As a parent of young children, you might sometimes feel as though toys have taken over your house. Have you ever found yourself wondering what happened to the living room sofa or the kitchen counter? It is important to help children learn to “read” the home environment and recognize different areas and their distinct purposes, such as a play space.
The importance of creating order
Young children need to have a sense of order in their lives. When there is order and they understand it, children feel safe and empowered, and this helps foster their growing independence.
Parents naturally bring order to their children’s lives with eating and sleeping routines established very early in a baby’s life. As children get older, new routines are established for play time, mealtimes, bedtime, and other recurring activities. These routines help children predict what is going to come next and know what they are supposed to do.
Young children also benefit from having order in their physical environment. When children can easily see what is in a space, how it is organized, and what they can do in it, they can move more freely and purposefully. Also, when children can recognize order in their external environment, it helps them start to internalize the concept of order in their thinking processes. This is key to developing independence.
Preschool teachers put a good deal of thought into designing learning environments that will welcome children, promote learning, and encourage independence. You can use some of their strategies at home. Below are some tips for creating play spaces that will support your child’s development.
Make the play space easily recognizable
Whether you are carving out a nook in the living room, kitchen, bedroom, or back yard for a play space, make sure the area is clearly defined. Children will learn that this is the place to play, and it is less likely that your whole house will be littered with toys. Having storage for some toys and supplies nearby is, of course, essential. If possible, provide some kid-sized furniture—a small table and chairs allow children to do art and writing projects more easily. Clean-up will be easier for them, too!
Additional factors to consider when choosing a play space
Be sure the space is well lit and there is enough room for movement and block play. If your child builds something, is there a place to leave it so your child can come back to it later? Is there wall space nearby where you can display your child’s art?
Less is often better
It is easy for preschoolers to become overwhelmed by too many toys. When you create a play space for your child, put out only a small selection of toys at one time. Follow your child’s interests and put away the toys that they aren’t using. Store the extra toys away from the play area in a closet or trunk.
Arrange toys in the play space so children can see them
Help your child make decisions by displaying toys on open shelves, clear plastic containers, or open baskets. This makes the choices more obvious and manageable. When possible, group similar play items together. For example you might want one area for blocks, one for games or books, and another for play dough and art supplies. Put just five or six items on a shelf or in a bin.
Label toy storage
You can help cue your child where toys and supplies belong by putting pictures of the objects on the shelves or storage containers. Encourage interest in literacy by spelling out the names of objects alongside the pictures. Four- and five-year-olds will enjoy making the labels with you.
Have your child put toys away as they play
When your child is done playing with a toy and takes out another, take a moment to observe your child’s play. Does your child have a plan to combine the toys? If not, help your child put away the first toy to maintain some order during playtime.
Make sure there is a variety of toys and materials available
In addition to any toys your child might already have, consider having the items listed below on hand to rotate into the play space. Most of these items are considered “passive toys” or “loose parts”—and they encourage active, creative play.
2 to 3-year-olds
- Toys and objects that your child can easily grasp with one hand
- Things that can be opened and closed, like coffee cans and shoe boxes
- Objects from the real world, such as wooden bowls or spoons from the kitchen, shells, or a small plant that you can help your child take care of.
- Play dough or salt dough (both are fun to make together) and finger paints
- Simple 2-D and 3-D puzzles
- Board books—entice your child with two or three set upright on a shelf
3 to 4-year-olds
In addition to the items suggested for 2 to 3-year-olds, add these:
- Toys and objects your child can grasp with three fingers
- Collections of things with different textures—pom-poms, shells, rocks, and beads
- Containers kids can fill up—egg cartons, jars with lids, and boxes of different sizes
- Books with a storyline
- Simple puzzles
- Tempera paints with big paint brushes
4 to 5-year-olds
In addition to the items suggested for 3 to 4-year-olds, add these:
- A variety of writing materials, including markers, crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors, as well as different kinds of paper
- Tempera paints with different sized brushes
- Books that show sounds of the alphabet, how sounds go together, and objects that begin with different letters of the alphabet
- More complex puzzles
Organize for outdoor play
Sand and water play are classic activities that engage young children; they also require a lot of effort to set up simple stations. You just need a large plastic container that isn’t too deep, some sand, some water, and a few kitchen tools like spoons and measuring cups. If you are worried about the mess that sand makes, consider kinetic sand. Objects that float or spin help children investigate properties of water. Other items for outdoor play:
- A container for collecting things on a walk
- A magnifying glass to help your curious little scientist observe things more closely
- A sheet or old blanket to create some shade or a cozy tent—great for stimulating the imagination!