Sunday, 23 October 2011

Montessori toddler materials update

This post is a follow on from this post, where I explained that I had bought some materials from China in order to compare quality and cost, and what an interesting experiment it has been!

First an explanation of why I decided to buy direct from China.  The difference in cost between Chinese manufacturers and European retailers was very appealing even after factoring in the high shipping cost and as I wasn't in a hurry for the items I could accept the long delivery time of 40 days.  My estimation was that the cost of each material would be about 1/3 of the price if I had bought them from a UK retailer even after adding shipping, handling and relevant taxes.

And what did I find?

Well the number one lesson is that you definitely get what you pay for!  Here is a summary:

There are very distinct differences in quality between manufacturers

Here is a good example of the variation in quality between different manufacturers.  Let's take the Imbucare Box With Large Cylinder:

If you buy this item from Nienhuis you will pay £30 for a top quality material that will stand up well to the very highest level of use in a classroom environment.  The paint on the cylinder is chip proof and you can see that the hinged door is mounted and sized so that it will only open outwards.  This is the 'crème de la crème' of the Montessori materials world but with a price tag to match.

The next quality level is found at most material retailers as either a standard or premium range.  This one retails for £11.99 from Absorbent Minds so less than half price of the Nienhuis version but there are a few differences:  the wood has a lower quality finish and the paint on the cylinder may chip with heavy usage.  Another interesting difference is that the hinged door swings inside and out.
Finally, here is the same item direct from China which cost $4.  In terms of design it is very similar to the Absorbent Minds version above with the door than swings inside and out.  The difference though is that the wood is a yellowish tone (a bit exaggerated here because of lighting but visible also in later pictures) and that the paint on the cylinder is much more likely to chip if dropped as well as being less bright in appearance as the other versions.

This example pretty well summarises my experience of purchasing materials from China but I have shown below a few more comparisons for your viewing pleasure.

Expect to get what you pay for 

This Multiple Shape Puzzle Set fro Nienhuis costs £53.70! The quality is exceptional as you would expect.

Here is the Different Sized Circles Puzzle from Absorbent Minds which costs £5.99. 

Now here are the puzzles that I bought from China. 

When you look at each one they are perfectly reasonable in terms of quality.  Each shape fits nicely into its space

The circles puzzle cost less than $2.

The three shape puzzle also cost less than $2 and is perfectly functional although the wooden knobs are a lighter shade of wood than the base which is the same yellow wood mentioned earlier.

The colour used for the blue circles varies though between the two puzzles which really isn't a big deal but worth pointing out if you care about that type of thing.

Personally after paying so little for each of these I wasn't too concerned.

Some things really ought to be high quality

When ordering the pink tower I wanted to be sure of a decent quality.  That is why I paid extra for the 'premium' version (still from China) which cost $17 with the non chip coating.

The same version generally retails for £30 in the UK.

I am really happy with this item and was pleased to see that it came with a spare 1cm cube as well.

Some things really don't need to be such high quality

This is the horizontal dowel material.  My one slopes down slightly which you can see in the picture but is otherwise good quality. 

Maria Montessori explained that materials should be beautiful and well made to encourage children to see them as special and so treat them with care.  I agree with this wholeheartedly but with an item like this I would rather save money that can be put towards a high quality brown stair for example.

Sometimes imperfections don't matter

This coin slot box has a few obvious imperfections:  the drawer knob is a different colour wood to the rest of the box and the drawer front does not fit squarely with the drawer.  However, neither of these things are serious in my mind considering the price tag of less than $4.

Sometimes imperfections do matter

This is the sandpaper globe which is designed to be the first introduction to our planet by providing a tactile difference between the land (rough) and water (smooth).

It is simple and clear and allows the senses to concentrate only on the land forms set against he water.

The one I received was not that accurate and just looked cheap.  It appears to foretell rising sea levels as the Bering Strait is much larger than I remember and if it were really accurate there would certainly be no need for the Panama Canal on this globe.

But worse than that the United Kingdom has had Wales and Scotland removed not to mention the fact that Ireland no longer exists.

Some things are a bit strange

This is the three colour vertical dowel material  As I remember the colours are generally the three primary colours i.e. red, yellow and blue.

This version cost £7.99 from Absorbent Minds.

But the one I got is red, yellow and green.  The quality is very good but I found the colour choice strange.

The only other time I have seen these colours is from IFit.

Does it matter? I don't think so but maybe you do?

A question of ethics

Some people feel very strongly about the ethical impact of buying from China.  What about labour conditions or chemicals? One concern that I do have is the question of where the wood is sourced from.  I hate to think that deforestation is happening as a result of these cheap materials.


All in all I am happy with the materials that I bought.  Some are a bit naff but most are perfectly suitable for me.  For a small homeschool I don't believe that it is necessary to spend lots of money unless you have plenty to spare.

That being said I think it is worthwhile spending more on key items that will be used often or those which are a bit special like the globes.

Would I do it again?  Yes.  I will place another order soon for 3-6 materials and I'll be sure to keep you posted.

