Montessori has a reputation for being a little serious. While other child-rearing approaches emphasize fantasy and make-believe, Montessori focuses on educating children within the context of the real world. Some people even criticize the Montessori method by claiming that children in Montessori environments never get a chance to play. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Montessori playrooms are intentionally-designed spaces that optimize children’s opportunities to learn through play. These play spaces prioritize simplicity, function, and accessibility so that children can move about independently and comprehend their options for play without becoming overwhelmed. Montessori playrooms include child-sized furniture and accessible shelving with a small selection of clearly-displayed toys and materials.
The Montessori method emphasizes that play is the “work” of the child and that by engaging in play, children are learning and growing. One of the most important things parents and caregivers can do to facilitate this growth is to set up a Montessori playroom. Read on to find out what a Montessori playroom looks like and how to set one up in your home!
What Makes a Montessori Playroom Different?
Before we start, let’s keep it simple: a Montessori playroom is just a playroom. Anyone can make one in their home or classroom. They don’t have to be custom-designed by an architect or made of specialized materials. It’s just a room for children to play in. But what makes a Montessori playroom special? What makes it more than just a playroom?
A Montessori playroom is set up and organized according to evidence-based methods designed to best support a child’s development. These playrooms adhere to certain principles that have been tested and refined for over a century in order to make play a rich, engaging, and child-centered experience.
“Child-centered experience?” you might be asking yourself. “Isn’t all play child-centered?”
Well, not entirely… A lot of play spaces and experiences for children are designed by adults based on what they think children want. This means loud, overstimulating environments full of colors and sounds and lots of activity. And, sure, these environments can be fun for a while, but they are often overwhelming and fatiguing for most children after even a little bit of time.
If you’ve ever brought your child to a birthday party at an arcade or similar venue, they were probably overstimulated, exhausted, and irritable by the time you left. This is because children are always in the process of internalizing an immense amount of information about the world around them, so even the smallest sensory experiences feel big to them.
Montessori playrooms, in contrast, attempt to take a child’s-eye view when making design and layout choices. Simplicity, function, and accessibility are the goals to consider when creating a playroom so that children can move through them freely and with full agency and comprehension regarding their options.
Montessori playrooms typically involve child-accessible shelving and toy-storage, a curated selection of clearly-displayed toys, and comfortable places for your child to sit, stand, and move around.
The Do’s and Don’t of a Montessori Playroom
Here are some of the do’s and don’ts of Montessori playrooms:
- Keep it simple. This applies to color-scheme, layout, activity choices, and furniture.
- Make it cozy! Think about what you can do to make the room feel comforting, inviting, and safe. Soft furniture, blankets and pillows, inviting spaces, cozy little nooks, etc…
- Create a child-focused environment. Everything in the playroom should be easily accessible for your child without adult help. This means child-sized furniture, toys stored in easy-to-reach locations, a completely child-safe and accessible environment, and a space that can be navigated intuitively by children of any age.
- Have a place for everything and everything in its place. Instead of keeping toys jumbled together in one giant toy chest or bin, have them displayed neatly on a child-accessible shelf. (Only store toys that you don’t want your child using.)
- Limit choices. Sometimes having too many options can be overwhelming for children. This can lead to kids claiming “there’s nothing to do!” when they have dozens of toys at their disposal because their brains can’t fully process each toy. Choose 8-10 toys or activities to display in the playroom for your child to choose from and store away the rest out of reach.
- Mix it up! Make sure that the toys you display for your child to use comprise a variety of activities and touch on different types of learning. If you already have a sensory toy targeting fine motor skills, try to choose another toy that works with gross motor skills or teaches number sense.
- Mix it up even more! As a parent, you are an active part of the child-centered environment of the playroom. Observe how your child plays. As you notice them growing bored with one toy (not within one day but over a period of days or even weeks), swap it out for a new option.
- Spend all your time cleaning up after your child! The Montessori balance is one of autonomy and responsibility. “Child-centered” doesn’t mean that adults are waiting on their children hand and foot. A child-centered environment is a space that children take ownership over. This means that they should feel free to move through the space as they please and make choices about what they do, but it also means that they are responsible for keeping their playroom clean and organized.
