Small-space living tips that even families in bigger homes can learn from

July 12 2013 | Guest post by Emily Kagan Trenchard
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Muppet #1 in front of the bedroom door that cannot shut, but the bed is totally worth it.

My partner and I are raising two young kids in a third floor walk up apartment in Brooklyn. We have two small bedrooms.

How small, you ask?

Well, when I insisted that we get a queen-sized bed during month six of my second pregnancy, the trade-off was that we would no longer be able to shut our bedroom door.

We have a living room space, a kitchen and a bathroom. While our apartment is bigger than what many people make do with in the city, its not spacious by any extent.

I'm not sure if what we've done to make our lives work was then extrapolated into bigger ideas about how we run our family, or if the bigger ideas have been used to make decisions about things as mundane as closet space and toy selection.

Either way, we've come to not only love our tiny place, but the kinds of choices it's forced us to make about how we raise our kids and what it means for something to "take up space" in our house.

Everyone sits at the table

IMG_5379We don't have enough space to have a working kitchen (think a fridge that opens, a stove that's heating things and a table that seats humans as they eat) as well as a highchair. We tried it for a while with the first kid but we spent most of our time feeding the baby on our laps and stubbing our toes.

We finally got this awesome attachable baby seat that can rotate 360 degrees. This single purchase made such a difference. From a practical standpoint, it was the perfect place to put a baby down while you do dishes but still swing them around to watch you or interact with them. It clipped on to the table so there was no longer anything to stub a wayward toe upon and it folded up nicely for when we were having a meal with just the grownups.

On an emotional level, allowed both our kids to feel like they were at the table with the rest of the family while eating. Everyone took up an equal amount of space in front of them, and as we have conversations, its easy to look everyone in the eye.

Only keep the things you love

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The space constraints meant we have to be very selective about the number of toys we have. This has been great in two ways. First, it puts an natural limit on the amount of random plastic crap people can buy your kids. It also forces people to be more thoughtful in their choices of purchase for your kids, since they know you simply don't have space for just any old toy.

Second, it's forced us to only keep the toys we really love and that actually get played with. If something isn't loved dearly (or doesn't have a special meaning to mom or dad) it gets donated. We try not to have any more toys than can be easily seen and accessed by the kids. No big storage bins or random dolls or tubs of stray birthday party favors.

The added emotional benefit to this strategy is that we truly love and use everything in our house. And everywhere we look in our house, we see something we love.

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Forget about how its "supposed" to be done

You need to get creative in utilizing every single inch of space in a small apartment. Sometimes this means just buying great, collapsible or double duty products (for example, I love these folding baby bathtubs: Prince Lionheart Flexibath Foldable Bathtub, Blue and Puj Tub – The Soft, Foldable Baby Bath Tub, White), or putting unused real estate to work, like making the side of a wardrobe a Velcro wall that can be used for storing things vertically or painting a chalkboard on the outside of a cupboard. These racks for baby food storage made use of an extra six inches sitting idle on the underside of some pantry shelves.

IMG_5375But sometimes that means foregoing what you think you're supposed to do or supposed to want. We often have books and tea time on the floor of the kitchen because we don't have enough space in the living room for a coffee table. On hot summer days, the baby bathtub becomes an impromptu kiddie pool on the kitchen floor, since we don't have a back yard.

Forgetting about anyone else's idea of what we should do or should want has also been very freeing for us in deciding NOT to move to the suburbs, even as our family grew. Despite us both growing up in California in nice, spacious single family homes, neither my partner nor I really want to go back to living in that kind of community.

While we definitely see the appeal of having things like a driveway, backyard, dishwasher and even owning a home, those benefits simply don't outweigh the pleasures of city living for us. But you can't make that kind of calculation for yourself if you're using someone else's standards for what "space" means.

This home belongs to ALL of us, equally.

One of the main things my partner and I wanted to preserve when we decided to have a family was a sense of our adult selves. I know we're not the only ones who struggle with making that happen. For me, what preserving my sense of self has meant is preserving a sense of space.

