Ask an Expert; Structure vs Free Choice

Ask an Expert; Structure vs Free Choice


“I am wondering how to create more structure while still allowing free choice of materials on the shelf?

For example, sometimes my son takes all the toys off the shelf and puts them on the floor just right away, which is obviously overwhelming, and only one toy gets any play!”

Answer from Olynda:

What a juicy question. This is a question with many answers. The approach that I would suggest will vary based on the age of your child and whether or not you are homeschooling. For this answer, I will assume you are not homeschooling, but that you are cultivating a Montessori inspired home environment.   

There are Montessorians who may not agree with me, but I strongly believe that some of the expectations we have at home will and should look different than the classroom expectations. In the classroom children will be encouraged and expected to return each “work” (activity) to its proper place and leave it “ready for the next person” before going on to another activity.  This promotes an ability to have a full work cycle, strengthens concentration and increases care and respect of the community space and of others.  

At home, we need to think about what structure will most benefit our children and also promote a sense of care and respect for the space and the other family members. We also have to be real about what is possible and kind to ask of our children given their age. Even though I love the tidiness that happens when children replace each work on the shelf once they have finished with it - I also realize that some of the open and free play that promotes creativity and delight can not happen if we are too strict about “one work out at a time only” in the home. So I don’t recommend enforcing a one work/toy at a time policy at home.  


It sounds like the child in this question isn’t actually engaging with all the toys taken off the shelf. In this case, the other items are just cluttering the space and adding to overwhelm. We for sure want to minimize clutter and chaos for the wellbeing of the adults and the children in our homes!   Here are some concrete suggestions for helping promote free choice, less structured play and at the same time avoid the overwhelm for you and your little ones: 

Have fewer things out and available for playing with in the space. Eight toys and 4-6 books is plenty for a child under three. Rotate them to increase interest. Older children can have a few more things available.  


For Babies:  Model. Model putting things away when you are done with them. Narrate your thoughts “Oh, I see you are finished playing with the ball now, I’m going to put it back on the shelf. We can get it when we want it!” Babies tend to do best with one or two things out at a time. 


For Toddlers: Reset and Respond. I suggest having times of day to “reset” the play space.  During these times everything gets placed back in it’s “spot”. Make those times consistent at the same time every day. They become part of the predictable rhythm of your little one’s day. For example, you can choose to “reset” before you go eat a snack or meal.  “Let’s put everything back where it goes before we have a snack.” At first they may not participate much, but as they get older they will usually enjoy helping out. Engage them in the process by giving them specific clean up jobs.  “Here is the rattle.  Come put it in its spot.”  You can tap the spot where you want your child to place the item to help them understand.   

It can also be helpful to respond to the chaos between “reset times”.  If you notice the mess adversely affecting you, your child or other members of the family, I suggest letting your child know what you are noticing and what the fix is.  “There are so many blocks out! I see you are finished with them. They are making it hard to play with the car. Let’s put them away so you can have room to drive your car!” Or in the case of this wonderful question, “Oh my, all the toys are off the shelf!  There isn’t much room to play! I see you are really interested in that one. I’m going to put everything else back up so you can play with that one.” 


For 3-6 year olds:  More advanced reset and respond. For preschoolers, I suggest continuing the reset process, though it will likely be fewer times throughout the day at this age. Keep those times consistent, so your child knows what to expect. As children age, they can do more and more of the clean up/reset on their own. They may even start to initiate that themselves. If you have not had a regular clean up practice when they were toddlers, your preschoolers will need some support to “reset” the space. Depending on the day, your child and the things to be cleaned up, they may need your support. Try to give them only the help they need!  Sometimes that help is just being near by to keep them company as they work.

 At this age children sometimes have long “games” or “projects” that they wish to keep out. There can be a big benefit in letting a fort, stuffed animal hospital or huge block creation stay out for a few days- if it is being actively worked on and isn’t interfering with the rest of the family’s use of the space. So your reset might include one thing that gets left out.  

As children get older, it is helpful to give more information if you are needing them to clean something up early. Let them know what you are noticing that makes you feel that something needs to be reset early. 



About Olynda

Olynda Smith is a Certified Montessori Early Childhood teacher, Simplicity Parenting Family Life Coach, Certified Yoga Teacher (RYT E-500) and Mother of two. Olynda has 15 years of experience working with young children and parents. She has a deep love of the Montessori method and an understanding of the philosophy and method honed by her many years spent as a Montessori teacher.

Olynda serves as the Early Childhood Education Coordinator for Peaceful Schools NC and she is the Education Director at Tiny Earth Toys. She brings to all of her work a rich background in different parenting styles, educational practices and most of all a deep respect for all parents and children. Several of Olynda’s articles about work with children and yoga have appeared in Montessori Life Magazine. In all of her work, Olynda considers herself to be a “connection advocate” - helping people connect more deeply to themselves, each other and the planet.

Olynda lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband, two young children and their goldfish Steev. She loves hiking, gardening, making herbal home remedies and curling up with a good book.


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