5 tips for how to live in a small space with small children and enjoy the experience:
- Give every item you own a designated home in your space
- Edit, Edit, Edit – save only the basics that you need in the present season and pass on the rest
- Recognize that less is MORE – more breathing room and more free time from NOT picking up and shuffling items
- Intentionally cultivate the culture of your space – everyone feels all the feelings
- Embrace the inherent opportunities for creativity
Small space living with kids can be an enjoyable, intentional process. Although there are challenges, the benefits for you and your children are huge. You can live in a small space with kids in a way that improves your life by increasing your organization and creativity.
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Our journey into small space living
My husband’s and my first home together was a 500 square foot apartment. Built in the 1920s, we loved the tall ceilings, white walls and carpet, and big, south-facing windows. We didn’t have a lot of furniture and it was wintertime. So in an effort to save money, we put a double bed someone gave us in the living room. We used it for both our couch and our bed. And we shut off the bedroom so we didn’t have to heat it.
A year and a half later, we welcomed a 17-year-old student from France to come live with us. She got the bedroom while we stayed in the living room.
We affectionally called our kitchen a “one-butt” space. And the bathroom had no shower (just an old, claw-foot tub). But all three of us lived there happily for over 6 months until my husband and I moved to Thailand.
The experience of those early years of marriage cemented something in my husband and me: we like small spaces. We like the coziness, and we like how it pushed us toward creativity. And we LOVE how easy it is to clean and tidy up in a hurry!
Why small space living WITH KIDS?
Three years ago, when our first daughter was 8 weeks old, we moved from a bedroom in a shared home into a 450 square foot “Granny Flat.”
Now we have a three year old and a one-year-old. Our Granny Flat is technically a one-bedroom, but it has a utility/storage room that we use for the girls’ bedroom. Our 18-month-old has a crib, and the 3-year-old has a crib mattress on the floor. It isn’t without some challenges, but overall, we love our home and love how it works for us.
If you’re about to move into a small space, or about to bring a baby home into a small space, my biggest encouragement is that IT CAN WORK! Small space living with kids does take intentionality and a bit of effort. But truly, small spaces produce disproportionally big blessings.
These are five things that we have learned to do to help make our home harmonious and comfortable.
1 – Everything Has a Home in a Small Space: Put Things Away!
This is an absolute must for me. Clutter and stacks overwhelm me. I need breathing room! My walls need to have a bit of blank space! The table gets cleared off before bedtime at night. I like having some empty counters, empty space on shelves, and relatively empty bedside tables.
So in our apartment, we assign a “home” to everything. This also helps us know when we need to get rid of something. If there isn’t space for it, we either pass on the item, or find something else to get rid of to create a spot. “Temporary Holding Zones” expire after 24 hours.
As part of the bedtime routine for our kids, we make sure they help us put the toys, crafts, clothes, etc (whatever they’ve used that day) away for the night. We use spare moments during the day to “Tidy-Up.” But even if a hectic day prevents tidying throughout the day, we include our kids in the nighttime clean-up ritual.
As part of the dishes routine, we wipe down the table and clean off the counters. And we typically fold and put away laundry before bed.
Basically, every night before bed the house returns to its “standard” state, so when we start the next day, we are starting with a clean slate. But, in order for our target efficiency to work, we need to know every item’s “home.”
2 – Edit, Edit, Edit: Save only the Basics, Pass on the Rest, Continually Adjust for the PRESENT season
Growing up, I used to think that once you got your house the way you wanted it, you just maintained it. I thought it would be a static thing. Now, I believe that is a myth: just like a family is ever-growing and evolving, and each person is ever-growing and evolving, a home must grow and evolve too. Different seasons of life require equipment.
My two girls are beyond the infant stage, so as a result, the toys I have for them aren’t infant-toys: we don’t have a play mat or teether or cloth books. They aren’t using them, so it doesn’t make sense to keep them out. Just like I don’t keep my wool sweaters and long-johns out during the summer, I need to adapt my house for what season of life and development my kids – and our family – is in.
I do the same thing in our pantry, our laundry room, our living room, and our bathroom. For example, I always keep cough syrup in a “medical supplies” basket on the top shelf of our linen closet. We don’t need it very often, so I don’t see a point in using prime real estate in the quick-access bathroom drawers. Whenever I do need it, I can pull it out and use it.
Sometimes I keep raisins and dates in our open-shelves next to the sink, sometimes I keep dried cranberries and apricots there. I don’t need to keep all of them out and accessible all the time. One or two choices is enough for our family to have.
Living in a small space for me requires regularly questioning myself, “Do I need that item THERE right now? Do I need it at all? How can I keep the most used parts of my house stocked with the most used items in my house, and relegate the less-used items to the less-used spots… And the un-used items OUT THE DOOR?”
3 – Recognize that Less is MORE when Living in a Small Space with Kids
This carries out from the previous point, but it deserves extra emphasis: when living in a small space with small kids, more choice is NOT always better, and in fact, having LESS stuff gives me MORE energy and MORE mental capacity!
