How to Incorporate Design for Children in a House?

Category: Children


How do I leverage a toddler's "Me Do It!" enthusiasm?

Now that Grace has appeared on the scene, I'm trying to wrap my head around how to incorporate design for a growing child into the house. A tiny person who will (sooner rather than later I think) want to say "Me do! I do it myself!" And I think that a little person should be in an environment where she CAN sometimes do it herself, instead of hearing, "No, no, no!" or "Musn't touch!" or "Stay here behind the gate!" all of the time. Because, what a drag that is.

(It's a pickle. Occassionally, she likes to suck on them. We closely supervise her, Mr. Internet, and we don't let her eat the rind. Also, it isn't bread, right? Do I also have to mention that you shouldn't let an infant suck on pickles without being closely supervised? I guess I do. Sigh.)

We have already started designing for two different heights, mine and Aaron's. Not many houses are designed for someone as tall as Aaron is and you would be surprised at how this affects everyday life for a tall person. Height of showerheads, handles, countertops, ceilings--how to place everything or offer adjustable alternatives so that all members of the household can comfortably navigate daily life.

Designing living spaces for people of different heights and abilities is called "Universal Design" and there is a lot of literature out there on that. (It doesn't often cover designing for tall people, though.) I'm also interested in specifically what can be designed to accomodate kids. Not just for their physical abilities, but also for their developmental abilities. I want Grace to be able to do some things for herself and feel confident and responsible in doing them.

The designing for children I'm referring to doesn't mean decorating or wall decals or toy bins. It's more about designing space to allow children to participate in everyday activities with us.


(Image courtesy of Garden Gate Montessori School)

Dr. Maria Montessori did a quite a bit of research on child development and education in the early 1900's. Guided by her discovery that children teach themselves, Dr. Montessori designed a very thoughtful environment for children where they could freely and safely choose from a number of developmental activities. One of the more interesting findings to come out of her research was that, given the choice between pretend play and engaging in a real life activity such as cooking, children chose to participate in real life activities. Providing opportunities for this type of independence helped to increase children's self-esteem.

Plus, kids washing dishes! Kids helping to prepare meals! Kids helping to garden! Kids changing the oil in your car! C'mon, am I going to keep Grace from fulfilling her potential by denying her the opportunity to contribute a little child labor to the family cause? Of course not.

There is a lot of material out there on how to design a Montessori classroom. But what about incorporating Montessori principles into a house? How would that work?

This is something that I'm going to have to research more.

The only thing I'm coming up with today are ideas from the products offered by Community Playthings. Hanging clothing hooks at a height designed for a child's reach, organizing a room so that they can put away their own things easily.


It's a start. But there has to be more out there, right?

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One thing I've found helpful in the kitchen is to keep one low, child-accessible draw filled with my daughter's dishes, cups, and silverware. That way she can get her own place settings at meal time and put away her own items when I'm cleaning up the kitchen. I also keep a bar stool in the kitchen that puts her at counter height for helping with meal prep and and dish washing. To make sure she's not doing these things without the appropriate adult supervision, the bar stool isn't one she can climb up herself. That way, someone has to be there when she's working in the kitchen.

Hey Jeanne,

Here are a few thoughts on small things we have done:

We put additional hooks on our halltree about halfway up the post so that the girls can hang up their own things. (I think this is much better than the pictured item you have above)

We have a child height table and two small chairs in the family room that the girls can sit at when eating dessert and watching TV. This spot doubles as a play dough table, drawing board, etc. I can't believe I've never pictured in on the blog, it's known as "The bunny table" I found it at a sale before I was even married and bought it. The chairs are painted and shaped like rabbits and 4 rabbits hold up the table. It looks very 1930's.

Keep a sturdy tall stool in your kitchen, once the kids outgrew the high chair that I kept them in while I washed dishes they could sit on the stool and help me wash. We also keep a sturdy single step stool in every bathroom to allow access to sinks, and there is a single step stool in the kitchen for the counter.

Make sure there is a child sized chair in the kid's bedroom, a great source of these are when elementary schools have garage sales and get rid of their old wooden ones. Seriously!

I guess my last thought is to allow for a small kid scaled "away space" to use Not So Big Houses's term. For us this has been a walk in closet that contains the dress up clothes trunk and can double as a castle, fort, airplane, etc.

that's an interesting question... designing for kids would also, by necessity, be temporary design as, obviously, they change not only developmentally, but're basically considering flexible design in a permanent space...that's fascinating...might you get some useful info from classroom design?

Graduate of Montessori schools here :-) Two of my earliest school memories were learning how to wash my hands properly by myself and cutting vegetables for snacktime with a real knife. I also distinctly remember the storing shelves that we were required to put our school stuff in. Everything had a place, we all knew it, and we could all reach it. Lots of color coding. And my beloved teacher from Ceylon who taught us about other cultures.

Check out the blog, MommyLife. She used to be a Montessori teacher and is the mother of 12 children. She has some very helpful suggestions on how to bring the Montessori philosophy into the home.

When I did my second son's room, I learned a lot from the mistakes I made with my firstborn's room.

