“Order is one of the needs of life which, when it is satisfied, produces a real happiness.” ~ Maria Montessori

The need for taming our toys (books, puzzles, games, and more) became apparent early on. Our shelves were edited and attractive, the baskets were accessible and the floor space was plentiful, but it didn’t take long before the shelves were empty, the baskets turned over and the floor space had toys strewn from one end of the room and spilling into the next. It was then that it occurred to me, “freedom with limits”, as Dr. Montessori cautioned; the children needed boundaries. After a little trial and error, the greatest success in taming our toys came from the three tips below:

1. Less really is more. Having fewer toys on the shelf helps the child focus and engage for longer periods of time and in more open-ended ways. Fewer toys also increases the chances of the toys making it back to the shelf. It’s not nearly as overwhelming to put away a few things as it is for many. Toys placed individually on the shelf, in low trays or in shallow baskets make choices easier too.

2. For babies and young toddlers, try using a solid white blanket as the primary play space. The white color (or a light color) does not compete visually with the toys, it’s easy to see small pieces and it offers clear boundaries. The adult must help the child keep the toys on the blanket and offer her clues, e.g., “I see the toys have rolled off the side of our work mat (I refer to it as a ‘work mat’ for language consistency). Let’s put them back on our mat so no one will step on them.” Placing a 2’x3’ mat (see #4) in front of the toy shelf works well for toddlers. The young child tends to pull things off the shelf and on to the floor in front of it.

3. The older child (18 months and up) begins playing/working on a traditional Montessori style mat — 2’x3’ white cotton dhurrie style. This mat works well with most of our floor-friendly toys and activities and can be easily be used in various locations. It’s easy to carry, roll out and then roll up when the child is finished. The blanket or multiple mats can be used for large scale activities. This not only defines the ‘play/work’ area, it shows respect for the toys and work space and, as in a Montessori classroom, the child should walk around the mat, not on it.

Both the blanket and mat serve as a visual ‘control of error’. Once the mat or blanket is full, something has to go back on the shelf before the child can play with the next toy. As the child becomes older, she will be in the habit of putting things away before taking the next toy out.

Of course, there will be times when toys will be enjoyed from room to room or creativity will find its own path. But by developing a routine and consistent play space that is manageable most of the time, stress will be less and home spaces will be more attractive — calm, comfortable and clear of clutter — for the youngest of children to head off and explore.

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