I'm the lead interior decorator for our household, so when my eldest expressed interest in making pretend meals, I knew I would want to get her a play kitchen. But since this play kitchen would have to sit in the living room and I would have to look at it even after the kids went to bed, I decided that the kitchen needed to be something that fit with MY aesthetic.

Thankfully, there are now some truly bad-ass play kitchens on the market (here's the one we got). When it's kept tidy, it seamlessly blends in to the rest of my living room and when I settle in for the night with a drink in hand, I can look out over the living room and feel like a grownup again.

The flip side of this decision is our commitment to make every room in the house a safe place for the kids to be. With such a small space to play and explore (especially on snowy or rainy days), we didn't feel like it made sense to make any room truly off limits. So my partner and I worked hard to baby proof everything. This included having custom wooden radiator covers built, creatively covering power strips with stacks of books, and coming to terms with the fact that sometimes the kids just needs to wear my high heels and prance around waving a tampon as a magic wand and there's not much harm in that.

What this does for us as a family is truly make it feel like we all live here, and all of our needs to be safe, relaxed, and inspired have been taken into consideration in the setup of our home.

  1. This makes me feel positively LUXURIOUS in our one-bedroom condo… our son might sleep in the closet, but we can close our bedroom door despite the queen-sized bed. πŸ™‚

    Also, loving this so hard:

    Forgetting about anyone else's idea of what we should do or should want has also been very freeing for us in deciding NOT to move to the suburbs, even as our family grew.

    My mom is fostering a 14 year old on the isolated semi-rural property where I grew up, and visiting them last week reminded me of how hard it was to grow up in a home that felt isolated… our city home might be small, but our son will never feel separated from the community he lives in!

  2. good read…we're struggling with this right now. our "small space" isn't nearly as small as yours, as we've got a single-family home with a yard and a garage and all that, but the house is small compared to what most people would consider standard these days. it's a '50s bungalow that's about 800sqft and 2beds/1bath, small kitchen, no formal dining, etc, although it had a finished basement with another bedroom/bathroom and more living space when we bought it two months ago. right after we bought it, water started coming in down there and we'll have some expensive repairs to make, so in the meantime we're just living in the upstairs. we had downsizing to do anyway, but this new development has forced us to realize that we have a lot more downsizing to do than we thought. and you know, that's actually a good thing. it's really refreshing to clear out old crap and live more minimalistically, so while i'm not thrilled that half our house is unusable to us for the time being, it really has been a positive experience overall. and then we we do have the space downstairs again, we'll have plenty of room for my fiance's music gear, which was a big problem before.

    on forcing others to carefully consider what they buy my son, however…that's a much harder battle. a lot of people in my family's definition of "space to put things" is VERY different from mine. one certain family member, to whom my son is very important, and who has too much extra money to waste, seems to think that tote boxes stacked floor-to-ceiling is acceptable, so it's been very, very hard getting through to her that we don't want that for him or for ANY of us here. we've reached the point that when she goes on a shopping spree, if there's no good way to broach the subject of returning things, a lot of brand-new, unused (sometimes still in the package) stuff gets donated, and i don't even care how she feels about it when stuff she bought disappears any more, because i've repeatedly told her we don't have the space for this stuff and she buys it anyway.

    • I have the same battle with some family members… my sister is always telling me to just put it in a corner and I'm like, "I HAVE NO CORNERS LEFT!!" She's always trying to unload her old baby toys on me. Oy.

    • When my parents buy things for my kids, I just tell them it will have to be a toy that stays at their house, or we could trade.

      • it's kind of a unique situation…my fiance is not my son's father. his father, my husband, passed away before he was born, and the person who spoils him is my MIL. i kind of had to tread lightly with her before because, paradoxically, she stomps all over everyone all the time without more than the most superficial thoughts, but is extremely sensitive otherwise. only now it's worse because i have to interact with her without the benefit of having her son/my husband as a buffer. i kind of don't know what to do there. she spoils my son rotten and i don't know how to stop her. i've even been blunt, and after acting all hurt and downtrodden, she went right back to throwing tons of stuff for him my way. πŸ™

        add three cats to the mix, and i'm going crazy just trying to keep this place CLEAN, let alone organized.

