A long-time friend called me the other day. My godson is one and a half, and will be celebrating his next birthday about the time that their new house is complete. “So…We decided to build a house! And we are designing the house to include a playroom for Hank.”
I offered up my services to curate a playroom and started brainstorming elements of an engaging, educational, and fun space. In building a playroom, I started at the question: How do I arrange my classroom so that children are set up for success?
Parents are big-time struggling right now. They don’t know what to do with their kids at home, they report struggling to follow a schedule, their kids won’t focus on one activity at a time….the list goes on.
Fortunately, these sorts of age-related obstacles are all ones that can be remedied with proper planning of the child’s primary play area.
Making a Space for Meaningful Play
Young children ought to have a specific play area, specifically designed with the intention for your child to engage in meaningful play.
What is meaningful play exactly, you ask? The good news is that when kids are so young, virtually all active play is meaningful. When little ones are at the center of their explorations, they naturally exercise their imagination, dexterity, decision-making skills, emotional strength, and pattern recognition. All of these cornerstones make for well-rounded development in a kid who’s one day soon going to be embracing learning of numbers, letters, and social play.
In terms of what it looks like, a room for meaningful play means having child sized-furniture, materials on shelves that they can reach, and all necessary safety precautions so that your little guy or gal doesn’t risk injury. Additionally, the design and materials should be purposeful.
It can be difficult, especially in a small space, to create an area that is specifically designed to engage your child. If this limitation speaks to you in the depths of your soul, consider incorporating the elements below into areas of your home as you see fit. For example, your child’s art area might be a better fit in the kitchen, where a mess can be more easily cleaned up. Your dramatic play materials may be located in your living room, so that you are able to keep an eye on your child as she plays independently, while still able to be productive.
For the purposes of the article, I’ve outlined some ideas for a designated play space. Do remember though that all suggestions are amenable to arrangements on a smaller scale.
What Do I Include?
Easily repeatable organization A playroom should be organized so the child is able to categorize her materials. This natural way of organization helps children generate schemas in their brains that help them make sense of their world. This can be achieved by selecting materials and “homes” for materials that are purposeful. For example, using an art drying rack in your child’s art area so that she knows exactly where to put her work when she is done. Or, putting labels on shelves/containers so your child knows where to find that triangular-shaped block. Pretty simple, I’m willing to bet that you’ve made parallel organizational moves in your home for yourself already. First step, complete!
A space for art A corner, cubby, or wall should be donned with paintbrushes, paper, crayons, and so on for easy access. At toddler-level height, your child will easily be able to reach the materials she needs to complete her vision. This area should be supplied with age-appropriate art materials, organized by level of adult facilitation needed. Things in reach should include drawing paper, construction paper non messy media (such as crayons or colored pencils), dot markers, and glue/collage materials if your child is capable of managing those materials on their own.
A space for fine motor activities Consider a sensory table that your child knows to keep small materials contained. These items can be stored elsewhere and taken out so that they don’t create a mess. This is a great place to store and present fine motor materials such as loose parts; this can be anything from bottle caps to loose jewelry. By defining this space as an area in which to use small materials, your child will eventually learn to use them in a contained way without having to be confined to a sensory table or bin.
A “cozy corner” or nook Your child can relax with a book, puzzle, or other quiet activities. Surround this area with lovies and stuffies, cozy pillows, and maybe even a canopy. It is important for your child to have space where she can relax, explore pictures and written word, and quietly explore her interests independently. Although it may seem silly, the inclusion of a canopy can actually be a great benefit; your child can feel a sense of privacy when she closes it without completely out of your line of sight!
An area for dramatic play This is where all your child’s kitchen materials, costumes, dolls, and other things with which they play pretend will go. Be thoughtful in the way you place materials in this space; if it is set up like a kitchen, how can you continue to extend your child’s play? You may include play-dough and a rolling pin, or practical life skill activities (see below). Does your child love fire trucks? Place a fire fighter costume along with some gross motor loose parts, like pvc piping and cardboard boxes, for your child to build a fire truck. This is also a great area to store blocks; allow your child to build her own space where she can pretend to be whatever she wants!
* * * * * *
By organizing your playroom in such a way that areas are purposeful, and thoughtfully planned, your child will more easily be able to internalize where things belong, what items should be used where, and the various ways materials can be used.
And so you’ve seen my finest ideas for a home learning space that may provide the same developmental opportunities for your young one as the halls of school. If you find however that you are particularly oriented towards Reggio or Montessori styles of learning, keep reading for a few additional ideas.
From a Reggio classroom:
Loose Parts Play: include a “loose parts lab” where your child can interact with a variety of materials of different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, etc. Loose parts play is so beneficial to childrens’ development for so many reasons:
- It promotes creativity and imagination as well as self confidence. You know how the cliche goes: “my child likes the box more than the toy that was in it”? Well, it’s true. Children LOVE open ended materials because they enable childrens' creative vision.
- It gives children the opportunity to sort, order, and organize materials by characteristics. These are higher level thinking skills that are so crucial for young childrens’ development. Examples of loose parts activities include: 1) A provocation using a photo of an animal paired with large loose parts. Notice what characteristics your child identifies from the animal as she builds. 2) Circular items of various sizes. Help your child stack the items on top of eachother, noticing the sizes of each one. 3) Reflective items of varying opacity on a light table paired with a magnifying glass.
From a Montessori classroom:
Practical Life Materials: another way to incorporate fine motor skills is to incorporate what Montessori practitioners call “practical life’ activities in your playroom and in your daily schedule in general. In the classroom, practical life skills may look like scooping and pouring of various materials, a threading/sewing activity, flower arranging, or food preparation. For you, this may look like including water in your child’s tea pot so she can work on pouring real liquid from one container to another. These sorts of activities promote developmental skills such as coordination and concentration, while enhancing your child’s self discipline and confidence.
Self Correcting Materials: Another classic Montessori component, self correcting materials are wonderful ways to keep your child engaged in play that promotes cognitive development. “Self correcting” simply means that if a piece does not fit in a given place, it is obvious to the child that the piece does not belong there. The child can then easily notice the area and correct this choice (perhaps by means of guess and check, depending on age), which enables her to learn independent problem-solving skills. These sorts of materials will keep your child busy and engaged as they develop a sense for patterns, sorting, and seriation.