3 Steps to Prepare Your Home for Montessori Living
It was overwhelming.
And I am a trained secondary teacher with a postgraduate degree from the University of Cambridge and more degrees than I care to admit. I don't shy away from a challenge nor do I resign easily.
But this Montessori stuff ... made my head spin. It challenged everything I thought I knew and even took a swing at my physical space. My son was 18 months old and we lived in a one bedroom flat in Wrington, Bristol (UK).
As I read Simone Davies' book The Montessori Toddler, and fell in love with Montessori principles and methodology, I cringed as I looked around our little home. What was previously a little humble nest for our growing family, now became a wildly inaccesible and inappropriate space for a toddler.
WHERE are we going to create a toddler accessible space for putting on shoes and coats? HOW are we going to encourage independence and exploration in a kitchen that defines health code violations?
WHAT are we going to use for activity shelves in the communal space of our family room (that also functions as a play room and office)?
WHEN are we going to manage all of these changes and is it even affordable?
Over the course of a few months, and numerous chats with my husband, we began transforming our space and our mindset. Within a year, I was pregnant with my youngest son and we were buying a house.
This meant transforming a brand new space from scratch!
So. Here is my advice and the steps I took to prevent a loss of sanity and abject bankruptcy.
Step 1 | Take Inventory & Prioritise
Take a deep breath, get a journal (oh, look what she did there - shameless plug) and plan.
In all seriousness, here are the questions you should ask yourself:
Where is my child?
No, I don't mean like physically at the moment. Although, maybe just make sure they're okay? I mean, before you change a single thing in your space, observe your child for a few days and identify:
what your child is currently interested in (they may be fascinated by trying to put on their shoes, moving objects from one place to another, pouring out anything they get their hands on, moving toy vehicles or a million other things)- write it all down;
any repeated actions or behaviour that seem like a loop (i.e. throwing objects, taking something out and putting it back, moving up and down steps, moments that consistently frustrate them).
All of this will help you make informed, evidence-based changes to your space that will make it more appropriate for your child. Otherwise, you'll be throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks - and we already have enough mess to clean up!
How am I meeting my child's needs for exploration, independence and confidence at the moment?
Give yourself some credit. You may not even realise how much you're doing in meeting your child's needs (aside from the basic food and poop wiping).
Go from room to room, space to space, and observe your child's interaction with the space. Are they getting frustrated reaching up for things they need or want? Are they able to safely explore? Write it all down!
What is the smallest thing I can change for the biggest impact?
Depending on the stage of development and current interests of your child, based on the aforementioned prompts, what's the biggest change for your buck?
If they're interested in putting on their shoes and getting out the door to play in the garden all the time (like my youngest), it could be adding a few low placed hooks near the door with a small mirror and a wooden crate for shoes! Bam! Independence supported.
If they're 0-6 months and fascinated by their hands and feet, it could be placing a mirror lengthwise against a wall (drill safely) with a soft mat next to the mirror so they can explore their reflection; babies love staring at themselves and fair enough, they are rather adorable.
What do I already have? What do I actually need?
Let me guess, you have the urge to bin everything plastic/battery operated and purchase everything wooden. I get it. And don't get me wrong, I LOVE wooden toys and there are numerous benefits.
But this is a process. Certainly, I would suggest removing some toys that are battery operated (especially the ones with overwhelming flashing lights and sounds) and incorporating ones that are wooden. I would suggest making a list of toys you'd like to donate/sell and slowly phase out. Also, check your local charity shops and online marketplaces for good quality wooden toys. Make a budget! Stick to the budget! You may also want to see if there are toy swap arrangements in your community.
The point here is to observe and plan. This helps to minimise the feeling of being overwhelmed or that inane need to do (or buy) everything at once. It also means making informed changes that will meet your child's needs in real time.
Step 2 | One Project or One Space
Once you have identified an evidence-based plan, take another deep breath. You do not have to do everything at once. In fact, that won't really work in your child's favour - you need time to assess whether the changes are effective and appropriate.
