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.

Deciding to go Tiny || Why we took the plunge

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As trendy as “tiny living” may be at the moment, deciding to take the plunge into a smaller space, be it a camper/RV, a trendy tiny house, a small apartment, or anything that feels “restricting” spatially can be more than intimidating.

For anyone who doesn’t know, my family of four (five any day now!) has been living full-time in an RV travel trailer since September — nearly 9 months. There have been lots of struggles that come along with going tiny, and equally as many benefits in that time and I’d love to share a bit of the back story here in case anyone reading is considering downsizing too.

As odd as it may seem, I’ve never considered myself a minimalist. If you’ve read my blog for years, you may remember when I really got into intentional living and began downsizing our belongings and creating capsule wardrobes for myself. That phase, about four years ago, was the most “rigid” I’ve ever been about minimalism and although it was extremely beneficial for my mental state and for learning how to say no and create a home I loved, I eventually got burnt out by the rules of true minimalism and gravitated towards something closer to “intentionalism”.

I don’t believe in intentionally depriving yourself of things you love, nor do I endorse the purely aesthetic mentality that the word minimalism can evoke. I think living with less is much more than curated white walls and sticking to a color scheme for your entire life. Real life is messy, tiny or not, and the size of your house or the amount your own won’t change any of that.

RV living for us, so far, has been empowering because it’s been an intentional decision both my husband and I made together to move towards our goals of getting out of debt and buying or building a home in the near-ish future. It has been hard, especially during the winter, and we’ve had plenty of “what are you doing with your lives” looks and conversations from friends and family. But, in spite of it all, we’re both convinced this path is right for us right now, and for anyone who may be toying with the idea and enchanted by the freedom that tiny living can bring, here’s a bit of our story…

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Our why

Due to a host of reasons, Aj and I, like most people, felt like we could never work our way out of our debt we had accumulated together over the past five or six years. In that time, we had two babies, bought/remodeled/sold our first home (accruing more debt in the process), moved to a new state with a higher living cost, and still battled with things like student loans and car payments.

I know this story isn’t unique. Everyone reading this probably has debt in some form or another. But we knew that if we were going to move forward with the kind of life we envisioned for our family (one of flexibility, freedom to travel, and not being held down by finances), a season of restriction would help us dig ourselves out.

Our when

We didn’t (and still don’t) know how long this season will last. We were careful not to put any time constraints on ourselves because we knew that the second we said we “had” to live in an RV for two years or three years or any amount of time would be the second we started resenting it.

Instead, we’re focusing on the freedom we have, the new appreciation we have for our belongings/space/and each other, and the excitement that we aren’t bound down by a “next step”.

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Our how

We’ve always both loved the appeal and freedom of “mobile living” and have followed multiple people for years who have done it with children, so we knew we weren’t alone in the fact that it seemed to make so much sense to downsize, move into something with a payment we could realistically afford, and “rough it” for a while.

We toyed with the idea of remodeling a used RV, but eventually landed on buying a new one when we considered how rough Colorado winters are and our need for specific things like a bunk house for the girls and a bit of extra space for the baby we knew would be joining us.

We bought the RV, with help from my parents who we were living with at the time, in September and since then, have paid off the vast majority of our debt, have been able to start a savings for the first time in our marriage, and are finally feeling like our feet are underneath us. Restricting space for this kind of stability is so worth it.

FAQ’s

How did you decide “how tiny” to go? Did you test it out first?

We did lots of research before deciding what kind of RV we wanted. AJ had been pushing this idea for a year or more (it actually took me the longest to get on board) so he knew his stuff when it came to different sizes and models. We wanted it to be as comfortable as possible and we knew that separate sleeping spaces were a MUST for us. I also wanted one with an “open” middle space to give us the most homey feel possible.

We didn’t test it out, which felt scary, but we had lived in small spaces before (1-2 bedroom condos and even shared a single bedroom at my parents’ house before this), so we knew a small space wouldn’t be that big of an issue.

How does it work with kids?

One of the most common questions we’re asked about is if our kids like it. At 3 and 5, they’re pretty much along for the ride right now and are able to adapt really easily to every space we’ve lived in thus far. RV living has been no different for them, it’s a home and a safe space that is theirs. They still have plenty of toys, activities, and things to do inside, but I’ve loved the way tiny living has pushed us to get outside more and push our boundaries socially so we don’t get too stir crazy.

If the girls were older and were more actively seeking their own spaces, I don’t know that we’d commit to this longterm (maybe a summer or a year).

Every child and every family is different and their needs are different, and if we sensed that this was in any way, limiting our children’s ability to thrive, we wouldn’t do it. If anything, it’s taught us all lessons that I hope my girls cherish as they grow up.

Do you feel comfortable/cozy in a tight space?

Anyone who knows me knows that coziness is my middle name. I rely so heavily on atmosphere and creating home-y spaces, that I told AJ long before we moved in here that I’d need to make it our own if I expected to make it work. I painted the walls, added shelves and wallpaper, hung decor, and did everything I could to make it feel like “me”, and honestly, this space has been one of my favorites to transform.

