him.
With eggs ready Anthony bakes banana loaves while Quentin watches, too tired to help.

Bottom Row: Up from his nap, enjoying the loaf his Brother made. Anthony working in the yard. The late afternoon has brought the sun. The leaves are starting already. A “thank you” for helping with the leaves. Quentin’s first time in the tree house. “No Anthony, I will not let him ride up in the bucket!!” After dinner, back where the day began. This time Anthony is finishing something for school and Quentin is quietly putting his wooden acorns through the hole in his rocker.

This was 7am-7pm.

There was more. Meals, trips to the potty, book reading with Quentin before nap. Sewing with Anthony while Quentin napped. Anthony vacuumed before we even went downstairs to the workspace this morning. Rob came home from work, Quentin had a bath and went to bed and Anthony packed his lunch for school tomorrow.

Tonight (like most nights) we relax either together or everyone doing their own thing. Sometimes we tidy up a bit, sometimes not.

Usually our days apart fly by, almost at light speed. I’m so grateful for this day that the boys and I got to spend together. Looking back through the pictures, I’m even more grateful that it took its time.