        • As someone with a MIL who won't listen and overspoils the grandkids, I highly recommend getting your kiddo interested in activities and having her be the sponsor for that– gymnastics, sports, horseback riding, theater, etc. Besides the space saving side of things, kids remember the activities far longer than the toys. It might cause you some gagging as you sweet talk her into the transition but the long term benefits are worth it.

    • My mother prides herself in being "thrifty" and buys So. Much. Stuff. for my boys at yard sales. No matter how many times I tell her to please stop there is always one more thing.

      Our family of 4 lives in a 3rd floor, 800 sq ft condo and I use the "What did families do 100 years ago" approach. How many toys did kids have? Do we really need 40 t-shirts? Cleaning supplies are whittled down to two spray bottles. I have given up my closet to make a workshop for my husband. There are so many things we can do without…

  3. Wonderful Article πŸ™‚ Can anyone offer suggestions about where to find other tips for having a newborn (& all their large plastic/wooden crap) in a small love filled city apartment? Specifically more essential items that we can place on our baby shower registry. Our place is 900 ft & will house 2 adults, a baby & medium dog. But our gift buying loved ones have large, spacious homes out of state & no concept of small, city living. Thank you πŸ™‚

  4. We also have a small-ish living space, and the high chair drives me nuts! it's just sitting in the middle of the room all day not being used and taking up space. I can't seem to think of a solution like the baby seat you have. We have a fold down table from IKEA, and I don't think we could clip the seat on it, or at least I don't think I'd want to. I'd have to do it for every meal.

    It's actually pretty annoying to have to pull the table out all the time as well… I would love to have something attached to the wall, but that would mean we can't rearrange the furniture as easily.

    I'm glad people are finding ways to live in small spaces. I always feel slightly uncomfortable and crowded at home. I can't quite figure out how to get things organized without buying a bunch of new stuff. Like smaller beds or more shelves or something.

    • I can't quite figure out how to get things organized without buying a bunch of new stuff.

      For me, the key is LESS stuff. It's easier to organize when you keep stuff to a minimum, and prioritize space.

      • Right. I meat things like storage solutions and cabinets, or getting a smaller version of something. We recently got some bookshelves for my son's room because they were free, but before that, I had items in baskets on the floor. people keep telling me to get him a twin bed to save space rather than use the full that we already own. It's all those little things that we can't afford to do now that we have kids. Yet we "need" to do them because we have kids. ha!

    • I totally sympathize about feeling crowded out of some spaces. For me a big step was realizing what a huge impact visual clutter has on my feeling of the space being too crowded. Having stuff in piles on top of tables, or shelves in disarray really add to this feeling for me. My solution has been in some cases to hide stuff so that I don't have to look at the mess. I shut it in a pretty box, put it in a tall basket or keep closet doors closed. My husband teases me because I can't sleep with the closet open. All I do is lay there and think "there's too much junk in there! what am I going to do about it?!"

      • I think it's just one of those things that we just have to live with until the kids are bigger, or we actually get a "real" table and chairs. right now we turn the office chairs around to use at dinner time when we pull the table out. if there is an extra person, someone uses a folding chair. So, we have saved space by "hiding" the table.

  5. We lived in a studio apartment with our two kids until our youngest was 2, so I feel you on the small space issue! We have this kitchen, which is not ideal (because you can't push it up against the wall), but we made it work and it's tiny: Guidecraft Kitchenette Center – Natural

    That high chair is genius… I've never seen it before. Baby #3 is coming in a few weeks, and while we live in a slightly larger place now, it's still not very big!

  6. I would love to see some pictures of your small living.
    The spinning baby chair sounds interesting
    And I bet other homies would love to see some of your storage solutions too

  7. One of the things that has really helped my huhsband and I cope with toys and baby equipment in a smaller space is the idea that our daughter doesn't need everything. She doesn't 'have' to have an easel: there's one at playgroup. She doesn't 'have' to have a wire and bead toy: there's one in the church nursery. She doesn't 'have' to have a ride-on toy: there's one at Paw-Paw's house. I think some people look at the lack of toys in our apartment and think "this baby is so deprived", but I feel like we're actually making those toys more fun and interesting by only being able to access them at certain times, while keeping our sanity.