Decorating in here is a great exercise in “intentionalism” because not everything works in such a small space. I can only bring in things that serve a purpose or truly cozy up the room. Throw pillows, blankets, warm colors, and decorating it with the same care that I’d decorate a bigger home has made it feel like just that.

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How to know if it may be right for you

Although I wouldn’t take the decision to sell (or store) your things lightly, I also don’t think making the decision to go tiny has to be as scary as it seems. It’s not the only way to get out of debt, find a lifestyle with more freedom, or push your own boundaries and I don’t think it’s right for everyone. That said, if the thought of RV living, buying a tiny home, or downsizing at all excites and inspires you, that urge shouldn’t be ignored.

For us, this was a journey years in the making and not a spontaneous decision, so I would suggest downsizing your current space first, and going from there. Get in the habit of saying no to things you don’t love, learn what items in your closet you wear most, declutter your kitchen, clear the junk drawer….these little habits will make tiny living so much easier because you’ll already be used to living with the essentials and not much extra.

If you’re…

  • Ready for an adventure

  • Wanting a feasible way to get out of debt

  • Ready to downsize your belongings and keep only what you love

  • Looking for freedom to travel

  • “In between” plans and looking for something temporary

  • Wanting to teach your family (and yourself) lessons on the value of less, living sustainably, and creating lifelong memories along the way…

…tiny living might be right for you.

It’s not the only way to achieve those goals, of course, but 9 months in, we wouldn’t trade this season for anything.

RV Living: A Q&A + 7 Things I've Learned in Our First Month of Tiny

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We did a thing - a slightly crazy thing - forcing us into the lifestyle both my husband and I have craved for more than four years.

We bought an RV.

To live in. Full time.

With 2.5 kiddos.

The number of people choosing to “go tiny” is growing and, as someone who has always been in love with the concept of less but better, living in a big space allows for too much wiggle room (ie. hoarding). The confines of our tiny space allow for very little excess, and it’s a challenge that I’ve happily looked forward to for a long time.

A few of you asked about our square footage transitions, so here’s a quick run down of the size of the spaces we’ve lived in over the past few years. Our first (and only) home we’ve owned was a 2,400 square foot Victorian style home in Nebraska. It was beautiful and huge and we spent two years remodeling it, but we knew it wasn’t our forever space. From there, we moved to Colorado and our first condo here was a little two bedroom unit with enough space but no flexibility to make it our own. We left there and moved in with my parents for a season. We had a bedroom and a bunk-bed room for the girls. Now, our RV is a cozy 37 feet long with two pull outs for extra space, a bunk room for the kids and a separate “master bedroom” for AJ and I. It is small, don’t get me wrong, but it’s ours and it’s great. All of our extra belongings that we didn’t sell or donate (things like our dining room table and my piano, out of season clothes, and outdoor gear) are stored in a little shed on my parents property.

It’s been just about a month in our RV and, although the majority of our time here I’ve been battling morning sickness, we’ve gotten quite settled in and I’ve already learned so much. This blog post is simply me sharing my “initial lessons of tiny living” since I’m no where near an expert, and a quick attempt to answer a few of the most common questions I’ve gotten from you all. I plan on documenting much of our journey into tiny and plan to share a full tour once we get a few little projects out of the way and I feel the RV is closer to “done”. My goal is to get it finished by Christmas so we have room for a little Christmas tree.

For now, I want to share a few things I’ve learned this month and a few brands who’ve so sweetly agreed to help turn transform space from a weekend vacation home for wealthy elderly couples into a home for a family of four.

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  1. Bring the Essentials and Nothing More

    As I mentioned before, it was either, bring too much stuff and turn into a crazy woman, or choose just the essentials and create a place for each thing. Since we weren’t moving too far and had already downsized significantly after our move from the condo, I already had a pretty good idea of the things I’d need for the RV. We have just enough dishes for the four of us. We have just enough toys to not overwhelm the space (I can swap them out with others in storage to freshen up the excitement every now and than.) We have just enough clothes to fit our minimal storage options. And we have just enough bathroom essentials to get the job done.

    As for our clothes (one of the main questions I’m asked and one of my bigger hurdles thus far), here’s how I’m handling it: the RV has built-in storage alongside our queen size bed, over the top of it, and underneath it. The hang-up space is minimal (I’ll do a full tour soon!), so I had to create a mini-capsule of my most worn pieces. Since I’m getting more and more pregnant by the week, I knew I’d have to downsize and rely on pieces that are versatile, so it was an easy transition. I keep my extras under the bed, and my flat laying clothing and things like socks, bras, and underwear above the bed in the cupboards.

    The girls room has a lot of storage, so their clothes fit easily in the under the bed drawers. Aj’s closet is his own territory and I try not to look at it.

