Life of 6 / Our Preschool Studio

Maintaining Tidy Play Spaces

I had to field this question so often whenever people see our kids’ room.  They don’t understand how I maintain tidiness and neatness with four little children and with no domestic help.  Then they are shocked that I do very little of that cleaning and tidying because essentially, I have outsourced 90 percent of it to the kids and a bit of it to technology.

Disclaimer: I have never read Marie Kondo, although I think many people assume I am following in her footstep. The thing is I have ALWAYS been this way and my personal friends know how crazy freakish neat I can be.  And the truth is this aspect of me does cause some tension with my husband who is for the lack of a better word, organisational-challenged.

So I decided its time for another blog post. Like I said, I only write when there is a demand for a topic. And today I will discuss how to be tidy, how to teach your kids tidiness, and how to streamline cleaning everyday.  I will focus this post entirely on the spaces children play.  I am not sure if this works for families with one or two children..the thing is I have four children and a very small space.  Four pairs of hands get plenty done in a short amount of time, and the environment is such that there is peer pressure to mimic each other because of the nature of their group dynamics.  So take away what you wish from this posting, what works for you, and what might not apply, but here’s what works for us.

Plan out the play space

This sounds a bit extreme, but I take inventory of every single toy, learning aid and art supply the children have. This is generally how I plan things out for as long as I have been me.  By taking inventory, I mean I have an excel sheet which categorises all their play items.  The reason I do this is to have a clear view of how to plan out the space, figure out what furniture I need to create a beautiful play space, and know which items to display or place in hidden storages, and also create a specific system to rotate out the toys.  It also helps me sieve out items that they have outgrown so that I can put them up for re-sale or donate them immediately.

My simple inventory is divided into 5 columns:

  1. Montessori/Waldorf learning aids, and further subdivided into categories – language, math, and science
  2. Art supplies and further subdivided into categories – play dough accessories, ink and stamp accessories, painting supplies, drawing supplies, types of paper
  3. Pretend play items
  4. Types of building blocks
  5. Existing furniture

So based on what we had, I knew I wanted an open-shelf storage system for the learning aids, a hidden storage system for building blocks and pretend play items, and a mobile cart for art supplies.  I also knew I wanted a cabinet in the bomb shelter to place items that were out of rotation.

Once I  knew what I needed, I set out to find specific furniture for my needs – in this case a big art table, a child-height Montessori shelf, a mobile cart/trolley, a toddler-height slim bookshelf and a toy storage system. I later on added a light table as well.  For the toy storage system, I ended up going  with the Trofast but it wasn’t like I knew this at the beginning. I put an insane amount of thought into it.  I was debating back and fro between the Trofast, Fjalkinge and Algot.  I looked at a billion photographs on Google on how people use these specific cabinets for storage in children’s rooms and I liked them all and did not know which one to go with.  In the end the traditional Trofast won because the specific arrangement I chose gave the option of hiding most of the toys whilst allowing ample space for the more aesthetically-pleasing toys to be displayed.

Incidentally I did the same thing with the children’s bedding.  I googled the hell out of different combinations of sleeping arrangements.

Once I established the furniture required for their room, I did a simple sketch of the room to show the positions of each furniture piece.  Its quite a lot of pieces and if you bought the items before doing this, you might create problems where suddenly you realise they don’t fit in the space you have.  So its better to draw it out so you can visually see the space.  Is there enough space for two kids to walk at the same time, is there floor space to play on the floor, can you open the cabinets fully if you put another cabinet adjacent to it? And etc.

I also used actual measurements – I did not leave much to guestimation because it was a lot to fit into a small space. I specifically used this calculator/converter so I could tell if a particular furniture piece would fit along a particular wall before I even bought the item or how much space is there between the art table and the Trofast.  I also made sure that there was seamless flow throughout the room which made walking around it easy and also by extension, cleaning would also be simplified.


I used actual floor plan and drew in the positions of the furnishings to exact scale

I had gone through so many sketches – I want to say 9 or 10 editions of it.  My husband used to be a draughtsman so I would run my sketches by him and he would give me some input on them.  That was how I found out early on that the kids’ sleeping zone was incapable of fitting two Ikea Kura bunk beds side by side (an idea I was really attached to for months!) and I had to go back to the drawing board and find another bedding system that would fit four girls.

So once you have it all planned out, you are just left to buy the furniture, place it in the positions they were intended and you would have conquered half the battle.  Imagine buying furniture, finding out they don’t fit, or if they fit funny, or realising the space is cramped.  It would have been a waste of money to re-do and for those who don’t re-do then you and your kids have to live with the frustrations of a poorly planned space. And a fellow organisationally-minded friend mentioned that by putting your heart into planning, you are less likely to resort to impulse buying because you have already customised the space and naturally, it would discourage more buying of things.

One more key point to note is to line all shelves with a cupboard/cabinet liner.  I got mine from Ikea.  These liners would be easy to remove to wash off dust that accumulates, or any other type of stain, thus protecting the cabinets and keeping it pristine longer.

Storage within storage

The storage problem does not end when you have cabinets, a Trofast and a mobile art cart. You have little children who need to access their items and you don’t want them to come running to mummy every minute they want something. You also want to set up a system such that wee toddlers as young as 2, can easily pick up, play and then return the item to its original space.

For this you need to embrace secondary storage.  I mean trays, trays and more trays.  We have trays for everything.  Every single group of toy has its own tray. I have a porn folder and if you click on it, you will see the most amazing beautiful organizational trays.  Yes, I love looking at trays!