    Rotating toys also helps. We keep our daughter's things on a small bookshelf, and the rest go in our locked buffet. We rotate every few weeks, and whatever doesn't fit is donated or sold. This has again been really beneficial for our daughter, as she always seems to play with toys in different and creative ways with each rotation. Other bonus: it gives me an easy out if someone gifts us the kind of toy we don't like, such as noisy light-up toys or things that enforce gender steretypes. We add the gift to the rotation pile…and send it out the door when appropriate.

    • Absolutely! People think we are odd for turning down a free exersaucer. But we dont have the space (and I dont like them). It would take up literally half the floor in our lounge, and it doesn't pack down.
      Instead we are making use of the local Toy Library once LJ is big enough to need toys – for a small fee, you get to have toys at home for a week or two, then take them back and change for another. No boredom, no wastage!
      And we will of course have toys that are kept at Granma & Pops. But even they dont see the point in a lot of the bigger things.

  8. I don't have kids, but I'm always trying to make things comfortable in a relatively small home where rooms have to have multiple functions. You're a great writer–please submit to OBHL again!

  9. A bit offtopic but: You guys have babyfood in pouches?!! That is awesome! Even though i recycle most of my glass baby jars into gift jam jars, button holding jars, outside light-jars etcetera filled with babyfood they take up so much space in my closet since i buy them in large quantities to get a good price for organic babyfood (have to import this from germany the stuff is so expensive in the Netherlands) I WANT babyfood pouches!

    Oh and good space ideas πŸ˜‰

    • They are such a cool invention! Great for traveling πŸ™‚ I know there is at least one brand around here that also sells a spoon that screws onto the opening of the pouch so it is totally functional for smaller babies (my toddler just slurps it out). I have seen reusable silicone pouches you can buy and fill with your own homemade baby food too.

      • (Continuing off-topic:) My friend has some of the refillable ones and when she brought these animal-decorated ones out last night I was confused for a moment and asked if she was feeding her son pureed panda meat. πŸ™‚ (Obviously, no, but we all had a giggle and then admired the super-cute panda pouch.)

    • Or even more space-saving: we raised two kids (now 5 1/2 and 18 months) in a small house without ever purchasing a single jar OR pouch of baby food. Our kids ate what we ate from the very beginning. It saves SO much time, money, and hassle — plus our kids are great eaters! They never had to "get used" to eating adult food since it's all they ever knew. The concept is called Baby-Led Weaning and there's a good how-to book: http://www.amazon.com/Baby-Led-Weaning-Essential-Introducing-Confident/dp/161519021X/ .

      • It's the best! I tried making our own baby food, but our kiddo was just not interested, so we ended up doing Baby-Led Weaning and our kid is a great eater. Now as a toddler, we use those goofy pouches when we travel, so our kid can get some healthy food when all my extended family wants to eat is fast food (sigh!).

      • Yup–our daughter never ate a mouthful of baby food. I thought the idea was good before I did it, based on baby eating real food, introducing them to textures, etc. But once we did it, I loved it for the convenience!! Not buying expensive purees (or making purees when I get home from work), no buying containers to put them in. I'm really a lazy parent. πŸ˜‰

  10. Just wanted to say what a great article this was! Our home is not as small as yours, but smaller than most of our friends'/family's so we do struggle with how to make our space workable for us. That baby chair is genius!

  11. This article is awesome! I no longer feel bad for buying things that are aesthetically pleasing to ME for our kiddo. Our most frequent struggle is family members buying large (and often flashy, colorful, and loud) gifts for our son, and we have nowhere to put them. We live in a small place (not as small as yours, but small!) and it gets aggravating. I like the limited toys idea (or toys in a rotation), but it is hard to make happen without hurting feelings. Sigh.

