Now that we’re all working—and playing—from home every day, I figured it was as good a time as any to take a look at my kids’ play area. Since there seems to be a resurging interest in Montessori (an individualized approach to education and child development based on self-directed activity and hands-on learning), it seemed like a great opportunity to put a few of its principles to the test.
I asked Connie Huson, a former teacher and playroom consultant in Toronto, for her top tips on making a Montessori play space at home. She says it’s a relatively easy switch, whether your house can accommodate an entire play room, or your kids are getting creative in the corner of your living room (like mine!). Here are her top tips—and a few of my impressions, after trying it out with my daughters, ages 3 and 7.
1. Go for a minimalist feel
A white or neutral palette is a classic Montessori backdrop for play and learning. It encourages calm vibes and the conditions for thoughtful concentration, unlike the bold primary colours we often see in early childhood toys and décor, which can quickly become overstimulating. “That’s the perspective I take overall, that you’re creating a calmer space and then it’s the toys and materials that are attracting the kids attention,” says Huson. This is also ideal if you’re setting up toys in a common area, like your living room.
In a Montessori space, the toys are like the space: simple. Instead of the usual onslaught of plastic and flashing lights, these objects are made from natural materials, like wool or unpainted wood, and are meant to spark a child’s imagination, prompting creativity and exploration. (Think little wooden cars, felt food or wooden blocks).
Our toy selection already incorporates some of the Montessori-approved objects, but I was thankful for an excuse to pack away the junky-but-entertaining toys, like the ones that make annoying noises or light up incessantly—even if it only lasts for a few weeks.
2. Be selective about all the stuff
Montessori classrooms and playrooms are sparsely stocked. “The advantage of offering less is kids have to be more creative with what they’ve got,” says Huson. The theory is that kids will be better able to zero in on an activity or object for a more concentrated period of time, instead of aimlessly bouncing from toy to toy.
If your playroom, or the play corner of your family room, is bursting with toys (like mine, I realize,) Huson recommends beginning by sorting and purging. We decided to donate some objects that are no longer of interest, while keeping others back to work into a rotation. I packed some away in bins with the idea of refreshing our play area in a few weeks. “But a lot of parents do find that their children have forgotten about the extra toys after a few months and they decide to just donate that box, instead,” says Huson. (I know for a fact that my 7-year-old won’t forget about any of these toys—she forgets nothing, like, ever—but I’m hoping I can convince her to donate a few more, once she realizes she doesn’t actually need them.)
While some strictly-Montessori play rooms can be very limited in their toy selection, you can ease in with a broader assortment of objects. “I like to make sure there’s a material for all types of play, including building materials, some type of art available, toys for dramatic play and music,” says Huson. Plus you’ll probably want a few soft objects (my girls are stuffie fanatics) and a solid selection of books, of course.
3. Think small
Keeping things kid-sized—from toddler tables and chairs to hanging art at your preschooler’s eye-level—is essential to a Montessori-style play area. Fortunately we already have a preschool table and chair set, but I’ve refocused our time with it, to make it more integral to the play area. (And if you don’t have any little chairs, a few pillows arranged on the floor works just as well, says Huson.)
I’ve organized our toys behind doors in the bottom of the built-in bookshelves in our living room. They’re out of sight most of the time, but the kids can just open the doors when it’s time to play.
“It’s all about having the materials easy for them to see, so they can look around and know what’s available and make a choice on their own,” says Huson.
4. Make a place for everything
Little kids crave order. According to Montessori, and many other early learning philosophies, a bit of structure doesn’t hamper creativity—it encourages it. “In an organized playroom, kids can just have an idea like, ‘’I want to do this thing with this toy” and they know exactly where to go and get it and there’s no distraction of having to search for it and they don’t lose that momentum,” says Huson.
Make this happen by keeping small selections of like objects together, from books to stuffed animals to craft supplies, sorted in small baskets or bins. Keep it even more organized by forgoing the big bucket of Lego, for example, and instead laying out a small selection bricks in a tray on a low shelf, so parts are easy to see.
The biggest bonus of an extra-organized play space: it’s instantly tidier. “When everything has its own place it’s more likely to always be put back in the same place,” says Huson.
Even by the kids, as I’ve found out. In fact, it’s my husband who’s most likely to put toys away in the wrong basket or tray. Luckily, my 3-year-old is now an avid sorter, and happy to set him straight.