The company website is here.   I have a pricelist I can send you if you request via the contact form (the file size is much too large to publish here).


  1. Mycket intressant och noggrann genomgång av de olika materialen. Desutom var det lite roligt skrivet så jag fick mig ett par skratt.

  2. Hello!

    Please can you let me know from where exactly you have purchesd these materials?

    Thank you,

  3. Hello!

    Can you let me know please from where exactly you have purchesd these materials?

    Thank you,

  4. Hi Stella,
    This is the site that I bought the materials from
    The prices online are not all accurate so I recommend emailing them and asking for a price list.

  5. Mia, this is not supposed to be funny - it's serious investigative journalism ;)

  6. Hello,
    I wanted to thank you for sharing this experience, I want to buy M.materials for my son (he is only 4 months now but i think ahead:) but i was terrified by those huge prices and transport taxes as i live in Brussels. I will place an order soon to see how it works. The website scares me:)but i ll send an email as u recommended. Do they have all the products on the site or do i need to ask specifically for them. How did you find them? Just "googling" on the internet?
    THx and keep us updated on this topic.
    Best wishes

  7. Thanks Emilia,
    I found them with a google search; actually I found several but these are the only ones without a minimum order of $2000.
    The website scared me too and it's best not to use it at all I think. Leave a comment just with your email address in the text box and I'll send you my pricelist (and I won't publish your message).
    Don't forget to find out about Belgian import duty (a google search should be easily done).
    Good luck and please come back to share your experience good or bad.
    One last thing: customer service does not exist so you will not get a quick reply from them for anything.

  8. This was immensely helpful, thank you! I recently started homeschooling my primary aged son after we were no longer able to afford his Montessori school tuition. He desperately misses some of his school "jobs" and I have been debating about quality of items to be ordered. This was fantastic!

  9. Thankyou for doing this research. I would probably never have bothered finding out that it was possible to order from these places. While I have a distinct preference for high quality ethically produced materials, manufacturers with cheaper prices like these certainly put some of the materials within reach when they would not have been otherwise. I am going to check out the website now and decide if I want to make an order from these guys or from the more expensive shops.

  10. Thanks Louise,
    I know how you feel. Come back and let us know how you get on.
    Best wishes
    Rachael x

  11. I know this is quite late to add to the conversation but would you mind sharing the price list with me?

    1. I've sent it to you (sorry for the delay)

  12. how could i go about getting that price list?

    1. Send em a message through my contact form and I'll send it to you.

  13. Dear Rachael,

    Thanks for this great post! I appreciate all the legwork you've done in the price comparisons, quality comparisons, etc. Please could you email me your price list? I've got a 7mth old boy and have been using Montessori principles with him from birth.
    My email is estella_young AT yahoo DOT com.

  14. I would also like the price list. If you would e-mail it to me I would greatly appreciate it. My e-mail is Thank you!

  15. Hi there, thank you for this information, would you kindly also send me the price list? How have they held out?

  16. hiya, thanks for this very helpful as I plan to open my own nursery one day, but I don't have loads of cash. please e-mail the price list if you still have thank you

  17. Hi!
    I'm interested in exploring this option and I had a couple of questions for you:

    It looks like you link to two Chinese manufacturers- & Which do you recommend? Did you end up trying both or just

    Did you ever place another order? If so, was it a positive experience as well?

    Now that you've had the materials for a year, do you still feel the same way about them?

    I'd love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Hi Sarah, I've sent you a mail but in case it helps others I am copying it here...

      It was actually JS Montessori that I contacted but then realised that both companies are selling products made in the same factory and their prices are very similar. I would go with which ever responds to you quicker and gives you a better feeling if you know what I mean.
      I would say that in terms of quality they are perfectly adequate for me at home but I do notice a big difference between them and the items that I have bought from 'official' retailers like Ninhaus etc. For example the painted items do tend to chip quite easily so can start to look haggard relatively quickly and of course there were some items that I would never buy again like the globe in my post.
      The company I bought them from actually sold two different levels of quality - standard and high quality. For the pink tower and the brown stairs I bought the high quality and they are amazing - no complaints at all I I think they would be fine for your nursery. It is the standard quality items that are cheaper and worse quality.
      In hindsight I would definitely buy from them again. I was able to buy three times as much than I could have done for the same budget purchased in England but I didn't really appreciate that I would have to pay import duty so please think about that.

    2. Hello, This is a great blog post. You mentioned you were going to do a lead paint test and I'm curious how that turned out? Thanks for your time!

  18. Too funny. I was just investigating this company to make an order. I was concerned about the quality, like you. I am so grateful for this post. I was on the fence but as we are starting a M. homeschool from scratch for 2 different planes it is gonna cost but either way. I am not sure that in the states we pay the import duty as other things I have ordered from overseas didnt require this. Did you happer to purchase the puzzles and geometric cabinet materials? How were the quality on these things? Thanks so much!

  19. When I mention purchasing directly from China the question of lead paint keeps getting brought up. Do you have concerns about that? Have you tested any of these products for lead?


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