Interior Design for Your Child’s Growing Independence

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Recently our sister publication Durham Magazine hosted a live Facebook forum on Interior Design for Your Child’s Growing Independence with the Montessori Children’s House of Durham! They chat with Director of Outreach Lyn Dickinson about topics ranging from ideal outdoor set-ups for toddlers to storage solutions. Here’s the full transcript from the forum.

Montessori Children’s House of Durham: Good morning! I’m excited to join you. We love this topic!

Durham Magazine: Let’s start off with this question: What would Montessori-inspired home look like?

MCHD: A Montessori-inspired home is one in which the needs of children and their parents are respected. Spaces in the home would be organized to facilitate both the independence of all family members and their ability to enjoy shared time and activities. Because independence changes as children grow, I think the best way to approach the idea of independence in the home is to familiarize yourself with these two concepts. The first is to see your child as capable and worthy of your trust and the other is expressed by this Montessori quote: “These words reveal the child’s inner needs: help me do it alone.”

In practice, these are features of a Montessori inspired home: the child’s belongings are placed on low-shelves or something easily accessible by the child and limited in quantity; the child is involved in the activities of the home – give your child the job of putting out the placemats at the dinner table, chopping apples for her snack, or feeding the dog in the morning; provide an enriching home environment and then give your child the space to explore this environment; and finally, respect (trust) the child’s developmental process and don’t rush or push a child to milestones.

DM: Good practices to put in place. Thanks, Lyn!

DM: How would you get a child to help clean up toys after playtime is over? Especially if the child just wants to start playing with them again instead of putting them away?

MCHD: Oh, great question. I face that in my own home! First, keep playthings to a number that is manageable. Have a place for each item (specific shelf, basket, etc.) and consistently keep each item in its place. Remind children to clean up regularly so that the clean up job does not become overwhelming.

For instance, your child could put away the toy he is playing with before getting out another. You could also try incorporating clean up into your child’s daily routine by having specific times of day everyday that are clean up times.

Let the child know in advance that a clean up time is coming. “In 10 minutes, we’re going to clean up.” “In 5 minutes, we’re going to clean up the playroom.” “It’s time to cleanup the playroom now.” A visual timer may help young children with this also.

DM: Say your 3-year-old is always asking to “help” in the kitchen. What kinds of things can you actually let him or her do, and how can one make their kitchen more child-friendly?

MCHD: Yes, 3 years old is a perfect time to involve your child in preparing food! Giving your child the right tools for her hand (child-sized spatulas and spoons, butter knives and spreaders, tongs, and small pitchers are a great place to start) and giving her a safe way to access the counter (with a step stool or learning tower) are important.

We recommend as a great resource to find such child-sized materials. Here’s a photo of the types of tools we’re talking about:12042919_476280479218963_7902554068088101559_n

Good activities to start with could be stirring muffin/pancake batter, helping you knead bread, dumping ingredients from measuring cups into the bowl, slicing soft fruits like bananas, strawberries, or pears, and tonging ingredients (like cubed cheese or cut fruit) onto a serving plate. Also, be sure to demonstrate each skill before handing if off to your child to enable his or her success. Finally set aside a low cabinet for all your child’s kitchen things (plates, bowls, cups, trays, safe utensils and tools) so that he can easily get to them himself.

DM: Thanks for the visuals – always nice to know what exactly to look for!

DM: What’s better: a playroom or designated play areas in the most-frequented rooms?

MCHD: Well, a playroom is ideal, but not always possible. In cases where playrooms are not available, a designated play area in the living room and/or space in the child’s bedroom are good.

It is most important that the toys and books the child has available are stored in an organized manner and that the number of items are manageable for the child/children using them. It is better to keep some of the toys in storage and allow children to trade out toys they have used for a while.

Check out these photos, courtesy of 12009778_476281712552173_1030145943937888627_n12002076_476281622552182_2331169470402158247_n10313293_476282082552136_6657117931095742789_nAlso, check out this blog from a Dallas mom about how she transformed her play spaces. I love her perspective. 

DM: Pinterest, HGTV and other resources show how every room in the house can be transformed into a kids’ room. But should they be? What if you want to keep some spaces adult-centered?

MCHD: It’s fine to have some rooms “off-limits,” such as a home office or exercise room, if that’s what feels right to your family. The child should then be kept out of those rooms, since there won’t be appropriate things for her to use. However, involving your child in the daily routines of your house and family (and in as many rooms as is possible) is a nice way for her to feel included in the family life.

DM: Those are the types of rooms that makes sense to make “off-limits.” Thanks, Lyn!

DM: Is there such a thing as an ideal outdoor set-up for toddlers? Just trying to take advantage of the weather while it lasts!

MCHD:  Oh yes! We think it’s ideal (and necessary) to spend time outdoors everyday. Children should be able to have their hands on dirt, grass, and trees! Water and sand tables are a great investment, as many young children will spend hours enjoying these. Deck boxes are a great way to store outdoor toys. Have a small garden area, which could be a raised bed, along with real, child sized garden tools and gloves.

