Five space-saving tips for parenting in a small house

Hello from North Haven!

My husband and I spent our first two years on the island living in ten month rentals and moving from one temporary situation to another in the summer. When the opportunity arose to purchase a house through North Haven Sustainable Housing, we jumped at the chance.

Our 1200 square foot house includes three small bedrooms upstairs, one of which we use as a recording studio for my husband’s freelance work and our creative projects, one and a half bathrooms, and an open-plan downstairs. While it’s efficient to heat and easy to clean, adding my daughter into the situation means we’ve had to think creatively about how to accommodate her needs and stay sane in a small space.

Creative storage has been imperative for us as Penrose grows. We replaced an overflowing toy box and wagon with some Montessori-inspired shelf bins, which fit neatly between the piano and the television. Penrose can see her toys and reach them all herself, and they stay reasonably sorted so she knows where to find her red plastic recorder in an emergency. We replaced a small couch with a built-in window seat, wide enough for napping on and with three additional storage bins underneath for everything from crayons to blankets. String instruments, which we have a whole pile of, are displayed in the studio with wall-mounted neck hooks.

They were never quite this tidy again, but still a great space-saver!

They were never quite this tidy again, but still a great space-saver!

Reusing surfaces is a necessity in a multi-use, shared space like our living room. Penrose doesn’t have a separate play space, so for messy projects like playing with play dough or painting, I put a plastic tea tray, which we got for about $1 at a moving sale, down on our coffee table. Pen can be as messy as she wants, and clean up is easy and self-contained. We also decided not to have a changing table, and instead used a changing pad upstairs and a portable folding changing kit downstairs. Not as easy on our backs, but much more versatile and eliminated the need to create a single-use space hog.


A clay menorah built on our favorite cheapo tea tray, Penrose’s portable messy space

Large canning jars are a great way to store tiny treasures so they can be seen, stacked, and stored easily. Penrose has one for play kitchen utensils, one for rocks, shells and seedpods, and one for her plastic bugs and Totoro figures. The three of them easily fit in one toy cubby with room to spare, and the jars themselves are leftover from buying Turner Farm yogurt or from various fermentation projects.

Space-saving seating was a real savior once we had three people sitting down to a meal. We eat at our kitchen island much of the time, and rather than a stand-alone high chair, we put Penrose in a Phil + Ted clip chair next to our barstools. We only just took it down this week, and may get a third tall stool for our self-proclaimed big girl. When we ate at the dining room table, we used a high chair that strapped to a regular chair until she was big enough to sit in the chair without the boost.

Good habits are the most important for staying sane in a small house. I’m not inherently tidy, although my husband is, but we’ve worked hard to instill a cleaning up routine in our kid. With reminders, and sometimes grudgingly, she’ll clean up her toys and art supplies at each transition. She helps put food scraps in the compost bin, clothes in the laundry basket, and plates in the sink. Keeping the house fairly organized means we can have our “stuff” – piano, tiny sparkly purple drum set, lots of guitars, basses and ukuleles, hundreds of crayons, tutus and tiaras – and not feel like we’re drowning in clutter.

Living small, whether by choice or necessity, is on the rise. Adding a baby or child into a small house creates opportunities for creative and compassionate space sharing.

Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!