How to Live in a Small Space With Kids (and Stay Sane)

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Have you ever considered small space living with kids? Scared it might drive you insane? Well, this one’s for you.

If you’re new, here’s a bit of background: after traveling the world with my husband and child for 15 months, we downsized into an 860 square foot, 2 bed, 1 bath duplex (called a ‘flat’ here in New Zealand) from our 1280 square foot, 3 bed, 2 bath bungalow with a separate garage.

The reasons were: more money for future travel + we’d lived for over a year in small spaces and been deliriously happy.

We’ve since had another child (check out my minimalist baby list here) and have been living in our small home for over two years with no plans to upsize.

The end goal of optimal living is still a long way off, but I’ve managed a few tweaks to get us closer to maximising the use of our small space, and I wanted to share those with you now.

How to survive small space living with kids

Living in a small home with children requires a lot of creative thinking and an increased level of tolerance for noise and mess.

I won’t even pretend my house is tidy during daylight hours, but I have been able to achieve a comfortable living situation with the following tips.

  • Insulate for noise control

Let’s get the bad news out there first. Small houses suck when it comes to noise. This wasn’t a problem for us until we had a newborn and a three-year-old.

Trying to get the baby to sleep whilst his big bro screamed the house down through the very thin non-insulated walls was not fun at all

No one got any sleep and we were all tired and cranky for months.

We soon realised it was easier to let the big boy ‘help’ me get baby to sleep than try to keep him quiet on the other side of the wall.

Now we’re slowly renovating and will eventually add insulation to all the internal walls for noise control. We’re also upgrading to soundproof curtains to reduce noise in the room as well as noise from outside. Noise is a major small home problem.

  • Toy restriction

We were quite lucky coming back from overseas travel as we didn’t have a whole lot of stuff so the big boy didn’t feel deprived when we took his toys away.

The day we unloaded all our stuff from the storage unit was like Christmas for him, but we were able to selectively add and remove items.

Now we have a pretty ruthless attitude towards toys. We might pick something up from the local thrift store with the knowledge it will be donated again.

Any toys we do buy tend to be on the long-term side – think Hot Wheels cars, Schleich animals or Legos (with a dedicated Lego table which makes organizing easy.

For a more in-depth article on how we manage toy clutter, go here)

  • Get smart with storage

underbunk-storage-drawers
I could write a whole post on storage, but my tops tips are these. The space under beds is the best place to store clothes and toys.

Storage beds are the ideal solution. We love our storage beds.

If you have enough clearance, I recommend getting drawers that sit under the bed. Ours are on casters and roll right under the bunks, sitting flush against the side of the base when stored. They are huge and fit everything we need in the room.

If you don’t have the space, these under bed storage bags are the next best thing. 

Alternatively, you can invest in a hydraulic storage bed which lifts up so you can access the underside. I’ve written a comprehensive guide to finding the best storage bed for you here.

The backs of your doors can become swinging clothes racks. We have screwed hooks into the door frames, but if you’re renting and can’t put a hole in the wall, these over door clothes racks should see you right.

  • Make the most of outdoor space

We have a partially covered outdoor porch which is basically our mud room.

This is where shoes, gumboots and outdoor gear live.

It’s not perfect but it keeps the outdoor stuff out of the house which helps to reduce clutter.

On the days where the kids are full of beans and bouncing off the walls, I send them out to our backyard and do what I can to make our backyard as fun for them as possible including games, bug exploration areas (a pile of bricks). I’ve been meaning to start a fairy house area as well, and when I do I’ll be referring to this post on fairy house roofs for design ideas – so cute!

Other ideas I’ve seen used are enclosing a porch or verandah to give some extra ‘outdoor’ space when kids just need to be outside. 

  • Multi-functional furniture

Any extra furniture needs to serve multiple purposes. Our toy box has a tough lid, like the one above, so it can be used as a bench if required.

We have no extra sleeping space for guests, so I’m eyeing up an ottoman bed. These are such a great idea for fitting in a guest bed in a small space.

