Hooray For Play
How to create the best playroom on the block
By: Astrid van den Broek
What does the play area at your house look like? (Some days, probably like a toy store exploded!) But a playroom is more than just a place to stash all that brightly colored plastic gear. Play is fun, of course, but it has its own value in intellectual and social development. “New skills are learned through play that can’t be learned anywhere else—not in a classroom or by parents,” says Karen Hutchison, director of play information and programs at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. The play museum is the only one of its kind in the world and includes a Reading Adventureland, where guests follow the Yellow Brick Road into five literary landscapes and Field of Play, where you can walk through a giant kaleidoscope and relax in a Jellyfish Jungle. There’s Nature Play too and an Upside-Down Nonsense House. “Play is essential for the emotional well-being of children. Happy children play.”
If you want to make the most of your child’s play space at home, here’s how to set up a playroom that’ll have the neighborhood kids lined up at your door (which is a good thing, by the way—playing with other children teaches social skills such as turn taking, patience and more. Yay, play!)
Organize the space. Maybe you’ve tried managing the kids’ play space already by using stackable drawers and plastic bins. But how accessible are those Barbies and Lego? “Using open bins is important because kids can find what they’re looking for in one step,” says Laurene Livesey Park, a former kindergarten teacher and home daycare owner who is the Toronto, Ont.-based past president of the Professional Organizers of Canada. “And label those bins with pictures and words, so that when they get older, they can make the correlation between the words, pictures and stuff in the bins.”
Why organize? Besides saving your sanity, an easily organized space makes the room more conducive to play, as Chandra MacFarland of Columbus, OH, discovered. The mom of Gavin, 2, Cara, 6 and Jake, 11, descended into her playroom basement one day, and ten garbage bags full of toys to donate to charity later, Macfarland had a more contained play space. Fewer toys help her children to find the ones they actually want to play with. “A lot of open space is a good idea for playrooms, so store things against the walls or up on shelves,” says Livesey Park. Free space encourages kids to move around and use the space in however they wish—freedom sparks creativity in your child’s mind.
And if you’ve got too many toys in the room, none of which you’re willing to part with, rotate batches in and out. “If you bring back old toys, they seem new and exciting again and it just changes it up a bit,” says Dr. Linda M. Gulyn, associate professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.
Be kid-friendly. “Having everything washable is key,” says Livesey Park. “You can practically hose down kindergarten rooms!” Kids will often lie on the floor to play, so a few small throw rugs and floor pillows are a nice addition to the room, adds Valerie Hanson, owner of Tips, Tools & Techniques, an organizing service in Halifax, NS. Such cozy corners are good for enjoying much-needed downtime. “You need to leave time in a child’s schedule to be reflective and where he simply enjoys being with himself,” says Hutchison.
And when setting up a playroom, think simple. “Less structured toys are more appropriate so that children can use their imagination and create their own toys,” says Hutchison. “A cardboard box and a blanket are the best items for play at all levels.”
Steal ideas from the pros. Rather than having a mishmash of toys in the room, set up your room in play “zones” or “stations” like you find in daycare settings or play centers, which usually have their rooms set up in a particular way for a reason. “It helps them expand their play in a certain area and stay focused rather than get distracted by ‘butterflying’ around the room,” says Livesey Park.
Some zone ideas are “building” (i.e. blocks) and “creative” (i.e. arts and crafts). “This is sensory play and works on the fine motor skills,” says Dr. Gulyn. Clay work, finger-painting and water play are all ways to work on these skills, she says. “Drama” (i.e. dress up) is also important. “When children reach 4 to 5 years especially, they engage in sociodramatic play with other children,” says Dr. Gulyn. “This type of play is purely imaginative, so dress up materials are great for this.” Children will “pretend play” long before this age though. Add dolls or stuffed animals to the playroom and you may just catch your toddler pretending to read to his teddy bear.
Have fun creating your playroom and as your child grows and develops, keep Einstein’s words in mind: “Play is the highest form of research.”