Minimal Kids: Encouraging Imaginative Play in Small Space Living

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Quite easily the most common question I’m asked after someone learns that we live in an RV goes somewhere along the lines of “but how do your kids play in there?”. There’s an underlying assumption that the smaller the space or the fewer the toys the unhappier the child.

Allow me to beg to differ.

We’ve never had a lot a lot of toys for our kids (mostly because the minute I became I mom I immersed myself in minimalism and have gradually been trying to strike a healthy balance ever since). I’ve always tried to encourage my kids to lean into boredom, be thankful for what they have, and not base our playtime around “things”. But this phase of life where we’re intentionally limiting ourselves (spatially) has taught me a lot about how kids (or at least my kids) play and how to foster an environment that encourages them to lean heavily on their imaginations instead of their toys.

Also, my girls have plenty of toys, trust me. I’m not a miserly mother who doesn’t believe in letting my kids have “things”. They have lots of things. But I hope this post can act as both clarification and inspiration for anyone who is curious about imaginative play, regardless of your house size.

To a child, just about anything can be a toy. I’m constantly amazed by Evie’s ingenuity — she’s my maker; constantly building, creating, drawing, tying, sewing, re-purposing. Mara is just as imaginative, but she prefers to play with her dollhouse, ride her bike, or dress up as whichever queen/mom/friend/animal/hero she’s obsessed with at the moment (as long as it involves shoes). Their interests and imagination styles are polar opposites but somehow, they haven’t run out of space or ideas for what to do yet.

Although I can’t take credit for their creativity and ability to play well together, I’ll share a few things I’ve intentionally done to foster that environment as much as possible and, ideally, create a home that they don’t get bored of or feel stifled by.

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  1. Choose “open ended” toys

All of the toys in our RV are relatively open ended, meaning my girls can use them to play multiple ways. My girls love their dress up clothes, like the butterfly wings, cape (made from recycled Saris) and crowns all ethically made from Do Good Shop, one of my favorite one-stop fair trade shops, especially for families. They use these pieces almost every day and have dreamed up so many different roles and scenarios to play in. I love that these pieces aren’t specific to any story/movie/game so my girls can imagine that they’re just about anything (as opposed to, for example, their Elsa and Anna dresses which are more limiting in their “line of thoughts”).

In addition to dress up things, they have a small play kitchen from Ikea, a basket of their favorite stuffed animals (Evie wants to be a “pet shop owner” when she grows up, so these get lots of use), some Mega Bloks and a set of wooden blocks to make roads for cars, a small dollhouse with mini animals/furniture/clothes, and lots of coloring supplies and play dough.

They also have a basket of books that we swap out each week when we go to the library and they spend their “quiet time” reading to each other.

Toys like these allow my girls to get more creative than other toys with a more structured purpose. They can play with all of them at once (and usually, they do), or only a few at a time, but they haven’t run out of exciting combinations yet.

2. Swap them out regularly

To stave off boredom with their toys, we have a few more options in storage (where we have the rest of our “house stuff” at my parents’ house) and sometimes I’ll switch out stuffed animals, bring in a new game, or exchange their blocks for other toys to keep them excited and interested. This practice works regardless of the size of your house and makes it like they’re getting new toys when really you’re just pulling pre-owned things out of storage.

3. Encourage outdoor play

The most important part of encouraging my kids to play imaginatively, I believe, is making sure they get tons of time away from their toys. The majority of their playtime, especially in the warmer months, is outdoors, where they’re building forts, getting dirty, exploring nearby, and simply put, being kids. I know not everyone has the space or lifestyle where they can get outdoors frequently, but even a daily walk or trip to the park is beneficial for kids. In nature, children can imagine anything, become anything they want to be, and experience the world in it’s purest form, without plastic toys or man-made interventions. The accessibility to the outdoors is one of the main reasons we’ve chosen this lifestyle and this location specifically.

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4. Get comfortable with messiness

There’s a time and place for structured play and clean up time, but I also believe that in order for imagination to thrive, things have to get messy. Even though I tend to be fairly laid back as a parent, it’s taken me a while to get comfortable with the idea of letting my girls turn their room into a jungle or a mansion or a pet store or the wild west knowing the inevitable battle that will follow when they have to clean it all up.

Small spaces are destroyed in half the time, so cleaning up after each round of play has been the only way I’ve been able to mesh the importance of fostering their imagination with my need for some semblance of structure.

When they’re outside, all hopes of staying clean goes out the window. They’re constantly riding bikes, digging, building with rocks and sticks, and meeting little bugs. Even though the increased frequency of bathtime (or, if we’re being honest, a quick wipe off at night) is just another thing on my to-do list, I love that they’re able to get messy and really explore with all of their senses every single day.

As I type all of this out, I’m realizing how simple it all sounds. Small space living, when met with two incredibly imaginative kids, isn’t really restrictive at all, it feels very intuitive. Every day is a new chance to turn their space into something new, a new chance to get messy, explore, and create in ways they wouldn’t be able to if they had endless piles of toys and empty space.

I’m curious how this looks in your lives, fellow mamas! Do you ever struggle to encourage your kids to play creatively or does it seem to come naturally?


*Thank you to Do Good Shop for sponsoring this post and gifting my girls with a few of their very favorite toys. Do Good Shop is a long-term partner of SL&Co. and is doing incredible work to provide fair wage and safe jobs for artisans around the world.

Use the code SIMPLYLIVANDCO for 20% off your purchase.*

How to encourage your kids to play MORE with LESS -- Lessons from a family of five living tiny.