You can even plan for your crib to do double duty as a bed. Lots of these mini cribs convert to a twin bed when the kids get bigger. Genius!

  • Something comes in something goes out

We try not to bring many new things into our home.

I prefer to use up what we have or make do with other things. That said, things like kids shoes and jackets need to be replaced.

We are lucky to live close to a charity donation bin so I’m often running over to place a bag of used items.

If something comes in, I always try to take at least one thing away.

  • Coach loved ones on not giving toys as gifts

You can do your best to minimize the toys your kid has and then boom – along comes Nana.

My parents have now been gently coached for over a year in how we live. We ask them not to buy toys for the kids, or if they must, those toys stay at their house.

Seriously, there is a teddy bear larger than my husband taking up an armchair in my parent’s living room.

Every single time we go to their house the boys play with the oversized bear. I bet if it was at our house they would hardly touch it (and it would drive me bonkers).

We also do the 4 gift rule for Christmas – something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read.

  • Accept that kids sharing a room is OK

I got a great comment on one of my first posts about small space living with kids and it went along the lines of ‘making kids share a room is not child abuse’.

I laughed when I read that as I never had to share a room growing up and always felt sorry for friends who did.

Having my kids share a room was one of the downsides of living small for me, as I wanted them to have their own space.

But they’ll be just fine, and hopefully become great friends.

We do have the option of putting up a stud wall and turning our dining room into a tiny third bedroom, which I’m considering for the future.

But really, downsizing to a smaller home with kids has been a great move for us. There are challenges, sure, but none that can’t be overcome with smart storage and patience.

When the boys get older we might have to give them the larger bedroom or build a studio in the backyard to give them more space for themselves, but we can manage that.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of living small is being constantly aware of everything you bring into your life and making sure only the essential tools of life make the cut.

Plus, I like to think I’m doing my bit for the future generation by raising sons who lightly consume that which they need, and don’t source their joy from things. It’s hard work sometimes, but I think it’s a worthwhile feat.

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Wondering how to pull off small space living with kids? It's totally possible to do with some planning and clever storage. I share all our tricks and tips for downsizing with kids in this post.

18 thoughts on “How to Live in a Small Space With Kids (and Stay Sane)”

  1. Thanks for this, Emma! We are planning to start a family next year and we anticipate having a newborn in our 350 square foot 1-bedroom apartment… It sounds absolutely crazy to me, but that’s the current plan! I love living in a tiny space after having a 1100 square foot 3-br house with a huge basement for storage. We have to be super crazy organized in our small space, and as you said, we need to be very cautious about what we bring into the house. Everything has multiple uses. Our couch is also a bed AND it has storage under one side. Thanks for the advice about adding littles to the mix! 😀

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  2. Ha ha I loved reading your little blog especially the part about the oversize bears we have two that live in our under 900 square-foot farmhouse that grandpa bought from Costco, for 2 kiddies. I still have not figured out how to make them miraculously disappear .

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  3. Great article Emma. We are similar – came back to Auckland from our 8 month round the world trip last September, us & 2 kids squished in tiny rooms and we realised we don’t need so much space and stuff. So sold our giant villa on the traditional quarter acre section, and we’re moving next week to a small townhouse in the city. Means we can do more walking everywhere – less use of the car so saving money and better for our health. We have got rid of so much stuff and it’s incredibly liberating. And a great lock up and leave lifestyle with a high rental value for next time we hit the road. Very excited (better get back to packing boxes….!!!)

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    • How exciting, Kylie. Downsizing is so much easier after spending time all squished into a hotel room or small apartment and the extra money is very handy (especially if you are selling a big villa in AK in this market – nice!). Plus, I like getting creative with storage or finding uses for odd spaces. In our old house (130sqm) we had an entire spare room full of boxes/junk. Needless to say, we got rid of most of it when we downsized and haven’t missed anything. And as you say, small spaces are much easier for travel. Right now we have house sitters in but we plan to swap/rent the place out on Airbnb when we travel next time.