  2. Choose Aesthetically Pleasing Storage Solutions

Simply deciding where in the world to put everything was the biggest challenge. Our RV comes with lots of storage options, but of course, they’re not meant to house everything a family needs to survive, so I had to get a little bit creative. I’m thankful for brands like Urbana Sacs and Ten Thousand Villages who offer functional but beautiful (and eco-friendly/ethically made) storage solutions.

I put small things like my makeup, my Hand Made Beauty non-toxic nail polish (read more about them in my last blog post!), a few house plants, bathroom essentials, and cleaning supplies in my Urbana Creative Sacs, made from sturdy eco-friendly recycled paper, and store them in the open shelving in the bathroom and inside the vanity. They also sent me a few larger Sacs that I put my socks and underwear in and our toilet paper in another large one. They’re such a versatile and beautiful storage option that can used and reused for years.

3. Add Pieces that Bring You Joy

Since there is literally no space for “eh”, I made a rule for myself long before we even bought the RV that I’d only fill it with necessities and pieces I truly loved. I’ve had to do some soul searching to continue to nail down my “personal style” but I knew I wanted the RV to feel bright, cozy, and not cluttered. I’m using a lot of whites (hopefully out of reach of places sticky fingers can reach) and bringing in rich, rustic colors like burnt orange, deep navy, and forest green green when I need color. Luckily, I had most of the pieces I brought to the RV, but a few new additions are my Anchal Project throw pillow, my vintage runner for the kitchen I found on Etsy, and a gorgeous throw blanket from Quiquattro.

Anchal Project is an amazing brand that I’m honored to be working with - their pieces are made by women artisans in India and their designs are modern but cozy. I have their 22” Cross-Stitch Toss Pillow in rust and I love the pop of color it adds to our otherwise minimal bedroom.

4. Functional and Multi-Use Products are Everything

Aside from the few decor items I have in the RV, all other space is used for functional but cute storage and functional/cute everyday items. I’ve also come to rely on multi-use products that can serve multiple functions. I made all purpose cleaner that can clean literally any surface in the camper. My decorations also double as pieces I can wear (I hung my fedoras on the wall and have a small space to hang clothes for display on one of our bedroom walls (once the painting is finished!). Getting creative and learning how to disguise the unsightly things like remotes and cords with pretty baskets is a fun challenge.

5. Kids Don’t Take Up As Much Space As Adults

The girls we’re probably more excited than AJ and I were when we moved in. Since they’re so close in age (20 months apart) they’re used to sharing a space and their little bunk room is their kingdom. I have a few designated spaces for things like art supplies, play dough, blocks, and other toys, so they can have their own choice of things to play with.

I got a few questions about how I plan to encourage the girls’ independence and give them “space” while living in an RV. Although this answer isn’t necessarily a quick and simple one, my summarized answer is that kids simply don’t need as much space as we assume, and they really don’t need as much “stuff” as we assume. My girls have incredible imaginations, love playing together (usually) and can turn literally any space into whatever they want. If I ever sense that one of them needs a break from the other (usually when nap time needs to happen), we sit down, take a break, and give them space to play (or rest) separately.

6. Brighten Up the Space Wherever You Can

RV’s and campers are not known for their aesthetically pleasing instagram-ability. In fact, I think the opposite is usually true. They come with dark interiors, small windows and weird brownish beige walls. I knew that taking all steps I could to brighten up the small space would be one of my first steps to making it feel like “home”. My goal is to bring in as much white as possible, which includes painting the walls (a big process that we’re currently in the middle of), taking the weird brown curtains down and replacing them with sheer, bright ones, and adding white bedding.

The folks at Doplnok have been chatting with me for a long time and we finally decided that now was the perfect time for us to try out their fair trade, organic cotton sheets. The sheets are made with GOTS certified organic cotton and the brand is Fair Trade certified, which gives me confidence that their backing up their claims with action. The sheets were shipped in a gorgeous reusable box that will be put to good use in our tiny home.

7. Routine and Finding Out of the House Space is Important

In addition to the above, I’ve tried to set predictable routines and, especially important, make sure to get outside/out of the RV time as often as possible.

We didn’t decide to go tiny so we could spend our entire days inside cooped up in a camper - we did it so we could essentially be forced to get out more often, explore our home, and try new things. It pushes us out of our comfort zones, and I think it can only be a healthy experience for all of us, despite the obvious challenges.

Wintertime will be one of the biggest hurdles. Some days, it will simply be too cold to be outside, so I’m going to make a “Wintertime Fun Jar” full of fun inside ideas to keep us busy on the days where the winter blues strike. I’m so excited for our first summer in here though. Setting up the patio, letting the girls picnic out front, and (hopefully) getting to travel with it are a few things I’m anxiously awaiting.


One month down - countless more to go! I can’t wait to get more projects finalized so I can share a full tour of the RV. Stay tuned and, as always, comment away with any and all questions you may have!

Considering RV/tiny home life with kids? Read about our first month as a family of four in a 37 foot RV.

*This post was partially sponsored by a few brands who’ve helped me make the transition into RV life. Thank you to Urbana Sacs, Anchal Project, and DOPLNOK for making this post possible.*