I mostly bought my trays from Muji, Daiso and Ikea.  If you are especially particular like me, then Muji is the way to go – their containers and trays are beautiful and there is one of every size and shape.  And for those stuff that don’t fit traditional trays, you will need to figure out a way to display or contain them so that after children play, they have a container to return the item.  So for example, we got the kids loose x-ray films, and I bought a plastic container which was meant for keeping photographs to keep these loose x-ray films neatly.  Another example: what do the kids do with their paper once they have completed drawing?  I bought a hanging tray where they can file their paper once they are done. And every once in a while we take out some masterpieces to display and the rest would be disposed for recycling.

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A tray for everything

The nice thing about the Trofast is that it comes  in-built with trays so you don’t need to worry about that.  But its not realistic to hide every single item into a Trofast.  You would want at least half or 40% of the items to be displayed, especially learning aids, to invite children to play.  And to make sure it does not look messy, its important to get nice trays, to contain all sorts of clutter.  Its also preferable that you keep the colour scheme simple because toys itself are inherently colorful.  So the cabinets and trays should be a neutral and basic color like wood, white, frosted or transparent.

Make cleaning accessories and supplies available

Children, believe it or not, enjoy cleaning.  But they don’t enjoy getting nagged at to clean. So from very small, the moment they can walk, start teaching them where things go in the house and getting them involved in clearing after themselves.  Once they are 18 months, you can start making things like dust sweepers, small brooms and dustpans, towels, sponges and squeeze sprays filled with soap liquid accessible so they know when to reach for a particular cleaning supply to tackle a particular mess.  You would also want stools permanently placed at sinks so they can turn on the water themselves to wet/clean their sponge/towels.  I know at the beginning, they will play with the water and cause water wastage so what we actually did was to adjust the valve of their toilet sink so the water flow is at its most minimum.  After a while they got over playing with the water and turned on the tap only when they needed it.

My kids spill water all the time, get paint on the floor, and more than one time, they flooded the room. They also leave play dough bits stuck on the floor, stick colourful stickers on cabinets, and throw sand all over the floor. I never had to clean any of it since the triplets turned 2.5 yo because they know where to find the specific cleaning accessory to deal with the mess.  After they cleaned, I would start the Robo-vacuum to further clean in case the kids missed a spot or two.

Also, establish specific times of the day to clean.  Waiting till the end of the day is too long because after playing for hours, the mess is incredible and they are also too tired to have the energy to clean.  You would want to establish clean-times at least twice or thrice a day so the mess each time is not too overwhelming and at least for the beginning parts of the day they have much more energy for cleaning.  For us, its before breakfast, lunch and dinner/bedtime where they are expected to put away what they were playing with and also clean whatever messes they have made.  If its a particular messy activity like painting, then they are expected to clean immediately when they are done with that activity.  Its come to a point where I have drilled into them enough that they do so automatically.  However, if I notice that they are particularly tired or grumpy, I would let them know I will help them clean up.  So they are not totally off the hook but they are getting some help because it seems they are feeling overwhelmed.  The thing is I have four kids, so if one is grumpy, the other three would be happy to help her.  They do so quite willingly because they understand her feelings.

Another important point is to also invest in accessories that would minimise mess.  We use for instance, silicon mats for play dough; messmatz for paint, using glue, glitter and messy play; and wooden trays for sand play.  All forms of water-play also takes place in the toilet (a reason why our toilets have no screen doors so the kids have lots of space). I have also seen on Instagram where parents or preschool teachers cover art tables with oil cloth, cardboard or thick kraft paper.  In fact you can get a lot of tips following preschool Instagram accounts – these kindergarten teachers are so creative with how they maintain their classrooms. All these mats, trays and table coverings would contain 80-100 percent of the mess so that post-clean up is easier and faster.  Its unrealistic to expect children to do an activity without making a mess, especially kids under 4 who lack the motor skills to control their body movements.

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Wooden trays to contain sand

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Silicon mats for play dough play

I understand though that if you are not very organisational-minded, this can all be overwhelming.  In this case, where I would start to look at is clutter.  Reduce them to just a few play items – kids don’t need all that much to survive when it comes to everyday play.  I know we seem to have a lot of things but we have four kids and I am very mindful of what we have and how to go about taking care of them.

There you have it, my top tips and advice on being tidy with kids.  Hope it helps!

Further Reading

How to encourage your child to clean up and why it’s important?

Why does Montessori teach my child to clean tables?

Montessori practical life cleaning activities

Montessori inspired sweeping activities

Cleaning up toys: how and why to teach kids responsibility

7 thoughts on “Maintaining Tidy Play Spaces

  1. Hey Ermita!

    Love your post and will be reading it up in more detail

    One question.. do your children take other toys or your Montessori materials and interplay with other things or engage in pretend play?

    Mine do and it results in a very messy play area.. wonder if I should limit what they can take out to play at a time or will that hinder their pretend play?

    What’s your thoughts?

    • Hi Mei, thanks for reading. There are three ways about this, depending on your OCD-level. 1 is as you suggested, limiting their toys which is perfectly fine. Kids are more imaginative with less toys. But the other is letting them be and then making them responsible for cleaning up when they are done making a mess. My kids are only 2 and 4 and even the littler ones are capable of returning very tiny loose parts to their original trays/containers. The last thing you can consider is limiting the area where they make a mess: letting them know that they are limited to a certain play area, or even just a tray.

      But I empathise with the mess, if you follow my Instagram, I give some tips on containing and dealing with mess from time to time.

  2. Pingback: Art supplies and resources | The Crafty Academic

  3. you amaze me all the time Mita. love the tips. dont have kids but always wonder how u organise and make the kids self sufficient.

  4. Hi, I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for sharing these great tips. These help me to plan for toys and stationary organization project that I am about to start. May I know where do you get the playdough mat? This may be the solution I’m looking for. Thanks!

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