Independence Building: Cheap and Easy (yet still cute) Montessori-Style Shelves for Toddlers



Several months ago, my husband and I attended a workshop about bringing Montessori methods into the home.  We went in not knowing a thing about Montessori…other than there seems to be quite a buzz about it among parents.  (Montessori or no? Are you Waldorf?  Play-based?)  

I’m the silly girl that still thought pre-school started at age 4.  Oops.

In any case, we learned a ton.  We learned enough to know that a Montessori preschool is probably not the place for our little guy…but we were both totally enamored with many of Montessori’s independence building techniques, especially when implemented in the home.

My favorite tip?  To create a space, easily accessible to your toddler (think low shelves), that “beautifully” displays a small, not-overwhelming amount of his toys.

THEN, get this, rotate the toys

Rotating the toys allows us to put away the vaast majority of crap toys into boxes out of sight (a necessity for a tiny space like ours), while still making the ones he’s really into at the moment easily accessible. 

Now, I’m not going to pretend that my solution is “beautiful”, by any means…and if you’ve been reading some of the same Montessori books I have, you’ll agree my solution looks nothing like the gorgeous perfection achieved in those books (which I found rather overwhelming, actually).

But still. This shelving unit is pretty cute, completely customizable to grow with your kiddo, and, as shown above, is $20.  From Target.  Seriously.  I’m talking ’bout:  The Closetmaid Horizontal Organizer in white…aka…a shoe rack.  Or two, to be precise.

3178Loo+npL._AA300_ has stocked the 31″ version in espresso or alder ($13.50 each), but for my small space I went with the 24″ version ($9.99), available at your local Target (or Amazon, here for a few extra $).

As R got bigger (and we realized how much use we were getting out of this shoe rack), we recently stacked another on top of the existing unit (bringing the total to a whopping $30).  These shelves also come with some extra hardware to affix them securely to the wall, if need be.

Soooo…what goes on the shelf?




The idea is to put various toys on orderly display (or as ordered as possible), and let the little one choose what he wants to play with.   We started with a set of blocks, 3 tubs of all-natural play-dough, two  puzzles, a drum, crayons, and a bowl of plastic animals. He was hooked.  Originally, I would rotate the toys each week, but I now rotate them just 1-2 times per month (depending on his interest level in what is currently out there). 

NOTE:  I started by placing all items into uniform bins on the shelf.  He ignored them completely.  Apparently, the kiddos can’t remember what’s inside, and it just looks boring.  So keep the toys on display – you want to pique their interest.

These days, he’s so into art, that the shelves are looking more like art shelves, save for the requisite puzzles and hot wheels.    

So the Montessori folks may be on to something.  Since putting up these shelves, the little guy’s independent playtime has gone from approximately 0.8 sec to 15-20 min at a stretch.  Oh yeah, baby.  I can actually go to the bathroom by myself.  And then put on make-up.  AND…if I check in, and play with him from time-to-time?  We’ve seen an hour. I know, I know – that’s crazy talk.  But it’s happened.

Or maybe he’s just getting older.  But worth a shot, no?




  1. LOVE this! Thank you so much for sharing. I don’t know how old your little one is but our son is 2 and is a terrible independent player. I am going to try this asap – I think it will help!! Thank you!

  2. Lisa — Raines is 2.5 (3 in January). He’s also been a pretty terrible independent player. It took him some time (a few months?) to get really into the shelves…and we had to experiment with the type of toys, etc. There are still some toys that, to this day, make him go bananas and just throw things around, LOL. Good luck! And let me know how it goes!

  3. I love this idea. It’s always best to just take one idea from a book and try to implement. I call this the “balanced approach to parenting”. Montessori isn’t something I’m feeling, but I really love this idea. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to trying it in the future.

  4. Awesome, just implemented this today. My little 3 year old actually put her crayons away before the dog could eat any of them! = Success! 🙂

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