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  4. How did you insulate interior walls? I live in a 770 square foot home with a 3 year old and a6 month old. The noise cancelling sounds glorious.

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    • As we renovate we are putting insulation between the studs. This means we are ripping down the plasterboard (drywall) and installing the insulation and then putting up new drywall. I have heard there is a way to ‘squirt’ expanding foam insulation through a small hole in a wall, without needing to rip it down, but we need all new plaster so it’s something we’re adding as we go.

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  5. Love this article! I live in a three bedroom house with a conservatory. My kids share a room as I work from home and have a bedroom as an office – my house is over flowing with stuff and I keep telling myself I’ll do a car boot one day but never do!

    There’s a local Barnardos centre that I’ve taken a few things too, you’ve inspired me to take a lot more there today!

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    • I feel a deep sense of achievement every time I drop off a bag of items at our local charity shop. Every bag matters!

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  6. I love what you say at the end. I feel so grateful that our smaller home has forced us to care more about the people in our home then the things.

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  7. We have been in a small house (807sq ft), a huge house (3200+ sq ft) and now and inbetween one of 1300sq ft. We have 3 girls age 5,3 and 9mo. In the process of planning to build our own home. And oh the temptation to go big is huge! Have to keep reminding myself that bigger isn’t better and that I really wasn’t even happy in our huge house! But when you are building your own home, it’s difficult to decide what will be enough, too little or too much space for everyone to grow into.

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    • Ooh, yeah it’s tough when you are building because you need it to be perfect. Here in New Zealand, it’s hard to find construction companies who will actually build smaller homes. All the best with it, I’m sure you’ll make the right call.

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  8. Our family lives in an 830 square foot, 2 bedroom, 1900’s home. It’s myself, husband, and 3 kids (twins ages 10, and a twelve year old). It’s like a song. Some times we are swinging along…sometimes (when things get left out or the clutter adds up) we loose our rhythm. My husband and I have lived in this house 20 years. Nothing is static. Every item of furniture can be used in a variety of ways. Same goes for rooms. 1 kid is in a space that used to be the coal shoot. It’s a cool room conversion (by his standards). The back porch got framed in and is now a family room of sorts. The wall folds down and that is our bed. The privacy sucks, but we are working on that. The twins have their own rooms (the two ‘real’ rooms). All 3 used to share one room, but recently the tweeners needed their own space. We have thought SO many times about moving to a bigger house, bigger lot, but every time we drive ‘out there’ we come back to our small urban pad and feel refreshed. I’m a farm kid who now lives in the heart of Denver on a double lot (whopping 6,000sf). We have goats, chickens, a rabbit, garden, a zip line, tree house, school, shops and parks right out the door. The kids roam the n’hood. The lure of more space is EVER present…but every time I debate moving, the pros of staying outweigh the pros of leaving. It won’t be long before 1 kiddo is off to whatever else in life and our small space feels a bit emptier (sad face here). The hardest part has been just making the decision to stay, and sticking with it!

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    • Thanks so much for sharing how you live in your small home. Your home sounds amazing, and you’re right, one day it won’t be so cramped. I feel the same. One day, I know the kids won’t be here (sigh) and it’ll be the perfect size for us and we won’t need to downsize!

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  9. We also lived in a two-bedroom 680 sq/ft house when our two oldest kids & nephew were small; we gave them the larger bedroom & we squeezed quite happily into the smaller one (room for a double bed, a small dresser, and that’s about it!). Now we’re in a 1400 sq/ft house, and our four girls still have the larger bedroom & en-suite, and we have the smaller one, this time by choice because we love being cocooned in a smaller space. Bonus: a lot less junk and a minimalist wardrobe. Wouldn’t change it for anything!

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  10. Hi, I loved the post. We are going tiny as in 30-40 sqm. I’m super excited. We only have the one but hope to have another. Looking forward to reading more of the blog!

    Reply

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