Our playroom was crammed with blinking and buzzing toys, neatly stored puzzles and games, shelves full of picture books, well-used baby dolls, dress-up costumes and artwork hanging on the walls. It seemed like paradise for our three young children.
Until Simone Davies turned it upside down.
Ms. Davies, a Montessori teacher in the Netherlands and author of “The Montessori Toddler,” spends her days teaching parents and children how to apply Montessori principles at home. Just as Marie Kondo is helping people declutter and organize, Ms. Davies helps parents turn homes into places that are more functional for the family, instill autonomy in the smallest members of the household and create a greater sense of peace — all in the Montessori spirit.
She came to my New Jersey house a few weeks ago with the intention of showing me how to create a room that engaged my children rather than one that catered to my notions of what makes a good play space. I was skeptical: What could possibly be done that would make a noticeable improvement in our lives?
Developed in the late 1800s by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, the Montessori method used educational approaches to help children with emotional and mental disabilities. Today, it has become a widely accepted instructional system that aims to give any child more ownership of their learning.
“In traditional education, the teacher stands in the front and leads the class,” said Ms. Davies. “In a child-led approach, we let them learn through play and their interests.”
The goal in applying these principles at home? More autonomous and engaged children; less time spent helping children figure out what to do to fill their time.
At home, “we support our children to make discoveries for themselves, we give them freedom and limits, and we enable success by setting up our homes so they can take part in our daily lives,” Ms. Davies writes.
It was this latter part of the promise that most appealed to me: My kids would play without needing my intervention? It sounded great in theory. My husband and I have three kids, ages 7, 4 and 1, and we both commute to work for demanding jobs, with an au pair and grandparents in the mix. I had a place for everything but with so many different people in charge of the children, I often found it frustrating when things weren’t where they were “supposed to be.” But if the kids could handle the responsibilities of keeping a tidy playroom, maybe that frustration could be alleviated.
But as Ms. Davies started pulling every toy out of my obsessively organized toy closet, a low-level panic set in.
“What are your children’s favorite toys?” Ms. Davies asked.
“Their iPad and Kindle,” I said, only pretending to be joking.
She got to work. There was sorting to be done. (We found all the missing puzzle pieces!) The primary colors of our easel were painted over in a neutral gray to let the children’s artwork stand out. We removed large, distracting or noisy toys from the playroom floor in favor of more subdued wooden ones. We used furniture and toys we had, keeping the makeover budget modest.
And the great reveal: a playroom that was unquestionably tidier, calmer and more inviting.
Here are some of the changes that had the biggest impact.
The Reading Corner
My older children used to pull books from a crowded bookshelf, and frequently left them all over the house.
Ms. Davies marked off a corner with an old, soft quilt on the floor, cozied up with unused throw pillows and a few favorite soft toys. Much to my surprise, she then removed all the books from the bookshelf, grouped them in the closet for each child and put out just a few in baskets. The bookshelf became a display space for small plants (which I had bought for $9 each), photos of my kids and a few of their favorite mementos.
Without the array of books on the shelves, the corner felt calmer. “Kids feel more relaxed in a neutral room,” Ms. Davies said. So far, my daughters love their new Montessori-esque responsibility of watering the plants once a week. (We’ll see how long it lasts.)
Trays, Baskets and Bins
“We childproof to put things out of reach of the child, so we should put the things we want them to play with in reach,” Ms. Davies said. She uses shallow bins and trays to display items rather than to hide them away.
In addition to the book baskets, we now have two canvas bins (previously used in the closet for storage) on the floor for a few of my baby’s toys. One contains four soft balls, the other a few cars of varying sizes and types.
“Only put out as much as you are willing to clean up,” Ms. Davies said. (“Can I leave them empty?” I asked.)
On the shelves, small plastic trays ($3 each) featured different activities geared to the older kids: one for blocks, one with scissors, paper and stickers for crafts, and one filled with tiny plastic butterflies with toy binoculars.
“Trays make it clear to your child what belongs together,” Ms. Davies said.
When my older children got home from school on the day of the makeover, one went immediately to the craft tray and started snipping away, while the other set up a “butterfly yoga” scene with the nature-based tray.
Less Is More
Perhaps my favorite lesson: Kids play more when there’s less to play with.
Instead of taking out all 300 pieces of the magnetic building toy I had kept in a giant sack, Ms. Davies placed about 20 pieces of varying shapes on a tray, and put the rest back into the closet. Instead of a tub of crayons being left on the table, a dozen were placed in a cup holder hung on the wall ($17 for four magnetic strips, $9 per magnetic cup).
While rotating the toys on display does take some effort, it makes the playroom more interesting for the kids. Another benefit: because they aren’t playing with 100 tiny pieces of anything any more, there is much less to clean up at any one time, and the older kids can and do handle it themselves.
“Kids don’t need as much as we think they do,” Ms. Davies said. “They get more creative when there’s less.”
Ms. Davies prefers simple, wooden or plainer-looking toys that have one clear purpose — roll cars down a track, place coins in a slot, push a button for music — over brightly colored, blinking, noisy toys I won’t miss. We’ll be happily giving those away soon.
Spaces With a Purpose
My 1-year-old immediately fell in love with the little nook that was set aside for him, containing one simple toddler toy per shelf, within reach of his little arms. (Ms. Davies had lowered art to be at kid level; it had to be moved back up because of those little arms — and grabby hands.) The 4-year-old loved that I was suddenly leaving out scissors and glue for her to use at will since the tray they were in contained any mess and made it clear what she was allowed to cut and make sticky.
I was a little skeptical about the Montessori approach at first but in practice I can see a certain logic to it, and may even add Montessori-based concepts to other areas. Ms. Davis suggested a chart listing the morning routine with words and images to help the children get ready with less help. A small dust pan and broom in the kitchen would allow the children to clean up after mealtimes. Will they use it? Like the rest of this experiment, it can’t hurt to try.
In the end, I’ve taken away a few pretty big lessons from the experience. My kids can handle more than I think they can, if I set them up for success. They don’t need nearly as many toys, books and games as the commercials, grandparents and their whining would have you believe. And, I’m pretty sure no makeover, no matter how big, will completely redirect the pull from screens. At least now, when it’s time to put the tablet down, there’s an activity set up and waiting for their growing minds.