- Spend a bunch of money on a “themed” room or fun wall murals. Children thrive in simplicity. A simple Montessori playroom might look boring to you as an adult, but to a child, it’s warm, cozy, welcoming, and safe. Don’t spend a ton of money and hours of your time creating that jungle-themed playroom you saw on Pinterest. Your child will outgrow it in a few months anyways.
- Be afraid of open space! While traditional playrooms are often crammed with wall-to-wall activities, Montessori playrooms are designed to allow children to move freely. That means they should have space to run around and dance and use their bodies without bumping into hard furniture or knocking things over!
- Make it about you. This sounds harsh, but we’ve all been in a place where we’re so excited about an idea we have for our child that it’s hard to let it go when it doesn’t play out the way we want in the real world. Maybe you loved Dr. Seuss as a kid and always dreamed of making a Dr. Seuss-themed playroom, but that might not be what’s actually best for your child. As hard as it can be, making the best choice for your child might not be as fun for you.
So, now that you have an idea for what a Montessori playroom should look like, how do you bring it to life in your home?
How to Set Up a Montessori Playroom in Your Home
As always with this kind of “how-to” section, it’s important to remember that this will look different for everyone. And that’s okay! Not everyone has a spare room in their home, or a room for each child, or a house at all! Many of us aren’t in a position to go to Ikea and buy a new child-sized shelving unit, or invest in a whole bunch of high-quality Montessori toys.
A lot of us don’t even have time in our busy schedules to repaint! That is all completely fine. Remember, Montessori was never designed to be exclusively used by families with a ton of resources or lots of time on their hands.
In fact, Montessori is one of the only educational approaches that’s truly designed to be used by everyone. Simplicity is key.
And this is part of what makes Montessori so great! It’s all about simplicity and being intentional, and it can work anywhere. Take a look around your home. Where do you see an opportunity to create a playroom? Is it the spare room you rarely use or is it that one corner of the living room that feels a little aimless? Is it your child’s room or do you have a vision for finishing the basement and turning it into a play space?
Once you’ve chosen a space, you can start by thinking about how to make it safe, accessible, and inviting for your child. Again, simplicity is key here. Are you in an apartment and you aren’t allowed to repaint those drab, grey walls? It doesn’t matter! Grey is totally okay. No need to repaint it your child’s favorite color. Instead, think about what is within your control. Start with function and then move towards comfort.
So, starting with function, think about how you can make the space child-centered and organized. Do you have shelving that is child-sized? Move it into the space. Don’t have any low shelves? Can you buy some? Are there any available on for cheap or free on places like craigslist or Facebook marketplace? Could you use the bottom levels of some high shelves? If you or someone you know is handy, could you build some? Could you get creative with it? Maybe you can create a grouping of shelves by standing up bins or wooden boxes in a row. You can also get creative with baskets of all types.
No matter what, make sure that your child can reach any shelf or area they might need and that everything is safely secured so that it doesn’t pose a safety hazard. Remember, if a kid can grab it, they can pull it, and you don’t want them pulling a heavy shelf down on themselves.
Now, think about what else you want to include in this space. If you have floor toys like a pikler triangle or climber, find a space for them where children can use them safely. Think about where you can set up furniture and places for your child can sit, lie down, or hide. If you don’t have child-sized furniture and can’t afford to get any right now, think about using pillows, carpets, blankets, and beanbag chairs! It can be good to have a flat surface like a tabletop or an empty set of shelves for children to use as well.
Once you get your basic environment set up, you can move onto toys, books, and activities. As mentioned before, the most important things to remember here are to limit choice and to ensure everything has an organized place. Have a space for books, a space for toys, and a space on the floor for larger toys. Make sure that you are choosing books your child can read independently (or at least interact with independently depending on their age) and toys they know how to use. Each toy and book should have a specific spot where it “lives.”
The last part of setting up a Montessori playroom is introducing it to your child. Give them a tour and show them where everything “lives.” Make sure they know how to take out and put away everything in the room and understand what it means to keep the room clean and organized. You can even have them practice this until they feel confident and feel ownership over the space.
Montessori Playroom Ideas and Inspiration
Now, I know that this whole article has stressed simplicity, but that doesn’t mean that setting up your own Montessori playroom can’t be fun! Even though the Montessori method discourages busy, overstimulating environments, Montessori playrooms are often beautiful, calming spaces for children and adults alike. It can be fun putting your personal spin on the playroom and even more fun if you and your child design it together!