My kids’ clothing (specifically things they aren’t using right now) have my attention right now. I’m trying to pair down and be realistic about how many different outfits the girls truly need. My 3-year-old prefers the same five outfits anyhow, so I definitely could do with less for her. I think 5 outfits is probably plenty for the summertime (we do a load of laundry almost every day, and clothes dry fast in the summertime heat). For winter, she does require a few more as drying time requires 2-4 days, usually. But 8-10 seems perfectly adequate.
This also goes for my wardrobe, and I’m taking steps towards moving to a capsule-type wardrobe for myself as well (but full disclosure, this is a work-in-progress!).
For my eldest daughter, I find she gets dressed most smoothly when I pre-select 2-3 outfits options for her. She grabs the one she likes best from those options, and we go from there.
Breakfast is usually the same two or three options to choose from. Self-directed activities for the kids as well. And personally, I think this is a good number of toys as well. We do have more than that, but I like to keep it to about 3-5 options for each kid at any given time, and the rest are stacked away on a shelf for regular rotation.
I have one frying pan, three pots of varying sizes plus a big stockpot, four different kitchen knives, one set of dishes, and two cutting boards. If I need more than that, I either wash and then reuse the same thing, or I make a different choice of what I’m doing.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some things I do still REALLY like to have choice on, though… Black tea, for example! I like to have about 8 different flavors to pick from! But for the most part, I think if I have more than two or three things in a category, I end up wasting time trying to decide rather than just instinctively moving forward.
Having less options and less stuff gives us more breathing space as we interact with our stuff. It provides more efficient clean up. And if there IS something we need, it gives us more opportunity to connect with our community and those around us.
4 – Intentionally Cultivate the Culture in Your Small Living Space
Living in a small space with small kids has special relational challenges. We have needed to cultivate a level of emotional awareness and care for other people perhaps at a younger age than they would otherwise need.
My three year old knows that when her sister goes down for an afternoon nap, she needs to whisper to communicate with me for the next twenty to thirty minutes while her sister falls asleep. Once she’s asleep, we can shut the door and just talk in quiet voices, but I have definitely needed to emphasize and work to help her understand the difference between loud and quiet voices.
We have also cultivated a culture of cleaning up in our house (see point 1!), and my three year old totally understands that having a lot of stuff out on the floor makes Mama’s heart “splashy” (our visual explanation of helping kids understand stress and distractions included splashing in a kids pool), so she’s quick to help clean up when Mama starts to feel overwhelmed by her surroundings.
Since our family lives together and does so in tight quarters, everybody’s actions impact everyone else pretty directly, so when I get frustrated and am banging around in the kitchen, everyone in the house with me knows it and feels the tension. My husband and I both try to model to our kids being honest and communicating with words about our feelings, taking responsibility for them, and apologizing and asking forgiveness when necessary. And we do that because we want to be treated that way by our children in the not-so-distant future. If their bedroom is right off the living/kitchen/dining room where all of our space bubbles overlap, consideration of loudness, activities, and attitudes is paramount to maintaining harmony and peace with each other.
5 – Embrace the Creative Opportunities of Small Space Living with Your Children
My favorite part of small space living with kids is how it forces me to be utilize my creativity. And for me, that means organizational creativity.
Many things we do or have come from needing to creatively solve an issue rooted in a lack of space, including our:
- Method for making coffee and lattes
- Shoe storage method
- Cloth diaper storage system
- Kitchen utensils storage method
- Computer storage method
- Bible/journal storage system
- Coat storage system
- Table seating system
The list goes on… When I look around our apartment, I think, “I probably never would have thought to do that if I wasn’t tight on space.”
I love using vertical space: I love using open shelves, I love utilizing under-furniture space, I love hanging things from doors and inside cupboards. But all of that is due to looking at the space we have and making the most of it.
My favorite solution was creating wooden boxes that custom fit under our couch for my husband’s and my shoe storage. Our couch sits just inside our front door. I wanted to store shoes in a spot that was right inside the door. That way, we could pop the shoes off on the entry mat. But I didn’t want our shoes to be out and visible (too messy!).
I finally measured, drew up a plan, and explained my idea to Gabe. He helped me build the boxes. Then I stained them, and now we have two boxes that perfectly fit our shoes and boots. They are located conveniently right where I want them. And they are stained to match the legs of our couch so they look like they belong.
I never would have thought of that solution if we had an entry closet or even a proper entry/landing zone for our house.
For us, small space living with kids does have moments of challenge. However, the benefits of how the space encourages us toward intentionality and creativity far outweigh the tough moments. I joke with my husband that, particularly at this stage of life, a large house would be wasted. Our kids want to be in the same 10 square feet of space with me all the time anyhow… they follow me to the bathroom, they want to be in the shower with me, in the kitchen with me, on the couch with me, at the table with me… It just makes sense to me to live in a small space with small kids! It facilitates the closeness.
Have you experienced small space living with kids? What are you top tips for making it work? If you’ve moved into a bigger space, at what point did you decide to do that? How has it been for you? I’ve love to hear from you in the comments below!