So, take it one project or one room at a time.
When we moved into our new home, I focused on one room at a time (and still doing so, as our spaces will evolve with our children). The bathrooms were an easy win as we simply continued with potty learning for our eldest and our newborn was happily pooping in a nappy; a few extra additions to our new bathrooms and off Z went. We added a floor bed to Z's bedroom and moved the crib into Y's room. They each had an activity shelf in their rooms, but it was stuffed with toys as I was too tired and post partum-ey to rotate for a good while.
And that's the thing. You do what you can when you can. Have a look below at our journey from a teensy flat to a three story house. It was nuts.
How our spaces evolved over time
If your child is in the midst of potty learning, you may want to focus on your bathrooms and making a few changes that would make a large impact. That could be adding a woven basket on the floor with a few books, a change of clothing, and some training pants along with a step and potty seat (or a sitting potty on the floor).
If your child is determined to help in the kitchen, brilliant! A learning tower and a few child-friendly cooking utensils may be the most impactful way to support them.
A few months ago, we were given an IKEA play kitchen and it's taken three iterations and a stint in the garage (as well as in the garden) before finalising how the boys could best use it in our kitchen. That was definitely a project and it took time, patience, observations and a bit of faffing about to make it a useful resource; also took modelling to show the boys how to use its functional faucet and shelves.
The point here is to choose one space or one project at a time.
Step 3 | Make it Inviting & Minimalist
Children are BOMBARDED with sensory overload on most days. Doesn't matter if they are six months or sixteen years old - it can be intense.
I've always wanted to create a space for the boys that is a safe haven, a space they could enter and exhale. A place to detox from the outside; to feel the equivalent of a cosy, winter sweater wrapped around their soul.
A space of calm and nourishment. If minimalism met the Danish sensibility of Hygge, THAT would be my aesthetic.
And that might not be your vision at all. That's okay! But whatever your aesthetic may be, keep it simple and inviting. Visual, auditory and even somatosensory (touch) stimulation can be overwhelming for children and may affect their ability to focus. With my boys, I found that if the space they inhabit is visually chaotic, their behaviour changes. With myself, as a sufferer of misophonia, I know that my behaviour changes for the worse if my auditory senses are overwhelmed.
Declutter. And not just stuff and things, but also sound. Review every space you have and be ruthless in what you allow to stay. From the walls to the floor, what serves the highest (practical, emotional, physical) purpose in each space? Keep it. If it serves no higher purpose, remove it. I don't necessarily mean bin it, but perhaps remove it for the time being. KonMari your way to the Montessori concept of "a place for everything, and everything in its place." It's extraordinary how much children absorb subconsciously and how much they need order around them.
Invite. Maria Montessori observed that a prepared environment, free from clutter and distractions, allows a child to play and learn unencumbered. This is what invites the child to explore. A beautifully prepared space does not need to be complicated; in fact, the simpler the better. A peaceful and calm space invites a child to engage.
Real life photographs of family members, animals or plants at the child's eye level is an easy win.
An IKEA Kallax shelf (whatever dimensions) with one activity on a tray in each cubby is another win; or use the shelving you already have and modify it for your child's access and ability.
Floor or eye level bookshelves with only 3-4 books chosen for your child's current interests is another easy win.
In the case of Montessori methodology, less is very much more.
Final Reflections | Always the Process
As I reflect on our Montessori journey (see what I did there, I'm the worst), it's extraordinary to see how far we have come as a family. I am not a calm or patient person by nature, so I remember and still often feel the urge to change everything immediately. But I'm learning to take a breath, observe and act slowly.
If you need help to slow down, observe and connect please have a look at Our Montessori Journey: A Guided Journal. This is the resource I wish I had years ago and treasure now that I have it as part of my daily process.
And in the meantime, have yourself a beautiful Montessori journey.