Montessori shelves: trays or toys?

Organized and accessible shelving is a staple to the Montessori environment, and when we switched to this setup at home we noticed an immediate improvement with engagement. I’ve never really given this setup a second glance until recently, when I took a moment to reflect on how I use these shelves today vs. when I just started.

As I look back on our first shelves, I placed a lot of items out, as I wasn’t used to the simplicity of presenting fewer choices.  I also presented 100% store-bought toys. Over time, I learned to brave some DIY activities of “work” in the mix of toys. The longer I do this, the more I see an emphasis on this concept of work trays over toys. They’re not just shelves to a Montessori family, they’re work shelves. 

One of our very first attempts at a Montessori playroom.

As I rotated my toddler’s shelves yesterday, I paused to take note of how I planned her week with this in mind.  I had an even split of 50-50 toys and work. It made me wonder, “Is one focus better than the other? Is it ‘more Montessori’ to offer 100% work?”

Then I watched my daughter excitedly approach the toys and the work with equal interest. She concentrated on the DIY transferring activity as hard as she concentrated on the Melissa and Doug elephant stacker. Tray or toy, I accomplished the same goal of harnessing engagement, discovery and focus. I was humbly reminded that you can achieve this with either a toy or a tray.

Yet often, work trays have a sort of superior vibe, it seems. Work trays with an isolated skill is to Montessori play like Pinterest-level creativity is to every day arts and crafts. As a parent, it’s easy to feel like the crayons and construction paper I offer are not enough. And as a Montessori mama, it’s similarly easy to feel that the toys should be swapped with trays.

To this silly little thought, I go back to work is play and play is work.  To me, this means that my home does not define play as separate from work; we recognize that work is the play of the child. This doesn’t mean we limit play to real-world work. It means we don’t limit play to toys. We have both, and this is therefore reflected in our shelf “work.”

If anything, as of lately, I intentionally choose toys over trays for our home. From what I observe, the last thing my toddler needs after a morning of helping me in the kitchen is a redundant practical life activity in her playroom. And the last thing my son needs after a day spent at The Children’s House is to come home to more self-correcting shelf work.

Toys, trays, or something in-between – it’s important to note that all of it has a place in a Montessori home. I view my shelves as a rotating blank slate with no right or wrong way to fill them. Montessori does not thrive only where traditional materials are used, but in our overall engagement with our children’s development. You can nurture this engagement with something made of plastic or wood, store-bought or homemade, through open-ended play or self-correcting work. Montessori at home is often far more applicable and flexible than what it sometimes get credited for. 

Have you ever felt pressure or doubt on how to set up your shelves? If so, how did you overcome that? How have your shelves evolved over time? How has your child’s play evolved over time? 

Our shelves this week for my 15-month old. Top row includes a basket with a ziplock bag to practice opening; a spice jar and toothpicks; a spooning tray; a transferring tray. Bottom row includes a stacking toy, a play silk, a pegboard, and nesting cups.

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