Play-Based Minimalism with Emily Russo

Our mission for our Interview Series is to hear from other moms that believe in play-based learning but also attracted to a minimalist lifestyle. To us, “play-based minimalism” is about believing that children should be given the opportunity to play in an environment that is designed for learning and imaginative play but free of physical and “commitment” clutter.

There is a Waldorf Education Philosophy that believes that a child’s education should be focused on the whole child- Head, Hands and Heart. We believe that this philosophy should be applied to each member of the family, and the home itself.

We are honored that Emily is willing to share the Head, Hands and Heart of a minimalist mom that encourages play-based learning. Emily is a joyful mom to two little ones, Ezra(3) and Priya(1) and a loving wife to Joel. They live in Ohio, but I wish they were my neighbors because her party planning skills are on point!

How has “play-based minimalism” helped you as a mom?
“Play based minimalism as a mom has been life changing. My children play so much better, more peacefully and for longer periods of time when they are not lost in a sea of toys. There is also less clean up which is nice because I spend less time cleaning and more time with my family.”
What is your philosophy of play?
“I wouldn’t say I have a “philosophy” of play but I do want it to be relaxed and open ended. We try to focus on Montessori methods in our home so our children while playing are learning but also gaining independence in the activities they do during the day.” 
What is your best piece of advice for parents designing their child’s play space or bedroom?
“I don’t have much advice because I myself am still learning, but one thing I have learned that is worth sharing is that it can be tempting to want play to meet a certain expectation we have in our minds but I’ve had a lot more success letting my children play with what interests them and then the learning just comes naturally at that point. It’s much less stressful to let them take the lead and show you what interests them and then use that opportunity to slip in play based learning. We also try to not buy toys that only have one function (battery operated tend to be like this) but that serve as many purposes as their imagination can come up with. It has made a world of difference to have a play room full of open ended toys! “
What is your favorite toy for young learners?
“We’ve got a lot of favorites but if I had to pick one it would be our Melissa and Doug rainbow stacker. That thing gets SO much love here! It’s great because it’s very versatile. All while playing my 1 year old is working on fine motor skills trying to stack them and if my 3 year old is playing with it he’s working on fine motor skills but also on shapes, colors and counting.”
What atmosphere does “play-based minimalism” create in your home? 
“My home has felt more peaceful since we have implemented a minimalistic mentality. Physical clutter is mental clutter and it’s amazing to see how much better my children play in atmosphere that is free from clutter. It’s also made us appreciate quality over quantity. It’s easy to fall into the trap of consumerism so it is important to let our children know it’s not the quantity of things you own but the quality of play, relationships etc that matter.”
Follow along with Emily’s play-based minimalist life on Instagram  and show her some #playbasedminimalism love!


One of my biggest changes in life over the past two years has been my relationship with time. Maybe it is seeing how much growth my daughter makes each month and knowing these amazing days of having little kids is limited. Maybe it is my research on executive functioning and time management skills through consulting. Or maybe it is my desire to live a life with as much good and as little “fillers” as I can.

Minimalism is about far more than decluttering and asking yourself “Does this spark joy?” In fact, that is only one small bit of a meaningful minimalistic life. Yes, my home is not cluttered. Yes, we try to minimize our physical positions and have scaled back greatly over the past couple years but the most powerful way we have minimized is with our time.

My husband and I have had people ask us lately about ways that we manage our time because, honestly, we have a lot of “free time”. As The Minimalist would word it, my “pithy answer” is:

Get in the habit of saying no in order to say yes to what you truly want to spend your time doing. 

(f you want to minimize your time reading, just hop to the link here! Keep reading for my non pithy answer. )


This is what I have started doing for grocery shopping.

  1. In the summers, I shop the local farmer’s market. Sometimes these prices are still a bit high so I am careful at how much I buy there. (We follow the Dave Ramsey Plan so I know where my money is going, especially the grocery budget)
  2. I shop at a local grocery story that sources its food from local farms. I only buy my dairy (usually kefir or yogurt), my bread and sometimes my eggs from there. (Ramsey Friends- I give myself a $20 cash limit per week there because I could get carried about with all of the amazing goodies.)
  3. *I use SHIPT. Grocery delivery to your house. Seriously, it is amazing. I grocery shop from Publix or Whole Foods online and it is arrives at my door. I double heart eyes loooove it. When I am shopping online, I can easily check my balance in my shopping cart and adjust my spending accordingly. I can click through the sales easily and use the search option on the site rather than wander through the aisles. Oh and the fact that I can have a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon while waiting for my order rather than plopping my toddler in the cart, is just fantastic. (Ramsey Friends- Yes, it does cost a yearly or monthly fee. Yes, I do tip $3-6 each time. But I save money because there is no temptations. So if you are on baby steps 4/5/6, this is an awesome option. If you are plugging away at 1-3, keep it up. You can do it!) 

More to come about my meal planning, grocery saving tips and favorite recipes. I would love to hear what you all do to save time and money in the area of family meals!

*If you sign up through my link, I do receive $10 worth of grocery credit on my account. By signing up through someone else, you also get $10 worth of groceries and 2 weeks free. If you sign up, please be sure to let me know any of your Shipt Tips and how you are liking it.