Raking is another wonderful fall activity for young children – they love the big movements and strength needed for this kind of activity! Buying a child-sized rake and giving a lesson on how to rake are important first steps. Low shelving where the child can find his tools and a hook or two for brooms and rakes may be all you need!
Here are some photos of great home outdoor spaces: 12047181_476285659218445_4765317809076189743_n
This sandbox has real kitchen tools for digging and playing.
This is a great way to have even the youngest children play safely outdoors.12027699_476285949218416_767802940819536031_n

DM: It’s always fun to make a big pile of leaves to jump into, as well! Great ideas for fall.

DM: Baskets, cubbies, closet: Is any one storage solution better than the others?

MCHD: Each of these items is a wonderful storage solution for children’s belongings. Baskets are good for grouping play things such blocks, cars, dolls, or kitchenware. Shelves are good for storing art materials, books, or puzzles. Closets are good for storing clothing, baskets of playthings, or shoes.

DM: Ginny Robinson asks, “My dining room feels very formal, and my kids tend to eat mostly in the kitchen. What do you suggest for moving family dinners to the dining room?”

MCHD: Start with comfort in mind. Use child-friendly settings and utensils on a spill-proof tablecloth. Make sure the chairs are comfortable enough and adjust the height if necessary so that children aren’t seated too low. Involve the children in setting the table and even arranging a fun, seasonal centerpiece.

We also believe it’s important for children to learn table manners, so eating together as a family is a great opportunity to teach that. Even if it’s only for special occasions, having seated dinners together is encouraged, even with the youngest of children.

DM: A fall centerpiece sounds like a fun Pinterest project for both the parents and kids! A follow-up question from Ginny: “My toddler likes to move things from room to room, making cleanup a complete nightmare trekking all around the house. Should I let go of ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ and just tidy things up in the room she’s moved them to?”

MCHD: A toddler’s need for order is as great as (or greater!) than your own. They develop a significant sense of calm and confidence when they know where to find things – it gives them a sense of control over their lives. So don’t give up!

One strategy in this case is to have a basket or bag available so your child can pick up pieces while trekking around the house. Then at the end of the day, you can re-sort materials with your child to their proper place.

The simpler the environment, the easier it is for toddlers to participate in maintaining order. Spills, messes, and accidents are a natural part of the day, but toddlers are capable of (and can enjoy) participating in clean up as well, particularly if their tools for doing so are working, right-sized materials.

DM: Should a 3-year-old be able to dress himself or herself? If so, should certain items of apparel be within reach in his/her room?

MCHD: Yes! A three year old should have most of his/her clothing available. You may want to pick out clothing the night before and have it laid out for quick dressing the following day. If your child has a unique sense of fashion, allow that for school days and days at home. For occasions that require specific wardrobe pieces, explain and allow your child to pick within the required dress code.

To contribute to a 3 year old’s independence in dressing him/herself, have available clothes that are easy to put on. For instance, pull on shirts that are large enough to fit over their heads easily, pants with elastic waists, socks that are large enough, and slip on shoes.

You may consider storing certain types of items (such as socks, underwear, t-shirts) in easily accessible baskets if drawers are too heavy and closet shelves are too high.

DM: How much independence should a 3-year-old have in terms of bathing, and how should the bathroom be set up to support more independence?

MCHD: When self-care tasks are broken into small steps, they contain many fascinating points of interest for the child. Children can pour the right amount of shampoo, massage gently with their fingertips, and rinse to song or counting game using a small pitcher for pouring.

Several easy ideas make bathrooms more accessible for 3 year olds. A stable platform stool makes reaching the sink, counter, or toilet seat easier. Child sized towels and washcloths hung low within reach encourage a child to wash and dry hands and independently hang up a towel back in its place.

Of course water toys for the bath are great fun, and a net bag or low shelf adhering with suction cups helps to store and dry the toys between use. As with any space, less is more. Have only a few bath toys out at a time and rotate these periodically for interest.

For bathroom cleanups, consider cutting a kitchen sponge into 2 or 3 smaller, child-sized sponges or a smaller version of whatever you typically use. After all, children are most interested in using tools like their parents use, in their own comfortable sizing. Finally, for safety, all children should be supervised while in the bathtub.

DM: Final question: What’s the best way to foster independence around the home — within reason, of course. Still want parents to be the bosses here!

MCHD: When your child can make a choice, let her choose. Asking your child to choose between two (parent-approved) outfits is a way to support your child’s need for independence and involvement while still being able to “control” the final decision. But don’t offer a choice if you aren’t 100% ok with either option! Children need their choices to be respected.

This is not to say that they make all of the family’s choices, however; they also need confident, calm leaders who will set limits and follow-through with them. Giving children limits helps them learn about their world and makes them feel secure. Yes, parents are absolutely still the boss.

DM: We’ve learned so much. A huge thank you to Lyn of Montessori Children’s House of Durham for sharing her expertise! For more information about Montessori Children’s House of Durham, call 919-489-9045 or visit them online at

MCHD: Thanks for your time and questions this morning! It’s been such a pleasure.

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