Cultivating Montessori-friendly Spaces with Multiple Age Children

As someone who lives in a (relatively) small apartment with two adults and three children, this is something I have had to think about from day one. I often remember fondly the days when I only had one toddler in the space and everything was set up for him. Oh, how easy I had it! Now with two babies 2.5 years younger than the aforementioned toddler. our space looks and works differently.

But the thing is, the Montessori method actually lends itself to incorporating multiple ages in one space. Montessori classrooms have long been divided in spans of three years (0-3 and 3-6 year old classes for example) which encourages younger children to learn from their older peers and older children to cement their understanding and build confidence through mentoring the younger ones. In many ways, it is no different in the home (although not always as peaceful!)

I will say, things didn’t change dramatically for us until Mirai and Taishi started becoming mobile around 10 months so we actually had a lot longer period of peace than a lot of people do! Once they were crawling and starting to get into Asahi’s 3 year old appropriate toys is when things had to change.

Safety

The first thing I thought about was safety. Asahi has a fair amount of small toys, mostly loose parts and puzzles, as well as some toys that are very special to him. The big change that happened for us was moving these toys to his room from our playroom. I wanted the playroom to be a “yes” space for everyone. Asahi could always play with his smaller toys in his room. Only recently have the twins (now 13 months) been “invited” into his room to play and even then I still keep my eye on them. One of the benefits of a small apartment is you can generally tell what they are doing no matter where they are!

The small play space in Asahi’s room. Drawers for his close, a small book shelf, and one plastic drawer of small toys with his shinkansen(bullet trains) on top.

If you don’t have a completely separate room to put dangerous toys in, here are some other options for storage:
– Place small parts to an activity in some sort of locked box or jar that a baby can’t open but the older child can
– Store them in a closet or cupboard where the older child can access it but a baby can’t yet
– Put them on a lower shelf, especially if the baby is standing or walking. They will generally ignore toys that are lower in favor of the ones places at eye level. Of course, you will still need to secure any potentially dangerous pieces.

Playroom closet

Our playroom storage has two drawers, one with a few extra toys and one with art materials, that the kids can access, The upper shelf is meant for storage only but some stuff still comes down every day. Once I shut the door, M and T can no longer access this closet. I would prefer to have storage where the kids couldn’t take things out but in a small apartment you make do with what you have!

Shelf Work

Shelf work is a Montessori staple, but it can be tricky to implement with children of multiple ages and stages. In our current playroom set up, used by two 13 month olds and a 3.5 year old, we have just one shelf from Ikea that is mostly there for the twins. Asahi can use any of the materials on the shelf but he generally prefers to play with his train sets or other open ended toys such as the play kitchen or art materials.

If your children are sharing a shelf, you can organize it based on their level. Crawling babies who aren’t standing will want their materials lower. Where as standing babies will want them at eye level. Take this into consideration when setting up your shelf.

Depending on the age of your children, you may want to have multiple shelves for their materials. Older toddlers and up will start to understand whose work is whose, which lets this setup work. When you have an infant and an older child, you cannot expect the infant to stay away from the older child’s materials if they live in the shared play space. We have the rule that the toys in the playroom are “for everyone” and if someone is using them, they become “not available”. If they are left out somewhere or on the shelf, then they are “available” to be used. We do this instead of insisting on sharing or taking turns because forcing kids to share often leads to anger and hurt feelings. Turn taking is also very difficult to enforce and requires refereeing from you. The terms “available” and “not available” return emphasis to the object instead of the person using it which helps lessen conflicts over toys. Since we have implemented this in our house, we have seen a great decrease in arguments over toys and my preschooler is able to use the terminology as well.

The shelf in our playroom shared by all three kids

You will also notice that we have two corner protectors on the shelf. This isn’t completely Montessori as I think Montessori focuses on natural consequences to help kids learn. I completely agree with the perspective of letting them bump their head now as an infant when they move slowly vs when they are running full speed as a toddler. HOWEVER when you have two infants the same age who are trying to navigate a small space plus a preschooler who is always pushing boundaries, you also have to do what’s comfortable for you. We put these on right when we got the shelf and now that I have seen how they use it, I would feel comfortable removing them. It’s okay to try things out and then change your mind later. How do you think the Montessori method was developed in the first place?

Books

When you have a range of ages in your house, specifically a baby and an older child, your book display will need to be adjusted to fit their needs. When M and T were just crawling, we had this small Ikea shelf in the playroom for their books and Asahi had his selection of books in his room. However, I realized that Asahi wasn’t accessing his books as often and would also pick the same 3 or 4 books instead of a wider variety. After observing this, I decided to get a larger book display for our playroom that they could all share.

Our book shelf with paper paged books on the top rows and board books near the bottom. This style also prevents M and T from pulling them all down (however you can’t see all the covers completely so it’s a trade off)

I decided on this bookshelf for the playroom so we could display more books at once. I chose it because it is lightweight (easier on the tatami floor) and had a lot of display space. The only downside is you can’t see the entire cover of the books since they sit in a little hammock. However, this also prevents M and T from pulling all the books down so there is a positive side to this setup.

Spacing

Figuring out the best set-up for incorporating all three of our children in a small space has taken a lot of trial and error. It was particularly difficult when the twins were babies and Asahi was only 2.5 years because he had a lot less body awareness and having the babies on the floor was simply not safe a lot of the time. Although I wanted to do 100% Montessori from birth with the twins, including using a movement area on the floor, it ended up not working for us in the beginning. We opted for a tall travel crib in the newborn stage and also used a bouncy chair to hold them while I was cooking or bathing them. This wasn’t ideal for their freedom of movement, but we did what we had to do with twins! If you have a baby, incorporating their movement area in a place quite far from your older children is going to give you more peace of mind, depending on the ages of your children and their ability to control their body.

A candid photo from when M and T were newborns. We had a travel crib in the living room where they could rest. I hung their Montessori mobiles from there as well.

Another thing that works for us is spreading out the play spaces as much as possible. When you have all the materials in one area or one room, the kids tend to be on top of one another and disrupt each other. Especially if they are still in the age of parallel play (playing next to someone but not engaging with them) it can be helpful to space things out. You can use a living room shelf or TV stand to display some materials. Or put some toy cars in an empty corner.

If you find a lot of conflicts are arising, the best thing to do is add water or go outside! As soon as you do one of those things (or both!) tensions tend to ease and emotions will normalize. We use our balcony space every day!

Blowing bubbles on the balcony

Final Tips

A few things that can help increase positive feelings between siblings:

  • Integrate practical life activities as much as possible. There’s so much joy in cooking and cleaning together. All three kids like loading and unloading the washing machine and cleaning our windows in our house. It may seem like chores to you, but for kids ages 0-6, taking care of the house is fun!
  • If you have a baby who is always disrupting an older child’s work, try sitting with them for awhile while playing. If you are building towers out of blocks for example, you can sit with the baby and build together while the older child builds their own structure. This shows them that it is possible to play next to one another and also models for the baby how to not disrupt another person’s work.
  • Have a space where your older child can go if they are feeling overwhelmed. Children sometimes want to be alone, just as we do, so it’s okay to let them take some time to play alone in their room or another safe space.

I hope this was useful! Let me know if you have any other tips!

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