Observing Play in Nature

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. -Margaret Atwood

Observing children is beautiful.

When people ask, “What are you passionate about?” My honest answer would be, “Watching children play.”  However, there is a slightly creepy connotation to wording a passion that way stops me and I often spit out some more socially excepted verbiage like, “spending time in nature, play-based learning or even something broad like mindful parenting”. Ok, nobody really even asks what people’s passions are .. but they should!

But truly, observing play is such an incredible thing. It is like watching a series of mini miracles happen before your eyes.

Each movement leads to more development. Each word used connects to a bigger picture of the world. Each experience of free-play forms a unique little human.

Free-play in nature, in particular, sparks immense joy in children. And as parent, the opportunity to understand who your child is as a person during these moments outside is incredible. If children experience nature on a daily basis as a young child, they are in peace when they are outside. I have found as an educator, of children with behavioral and social needs, and as a parent that time outside releases something in them and you can see the true spirit of who they are.

One of my favorite lines in a book, Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children, is, “Who is my child in this moment?” This question is something that I try to ask myself multiple times a day. The practice of reflection and honoring their growth and true self has helped me connect and learn my daughter’s personality.

Charlotte Mason, a mindful educator of the 19th century, spoke beautifully about observing children. In her book, The Outdoor Life of Children, she said,  “This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their power of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment-” Her perspective is that it is the parent, or the educator, needs to be there for the children to observe their learning. They need to allow time for free-play but also be near for reflection and discussion. The balance that she creates is wonderful and requires such a conciois effort. This balance is also discussed in Simplicity Parenting by Kim Payne. The line, “When we talk over and under and around a child- when we talk too much- there’s less space for their thoughts, for what they have to say” really stands out to me. Allowing the child to be deeply engrossed in play is a mindful practice. When do you speak and explain? When do you observe silently? When do you document? And when do you simply watch? These are questions only you can answer and reasonably change given the child and the situation.

But what do you observe? Everything.

How do their hands grasp the shovel?  

How they move around the root that they fell over yesterday? 

What new words are they saying when they sing a song to themselves?

What new skills are they learning when you introduce water to their bucket?

Do their eyes sparkle when they see a butterfly floating by?

Do they search the same area of the yard for the ant they saw last week?

When do they check in with you? When do they desire physical contact? When is eye-contact reassuring enough? 

When do they realize they have walked to another area of the woods and you are out of sight? 

Take a week to be mindful of your observations. You may even want to use a notebook to write them down after you walk back inside or when your child is engrossed in play. Notice the changes. Notice the patterns. And notice the incredible gift of playing in nature that you have given them. Remember that this is a practice and something to work on daily. You will notice that as you observe, you will become better at seeing small changes in your child’s development.

I would love to hear your observations if you are willing to share. Feel free to email me,, comment or message me on Instagram.

Prescription: Nature

“Let them once get in touch with nature and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight and habit through life.”

— Charlotte Mason

Prior to staying home with our daughter, I owned a company that worked with children with disabilities. Many of these students struggled with attention needs. Some of these attention needs were neurological and often the children were diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or a similar diagnosis. Other times the attention needs were simply a matter of explicit teaching of executive functioning skills, the child’s diet and supplement routine and… their time outside.

I will always remember the day when a beautifully polished mom of three elementary aged children stopped me as I hopping in my car after a long day of academic coaching. I was on the way to a meeting with a psychologist to discuss one of our shared clients whom was recently diagnosed with autism. My stomach was growling and my mind was running. But this mom had a certain level of concern in her voice and said something that stopped me in my tracks.
“Another mom told me that you prescribed their child to outdoor time for their ADHD child. Is that true?”
I remember throwing my heavy bag packed with books, my computer and play-based games in my car, taking a deep breath and taking a big sigh of relief. This is something worth discussing.
“Yes, I may be guilty of that,” I said half laughing, half hoping this conversation was going to be a humorous as I thought it was in my mind.
She readjusted her pearl necklace, nervously shuffled through the gravel parking lot with her heels and said, “Well I just had lunch with her and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… it is working”
“You sound surprised?”
“Well, let me just tell you that we have taken our child to three different psychologists, had him in tutoring for two years and we are still not seeing any changes. She told me to ask you to prescribe outdoor time to us too.”
At this point I couldn’t help but laugh. “Prescribe outdoor time” This is not a phrase that I had ever used but I loved it.
“Sure! Let’s meet for some coffee next week and I will write you up a prescription.”
And I did. I wrote up a behavior modification plan surrounded around executive functioning skills, with the main solution being more free time in nature. 
No special educational therapy. No additional tutoring hours, even though I owned a thriving mobile tutoring company. I actually told her to reduce some tutoring hours instead.
I helped her look at their family schedule to find big chunks of time that could be free-play time outside. I looked at their rhythm and helped her think through how they could simplify so time in the backyard was part of their daily flow rather than a luxury on weekends.
 I encouraged time to soak in some vitamin D, feel the earth under them and just be in nature.

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