Our playroom is a constant parenting pain point for me. For one, I don't really like most toys. My daughter's beautiful dollhouse? Sure, I like that one. The stacks of books? Those can stay. But the other 95% of toys that seem to creep from every corner of our home? I have feelings.
I have spent most of my 4-year-old's life scouring Pinterest and my favorite organization Instagram accounts for tips to declutter her toys and corral what was left in an aesthetically pleasing way, but I was often left with the same result: Our play area would look beautiful right after I finished organizing, but within a few days the mess would return.
Finding a system that worked for my decor aesthetic and her actual play function proved more difficult than I could have imagined. And, like so many other moms, I found that the constant mess and constant labor of curating this mess were sapping some of my joy in motherhood.
In my research, I came across a million articles recommending the Montessori approach to organizing my daughter's toys. But I was skeptical—wide open shelves of toys? No big bins or basket to hide everything? It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.
The truth is, I wasn't sure I would be able to create a perfect Montessori playroom. My girls are fortunate enough to have plenty of people who love them and who gift them a variety of toys (that aren't all the neutral-color-palette, natural-materials variety I prefer and Montessori requires), and sometimes they fall in love with and play often with toys that don't fit within those requirements.
What I wondered was: Is it possible to sort of Montessori my child's toys and still get the same results?
I decided to go for it. Here are four principles of Montessori toy organization I incorporated into our play area—and the mind-blowing results.
1. Minimize the number of toys
Montessori teachers firmly believe that children's minds crave order—and that order is best achieved with a limited number of toys. I started by spending a few weeks observing what my girls played with consistently and for the longest amount of time.
Anything broken or missing pieces was discreetly thrown out or donated. Anything in duplicate was tossed, and I massively pared down accessories to the play kitchen and dollhouse. Anything they didn't play with often (but that I felt held potential for the future) was put into a storage bin in our basement. I was left with 10-15 toys that I knew could hold their interest for longer than 15 minutes.
Children naturally crave order. Because it is often more satisfying to put something back in a specific spot (rather than dump it into a basket of mish-mashed toys), they often arrange playthings on accessible shelves where each item has its designated place.
We already had a cube shelf where I had been previously storing said mish-mashed toys in deep baskets. Now that I only had a few things to put out, I took away the big bins in favor of simply leaving one toy on each shelf. Or, in some cases, I had a smaller bin (that was easier for little eyes to see into) with a few items that all served roughly the same purpose—like the 12 animal figurines that live in my daughter's dollhouse.
My own home's decor is fairly neutral, so most of the organizing bins I already had were either white, ivory, or a natural wood material. I made sure any bins I added followed suit, but also that there were defined areas to work (a small table and chairs), toys were all grouped by category, and that everything was independently accessible.
For example, I took the books off the shelf (where my daughter had a hard time returning them to their places neatly) and put them all in a wooden crate on the floor. I also put the pieces of some of my 4-year-old's favorite puzzles into small wooden bowls. Now, when she wanted to play, she could easily carry the bowl to the table to work, and then when she was done, cleanup was a snap and the bowl was easily returned to its place.
The results weren't perfect—a perfectly Montessori'd shelf would probably have fewer items, and definitely fewer plastic Toy Story characters—but there was something undeniably refreshing about the new set-up. It was shocking to me that even though I was seeing more of my children's toys, the overall result still felt less cluttered.
4. Make your expectations clear
Montessori teachers believe consistency is incredibly important. It was up to me to make our playroom expectations clear and consistent so my daughters could follow them more easily. So I introduced them to the new system. I showed them how each item had its own place to "live" and explained how they could take down whatever they wanted to play with. Then, when they were ready for something else, they simply put this toy back where they found it and could move on to the next thing. I tried to keep my tone positive and confident, but, honestly, I had no idea if it would work. (And, if I'm really honest, was pretty sure it wouldn't.)
But then something remarkable happened: My daughter excitedly took down a box of paper dolls and rushed off to play. I went to the kitchen next to her to start prepping dinner, and then 20 minutes later went to check on her progress. She was now doing a puzzle.
"What happened to the dolls?" I asked.
"I was done with that, so I put them away," she shrugged, pointing to the shelf. The doll box was exactly where I had originally put it. What witchcraft was this?
"Did you put it away?" I asked her in disbelief.
"That's where it goes," she replied, not looking up from the puzzle.
In the next couple of weeks, playtime went similarly. It's not a flawless system—I still have to do a little adjusting every day or remind my daughter gently to put something back where it goes on occasion. But cleaning the playroom now takes me about 5-10 minutes a day, and I haven't had to do a major declutter again since.
So maybe I'll never be a perfect Montessori mom, but even doing a sort-of version has led to so many incredible benefits for my children and me. And that joy in motherhood? It has come back in spades.