One thing you'll have to deal with is loose toys, and larger toys. I learned a lot from my older kid's preschool on this one: cubbies, and one toy per cubby. Sometimes toys are big and have few parts, they can just go in the cubby as if it were a plain shelf. If not, a bin or basket for a cubby can hold blocks, toy cars, musical instruments. The "one type of toy per box/bin" is excellent in making a room that a kid is able to clean up on their own, because they quickly grasp the idea of putting like with like.

I don't recommend stacking bins, because the temptation's too strong just to put a toy down on top rather than lift off the top bins to get at the bottom bins.

We also have "toy funnels" that are mounted on the walls (think of a funnel with the wide end touching the wall). These are colorful and great for storing soft toys like stuffed animals.

I have a set of pictures here:

Be sure to look for the annotations on the pictures.

We have a coatrack in my older son's room -- I don't like it, because people tend to just keep hanging more stuff on it because it's easier than thinking about where it goes. Ditto benches. Assume any horizontal surface will become a place to put stuff, unless the way the room is set up to minimize thought (not effort, but thought) about where to put things.

That site has a link to their catalogs on PDF, or you can buy them for cheap. They have lots of good ideas in them, even if you're not interested in buying their stuff. Though of course, once you see the wee pitchers and all, you're sucked right in!

Hey Jeanne!

I can't believe how big she is getting!

We did a lot of the things people have already mentioned. Thomas uses the hooks at his height get his coat and hat and put them away himself (sometimes). I also put 2x2 handrails in the middle of my deck and step railings which happens to be just the right height for someone about as tall as the rails themselves.

We definitely worked these ideas into our house. With one child and another on the way, it seemed like a good idea. We also tried very hard to keep the kid-customizations impermanent, so we don't have to completely upend our lived when the boys grow older. We love Craftsman style, and fortunately it lends itself to children's things :)

Since redoing the kitchen in period style wasn't possible for us right now, I chose to paint our existing steel kitchen cabinets with blackboard paint, so they could host both drawings and magnets. The kitchen plan has a small table and chairs worked into it, and plans for a toy stove for creative cooking play are in the works. I chose black & white, fire-engine red, and silver for the kitchen to make it interesting to the kids' eyes.

I set aside half of the enclosed porch as a play area and half as my office, so that my work environment is right next to the kids' "work" area. There are small, brightly colored coatracks hung up at child-height and adjustable peg-and-board pine furniture (which we already had) set up in appropriate child-sized ways, as well as a brightly colored soft foam floormat that can be taken up when the boys outgrow it.

I just finished the play area (it was one of the high priorities, since we needed a place for the kids to hang out during the construction). I'm actually planning a blog post about it, but I don't have batteries for my camera right now.

I've blogged about my older son's room, with its built-in desk, bookshelves and open "closet" already.

I really love that other people are looking at this stuff seriousl too.

We are a Montessori family, my kids are now 15 and 9. We modified our house, the most effective items being an adapted bathroom cabinet from Target that held small plates, glasses, pitcher, snack jars, vase for flower arranging. We put cup hooks along the sides for washtowels with loops sewn on and a crumb sweeper. A middle drawer was divided with wire baskets to hold cloth cocktail napkins and small eating utensils. I also found many items at Crate and Barrel (small white plates and bowls, bagel spreaders that are easy to hold and don't cut hands efficiently and cocktail forks, spoons and knives, scoops.) Ikea had the right table and chair from 18-months on up, we had three iterations. Ikea also has those drop leaf tables that are mounted to the wall at any height and my kids used these for baking instead of stools pulled up to kitchen counters. Ikea has these tiny jars that little hands can open, they resemble miniature versions of the old fashioned candy jars. A great stool is a Kick-Step, the ones you see in bookstores/libraries. They stay put and we still use it. The snack cabinet, table and a peg rack with a right-sized (Olaf) mop, broom, pail & sponge, feather duster and velcro (do-it-yourself) apron were all along one kitchen wall. All handles were drilled and a leather loop was attached. These items were easily adjusted for growth or easily removed when my kids outgrew them. We moved, remodeled the kitchen and still built in accomodations. My daughter (5) couldn't reach the cabinets so one drawer holds plates, glasses, bowls with a base cabinet below storing various snacks and basics. Especially when they were young, I don't know who this was more liberating for, me or my kids.

Scott forgot to mention all the showerheads and redos we did in our bathroom because he is darn tall too. When his folks had their kitchen redone they raised the counters....I'm not sure what the average person is supposed to be but it is nice to be able to renovate your house to your standards.

Not a mommy yet, but beginning to muse over such things. A friend's child (almost 2) has a great 'high chair' - called Kinderzeat or Tripp Trapp, it is built by a company called STOKKE. The great thing about the chair is that it allows little ones to get up and down easily by themselves, and it puts them in a position to eat from the 'big person table,' so they are part of the action. Watching this little boy eat his snack at the kitchen table and then pop down to play with his toys - all by himself - made me realize how design can influence a child's freedom and ability to interact. Also remarkable is that the chair adjusts to grow with your kid. With the baby rail attachment, I believe a 6 mo. old could use the chair; there is also a harness available to secure toddlers. Without such attachments, the chair can easily transform to an older child's needs. One of these will be on my wish list someday!


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