    • Some people really want to see that THEIR special gift is played with and loved. I find this means they will cut the toy out of the packaging immediately after opening, so there is almost no chance of returning it to the store or donating it. Well you can still donate it, but not to a Toys for Tots, or other group, that requires new toys.

  12. Thank you so much for this article! We live in a tiny downtown apartment, and are hoping to add to our family soon. One of my biggest fears is that peer pressure, commercial pressure, and sheer square footage pressure might persuade us to move to the suburbs, where we could afford a larger place. I really, really want my child to grow up in a community-oriented environment, so I'm very reluctant to move. Posts like this (and all the others on offbeat families) are helping me build up a bank of ideas so that I'll have something to say when people start asking me when we are going to move out of our neighborhood.

  13. Haha…we moved from a small 2 bedroom (650 sq ft) to a larger 2 bedroom (950 sq ft) when the kid was 6 months, and apparently at some point in the apartments vast history (it's a 100 year old building), someone cut the 'master' bedroom door in HALF so that you could fit a bed in it without having to have one side against a wall. So it's got hinges on both sides, like a saloon door. To me, the better solution would have been to just switch it from swinging in to swinging out…but it's already cut in half now, so there's not much we can do about it!

    Our place feels really big, but the vast majority of the space is taken up with our HUGE living room/dining room. Which I actually love. The bedrooms are tiny, the kitchen is reasonable but doesn't fit a table, so we spend most of our time together in our giant living room/dining room space. It's actually really nice.

    The most important part for me is to keep things rotating in and out. We are lucky to have a small storage space in the basement of the building (especially considering our apartment doesn't have a single closet) and we try to stay on top of putting stuff down there that we're not using regularly.

    Also – repurposing space and furniture. We have a bathroom stand that fit well in our last bathroom because it was huge, but the new place is smaller, so the bathroom stand is now in the kitchen holding cookbooks and tea pots. We have no closets, but a fair bit of kitchen cupboard space, so wrapping paper is in a kitchen cupboard. At another apartment, we kept our tools and sleeping bags in the kitchen cupboards because..well, we had extra cupboards and nowhere else to put that stuff.

  14. " …. sometimes the kids just needs to wear my high heels and prance around waving a tampon as a magic wand and there's not much harm in that."

    HA! Thank you for that — too funny. Also makes me feel better about the fact that my son just spent his pre-nap bottle time playing with the plastic funnel/sieve thing that my husband had to pee into when he was trying to pass a kidney stone. Forget the toys, just buy the children Tampax and bring home all the free stuff from the hospital! πŸ˜€

  15. "…or doesn't have a special meaning to mom or dad"

    Yeah, that's probably the reason I keep 50% of the toys my daughter has. Most of them are vintage or toys that my hubby and I had growing up!

  16. I live in a 1 bedroom, 550 sq ft house with my husband and almost 3yo. I keep trying to downsize my son's toys (most of which are secondhand and repurposed stuff), but he loves playing with all of them. I even find myself hoarding recyclables. A couple weeks ago, he had a great time building with old potatoes that needed to go in the compost and toilet paper tubes. He's still playing with the potatoes and the tubes in various ways. In some ways, this makes me want to get rid of things (he can obviously be happy playing with anything), but then it also makes me want to keep anything and everything (because, again, he has a great time playing with everything).
    Despite my hoarding tenancies, I have reduced the amount of stuff he wants (or that I want to buy him), by encouraging him to use his imagination. Early in his toddler years, I caught myself saying "we don't have one" when he would ask for a frying pan for his play kitchen (it's cardboard and folds flat to hide behind our dresser when I'm tired of looking at it) or some other item for his play. I soon realized that I could tell him "here you go" and "hand" him a pretend version of what he asked for (with nothing in my hand) or tell him to make one himself (he "made" an oven under my mom's couch one day) and he is perfectly content with that.
    I love your rotating clip-on highchair suggestion. There is definitely something to having your child actually at the table with you instead of next to it. Love the ending with the tampon magic wand, too! Thanks for sharing.

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