How to Design Play Zones in Any Home
Whether it’s the holiday or birthday bustle of gifts to give and be gotten, or just the bombard of commercializing childhood… I’ve been reflecting on our play spaces and our toy collections. The endless flow of ‘things’ into our life and the impossible ease with which we can acquire yet. more. stuff. is sometimes shocking to me.
To be honest, I love toys. I really do. I’m just as drawn to them as I was when I was a child. But “Declutter Gangsta” that I am, I am equally drawn to minimalism and simplicity in all rooms, most particularly the playroom. I believe children need “white space” – space that isn’t cluttered or overstimulating – in order to get really invested and engaged in the real play, the imaginary play that happens inside their minds.
I think it’s the gaps between the play-things that matters more than the items themselves.
Following my “Declutter: Toys to Get Rid of Now” movie, many of you have asked me for a tour of our playroom – what we have in it and how it’s set up. So here it is, with a long list of caveats. Firstly – this is a temporary home, a 2 bedroom apartment in NYC, so I am not investing in the spaces like I might if we were staying put for years to come. Secondly, my kids are 2 and 4, o the spaces are not necessarily right for babies or for older kids. Lastly, I still feel that we have too many toys, but each one is such a gem at this point that I’m not sure which to let go of. If you have any ideas please enlighten me in the comments below!
In my heart, I truly believe that children do not need toys at all.
I know that in most cultures, children have few to no toys whatsoever, and they entertain themselves beautifully, perhaps far more engaged than our toy-laden children. But having said that, I do love (some) toys, and we are part of a cultural context, to which we wish to belong, so this is my aim to walk the fine line between these two polarities.
So, without further ado, three zones to offer young children (and older ones too) to create more harmony, flow and peace in their play & exploration. Links (including amazon affiliate links) to items featured in the video can be found throughout.
The Messy Zone
What is The Messy Zone for?
This zone is by no means messy, in and of itself. Rather, it invites messy, sensory, tactile play… the type of play where your hands are touching and manipulating various materials, and you can immerse yourself in projects and creativity.
What should I put in The Messy Zone?
We love to have all the basic art supplies (Scissors, Markers, Stamp sets, Crayons, Stapler, Hole Puncher, Tape, Glue, Paint, Water Colors, paper) available here regularly.
Some of our favorite messy zone materials:
- Kinetic Sand, this is sand that doesn’t every dry out. If you’re up for making your own – good on ya and more for the college fund!
- Jelly Beads, these are so much fun. Beware that they do go moldy if left for a few days and that a tiny bit goes a long way as they expand a lot in water. Add some kitchen utensils – a sieve, some spoons and jugs and you’re set for some deep, scientific exploration!
- Playdough, no need to expand here – good old fashioned fun. I like to make my own when I have the time and patience.
- Teifoc Bricks, just discovered these – they’re great for little engineers. I definitely needed to help my 4 year old with building with the bricks, it was a joint project, but he’s so proud of the result. Plus you can melt it in water and start again!
- Fimo, I grew up with Fimo. The magic of making something that then gets hard as plastic and looks like a real thing is so exciting. We print out instructions on different animals to make with Fimo and rip at it. Plus, I believe my kids are so much more engaged with toys they’ve made than with toys someone else has made!
- Dry rice, pasta & beans in jars or trays with some cups can keep little ‘uns involved for a long time and are a great way of practicing fine motor skills.
Quick Tips for the Messy Zone:
- Ironically – keep it tidy! Use containers that work for you and your kids to keep the materials neat and fresh. Generally we only allow one project out at a time.
- Recycle – we keep our big recycling bag in this space so there are always some cartons or boxes for our kids to paint or build with (and then they generally find their way into the recycling bin anyway).
- Only allow projects that you can handle. Does playing with water give you goosebumps? Does the idea of cleaning up a painty mess make you itch? Forget it, not worth it. Your kids need a relaxed parent more than they need to paint.
- Display – have a wall or shelf designated to your gallery so that your children can really enjoy and take pride in the fruits of their labor.
- Focus on the process, not the outcome. This isn’t a space for creating masterpieces – it’s a space for exploring tactile, messy materials – and if something pretty comes out that’s just the cherry on top.
