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Designing Areas of the Home to Encourage Kids' Self-Sufficiency


Published March 2, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 6, 2022 at 9:24 a.m.

  • Courtesy of Meredith Bay-Tyack
  • Kitchen area

Fostering self-sufficiency is a gift to kids and their caregivers. In our family, we encourage independence to build our 4- and 6-year-olds' self-confidence and awareness about their internal strength and motivation. If kids know they are trusted to take care of themselves and can see how their actions impact the world around them, they'll be more likely to make mindful choices.

Our kids know that we are happy to support them but that we don't always need to be there to get them a cup of water or that zillionth snack. We have strong but compassionate boundaries and use language like, "Mom isn't available to get you a snack, but you can help yourself to anything in the kids' area." They still roll their eyes and moan, but we avoid some daily squabbles this way. Here are some ways my husband and I encourage our kids' independence and give ourselves a small break in the process.

Kitchen Area

One space that has become more important than ever during the pandemic is the kids' area in our kitchen. Our daughters have full access to it, without needing to ask permission.

Our kitchen is small and awkward, but we found that a slim bookcase we'd had for years fit perfectly against our fridge. In it, we have a pitcher of water and all kinds of cups. We also have a shelf dedicated to small bowls. We originally had small plates there, too, but removed them after noticing that our kids spilled from them often.

This area also houses the all-important snacks. Sometimes these include a basket of clementines and a container of crackers. Other times, it's jars of dried mango and cereal. We tend to put standard items here versus something considered a "treat." Depending on your kids' age, you may want to periodically switch out what's available. And assembling a container of items for older kids to grab on weekend mornings so parents can sleep in likely will be worth the extra prep.

A few utensils and straws would also be a good addition to this area if your kids can't reach those drawers in the kitchen, or if you'd prefer to limit their access to certain silverware.

In our kitchen, jars and snack containers are in a low drawer that our kids were able to scoot up to before they could walk. Now that they can reach the fridge, they have permission to take things like milk without asking. Allowing free access sends the message to our kids that they have our trust. Often, they'll still let us know when they take something, but they also more readily ask themselves if they want or need something.

What happens when kids leave out uneaten snacks or seem to be wasting food? We have repeatedly shown our kids how to put uneaten snacks back into their sealed containers for later, and they abide by that most of the time. If leaving out unwanted snacks becomes a pattern, we may choose to limit the quantity or variety of food available.

As parents, we hope for the best but know that the worst-case scenario is also possible. In this case, that means a container of Cheerios or a pitcher of water spilled across the floor. Having cloth napkins and a small dustpan, or even a handheld vacuum, nearby is helpful!

Art Supply and Reuse Zone

Freedom to make art without a lot of boundaries is something I value for my kids. While our art area has certainly evolved as my kids have gotten older, what has changed the most is my own attitude. I love watching my kids get creative. Making a mess is often a given. Using too many and too much is almost a guarantee. There are a couple of ways to handle this: Allow access to art supplies under strict supervision or know that things are going to be messy, and probably wasteful, but accept that it's worth it.

We save materials to reuse, but I've had to drastically change my expectations around "wasting" art supplies. Creating art destined immediately for the recycling bin or compost heap is just as important for kids as making something that Grandma can put on the fridge.

A lot of projects require adult setup and involvement, but that's not possible all the time. Our kids have full access to different kinds of paper, crayons, pencils, watercolors, tempera paint pucks, paint brushes, yarn, ribbon, scissors, hole punches, white school glue (we refill small bottles from a gallon jug), washi tape, masking tape, stickers and our "reuse zone," which includes myriad materials, from cardboard and plastic cups to magazines and Popsicle sticks.

They take good care of their materials because they feel ownership and pride. The pencil sharpener is as important as a colored pencil, because it allows the pencil to be used again once the tip has gone dull. My 4-year-old is learning this right now, and it's so cool to watch her get excited when she can move herself from frustrated that her pencil is broken to making it like new after a twist in the sharpener.

Some examples of things we keep fully out of reach are beads and jewelry-making supplies, liquid paint, a glue gun, and specialty items like oven-bake clay and origami paper.

Tissues, Wipes and Cloths

Grabbing too many tissues, paper towels or paper napkins is a kid specialty and can cause tension. We use washable and reusable cloth wipes, cloth napkins, dish towels and cleaning rags. Over time, our kids have learned what kind of cloth to use in different situations and where to put them when they're soiled. We still sometimes huff with annoyance when they use too many or are being inefficient as they clean up. But, ultimately, we remind ourselves that this is a minor annoyance and we will simply wash them and use them again.

All of our cloths are easily accessible. Wipes (wet in the sink when needed) are used to clean hands, faces and kitchen-table messes. We keep them in a reusable tissue box in the bathroom. Dish towels are next to the stove. Napkins are stored in the kid kitchen area. And cleaning rags are stored in a basket under the sink. We have a small laundry bin in the bathroom exclusively for soiled cloths.

Get-ready zones

Picking out clothes in the get-ready zone - COURTESY OF MEREDITH BAY-TYACK
  • Courtesy of Meredith Bay-Tyack
  • Picking out clothes in the get-ready zone

This is the area that is the most in-progress for our family, but I'm hopeful we will crack the code at some point. Since my daughters were toddlers, we have had personal grooming items like hairbrushes and washcloths available in the bathroom or common areas like the living room.

Recently, we added a small hanging rod in our kids' bedroom that holds a selection of clothing for our 4-year-old. She was having a hard time picking out clothing in the morning and didn't like the system we use for our oldest, which is picking out her outfits but offering up one choice. Now that only a few items are hung up, our 4-year-old easily chooses something each morning. This kind of setup might be best for someone living in a small house or one with essentially no closets, like ours. However, any closet or clothes storage can likely be made more kid-friendly.

One last thing...

The language we use is as important as the spaces we've set up. I've noticed that phrases like, "Let's only use the water we need. We share water with all the people and animals in Vermont!" are more persuasive than ones like, "Don't waste water!" The goal is to try to avoid making kids feel guilty for everyday actions and inevitable mistakes, while also lessening adults' constant job of oversight.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.