- Never push, reward, punish, cajole, manipulate or even praise artistic “talent”. Talent is something that people develop with hard work and deep intrinsic interest and motivation. Adding a layer of parental involvement inhibits this internal drive to create so stay interested and supportive but also slightly detached emotionally.
The Quiet Zone
What is The Quiet Zone for?
This zone is about relaxing, cuddling, chatting, reading, playing dress up, hiding, rough housing. It’s also a perfect spot for time-ins when your child is riled up.
This is a great zone to hang out in when you’re winding down for bed or when one kid needs some space alone.
What should I put in The Quiet Zone?
Consider soft, relaxing colors and textures. Rugs, pillows, blankets, pouffs, stuffed animals, Tents, tunnels, swings. This is where we keep our books, our doll & stroller, and our dressing up box, too.
Quick Tips for The Quiet Zone:
- Lighting is absolutely critical in this zone so keep it natural and/ or warm and low. It’s impossible to unwind when you have bright white light in your eyes.
- This isn’t the place for bright colors as we want a soothing environment. Consider subdued hues that create a sense of softness and safety.
- Don’t overload here – as in any space, simplicity is key. You can rotate out your dressing up box, your books and your stuffed animals (or just get rid of some of them).
The Play Zone
What is The Play Zone for?
This zone is about skills, concentration and imagination. This is where the building, the imaginary play and the long, immersed hours of getting lost in other worlds can happen.
What should I put in The Play Zone?
You really do not need very much in this zone – or in any of them – in fact, I feel that we still have too much. But the important thing here is that you be able to neatly store whatever you do have out so that it remains an inviting space to dive deep into the imagination. Some of our current favorites here are:
- Playmobil, we bought a Playmobil lot second hand on Ebay – we got so much we gave a whole bunch away. It was the best investment ever because Playmobil gets pricey. Both of us grew up loving Playmobil and so it was a bit of a nostalgic choice for us – but our kids spend literally hours with these little people.
- Lego, a classic. Lego is amazing both as a STEM learning toy and as good old fun. My 4 year old is just easing into it. Of course, Lego is a total choking hazard and really annoying to clear up which is why we love the Grab N Go Storage bag for lego.
- Animalz, we ordered these wholesale – mostly because I love the design of these pleasing little creatures and smooth feel of the sanded wood.
- Mirrored blocks and Water blocks, a fun spin on classic blocks these are beautifully made and invite endless options.
- Magnatiles, another amazing STEM toy. They’re awesome but cost their weight in gold.
- Ikea Kitchen with the Cash Register, this is a really versatile piece – I do not like “furniture toys” usually because I find they take up so much space for something so specific. I like toys and pieces of furniture to be able to be “imagined into” lots of different things. But this becomes a restaurant, a shop, a gas station, a post office… We pimped ours up a bit with some gold spray and marble contact paper, as well as painting the back with chalk board paint.
- Musical Instruments, I wish I was more musical and able to offer my kids more of an exposure to music. For now I try to keep the CD player out and available with CD’s for them to listen to and our music basket with some basic noise makers. If they show any kind of interest in learning to play one day I’ll need to call in reinforcement!
- Dollhouse and Dolls. I love dollhouses to be as simple and enduring as possible. And gender neutral. And modern. And for the dolls to be multiracial. And simple. But hey, that’s just me. We use this often to act out transitions that are coming up, or any events that my kids might need to work through. We act them out with the dolls and do some good old fashioned processing that way.
- Automoblox Cars, these are beautiful and fun but I hesitate to fully recommend them simply because we’ve found that the little pieces get broken or lost quite a bit. I do love the look and feel of them though.
Quick Tips for The Play Zone:
- Rotate, rotate, rotate – keep a big storage box and rotate toys in and out so that they remain “fresh” and you don’t go buying more toys every other week.
- Storage – keep the storage options manageable for both you and your children to clean up easily.
- White space – have at least one surface that remains clear at all times, at least one box that remains empty – and a lot of empty floor space.
- Lighting – if possible natural light is a wonder in any space. Whatever you do don’t have white florescent lighting as this is a depressant.
- Natural elements – can you keep some plants here for your children to care for with your help? Plants brighten any space and green is a proven antidepressant.
I think you’ll definitely see an increase in the quality of play once you’ve designed these three spaces. Learn more about how to cultivate independent play.