When I first got pregnant with our boy, little T, 3 years ago, I was pretty lost on how to modify our house (essentially designed as a couple pad) into a baby-friendly home. I scoured through tons of amazing photos on Pinterest for inspiration, followed some moms on Instagram to peek at how their homes look like, and started reading up on play spaces.
I decided to put together this simple yet comprehensive guide on Creating Effective & Inspiring Play Spaces (download it for free here!) as a one-stop shop for everything you need to know about play spaces, so you don't have to scour through the internet for information like I did!
But first, I wanted to provide quick peeks into our own play spaces at home, and how we went about creating these spaces!
We live in a typical 1,100 square feet (or 100 square meters) apartment in Singapore, with a balcony, living room fused with the dining room, a kitchen and 3 rooms (master bedroom, kid's bedroom, study room). When assessing the areas in the house to incorporate play spaces for T, we were very sure that our bedroom and the kitchen (too small so it is unsafe) are no-touch zones.
We eventually incorporated play spaces for him in 3 areas: living room, his bedroom and balcony.
When he was an infant, his main play area was in his bedroom. But as he grew into a toddler, it slowly became too cramped, and space was a huge problem for the number of learning corners I wanted to create for him.
So we moved his main play area into the living room, for all the below reasons.
- Space is the biggest factor. Our living room is the largest area in our home, and so we could put more shelvings and create more learning corners here.
- Our living room is bright and airy, which is a huge plus factor in creating a conducive, feel-good environment for the child.
- My husband and I spent the most time in the living room when we're home. Putting his main play area here enables better and easier family bonding.
- Placing his toys in the same area as his bedroom meant that he could be over-stimulated just before bedtime. We did notice that when we were preparing him for bed in his bedroom, he was dragging his bedtime because he was so distracted by the toys around him.
Main Shelving Units for Toy Rotation
His main play area consisted of 3 shelving units - 2 shelving units for his toys, and 1 shelving unit for themed learning corner.
We got these shelving units from IKEA, and I absolutely loved them!
- They are so flexible! You can choose to insert trays or wooden planks into the grooves; and for the trays, they have 2 different sizes and 3 different colors to select from as well. And these are all interchangeable!
- The shelving units are low, so they are accessible to my toddler. He can basically reach for any toy he wants to play with independently without my help.
- The tray inserts are great for categorizing and organizing toys, which means lesser clutter! We've also used these trays to train our toddler on how to keep his toys. He knows which toy goes into which tray.
At the top of his 1st shelving unit, we usually place big items here. These could be the Grimm's Rainbow and wooden figurines you see in the picture below; sometimes we rotate these out for his car garage sets or his animal sets etc.
In the same shelving unit, we have inserted 4 small trays and 1 big tray.
Each tray contains a toy category.
- Top green tray: Loose materials to encourage creativity and imagination
- Bottom green tray: Stickers and activity books
- Top yellow tray: Currently, it's his dinosaurs counting and numeracy toy. We rotate this out on a monthly basis with other toys.
- Bottom yellow tray: His favorite vehicle collections. This is a no-touch zone for us, these vehicles are permanently here and are never rotated out.
- Orange tray: This is usually where we place his building toys. Right now, we have his Magnatiles here. These are alternately rotated with his Duplo blocks.
I want to also share a little more on the loose materials tray.
This is by far one of our favorite trays in his shelving unit. We place random loose materials in this tray, and we change the loose materials on a monthly basis as well together with his toy rotation.
These loose materials are essentially items you can find around the house - cotton buds, ice cream sticks, wooden pegs, small containers etc. In that small box there, are stones which he had picked when we last visited a flower nursery.
Essentially, this tray can contain anything! It's low-cost, easy to set up and it truly taps into a child's creativity and imagination in play. I've seen my boy use these loose materials in ways that I could never imagine.
In his 2nd shelving unit, we have 3 white trays, and an area at the bottom, for his toys. You can place 3 more trays in this shelving unit, but we've decided to keep to 3 for now.
We display one toy per tray, that's it. The intent here is to help him focus on playing with one toy at each time.
On the bottom shelf, is his makeshift portable play kitchen. Due to space constraints in our home, we could not afford to house a huge IKEA play kitchen (I've been lusting over it for ages!). So a makeshift portable play kitchen it shall be, and it delivers the same kind of play for him too! This is also covered in our guide "Chapter 6: Tips for Small Apartments".
All the toys in both shelving units we've mentioned, including the play kitchen, are rotated on a monthly basis as well. I've talked in detail about the concept of toy rotation in our guide "Chapter 4: Categorization and Organization".
Toy rotation is a simple yet extremely effective organization system to help reduce toy clutter at home - I highly recommend implementing this at home! And whenever I rotate his toys out, he comes home, sees the shelves and exclaims "oh new toys!". I love it - great way to keep the novelty there without actually buying new toys!
Aside from organization of toys, how you display each toy is also essential in engaging the child to play with the toy. This is largely inspired by Montessori methods.
We always display the toy in such a way that enables the child to know that there is 'work' to be done here. Instead of putting the puzzle pieces into the puzzle frame, we place the puzzle pieces in a separate box next to the puzzle frame. This way, the toy looks 'incomplete'. When the child approaches this tray, he knows intuitively that there's something to be done with these puzzle pieces. He will tinker with them, and try to figure out what to do with them. That's engaged play right there.
Above tray is another example!
This is also covered in detail in our guide "Chapter 4: Categorization and Organization".
Themed Learning Corner
Next to the 2 main shelving units, is a shelving unit which we had created for themed learning corner. The themed learning corner is re-created on a monthly basis (frequency could be shorter or longer, depending), based on the learning theme which we are on then.
In this shelving unit, instead of using trays, we had chosen to insert wooden planks into the grooves as well.
Since this shelving unit usually contained DIY learning activities, it just looks more aesthetically pleasing on wooden planks vs trays. If you do follow us constantly on our social media (Instagram: @popsicles_play and Facebook: popsiclesandplay), you will realize that this learning shelf contains most of the activities which we had showcased on our social media.
The above learning shelf was created for the Chinese New Year theme which we just completed for the month of Feb.
Here's another learning shelf we created for the Christmas theme in December.
Other Learning Corners
We've also created 3 other learning corners in our living room.
Next to all the above shelving units, is his study learning corner (for the lack of a better description!).
It's essentially a small table and chair (all from IKEA). On this table, we place a roll of white paper which he can independently pull and tear it off if needed, and a box of his stationery (pens, colored pencils, crayons, markers).
We usually use this table for writing, drawing and coloring; and any other learning activities that require, well, a table and chair.
In case you're wondering, the fabric box next to it basically contains items for gross motor skills. There's a skipping rope in it and many balls of different sizes. I am considering changing this to a pretend play learning corner in future.
And opposite his shelving units, is his music learning corner!
This learning corner was recently set up a few months ago, when we got him that piano for his 3rd birthday. He has been displaying a huge interest and passion in music since he was an infant, so I was really excited when I could finally put this learning corner together for him.
It essentially contains his piano (with a music book on top), his bunny music player, his small guitar (actually my ukulele haha), and a box of random music instruments.
And right next to our main door, is a Montessori Life Skills learning corner which has been set up for him since 2 years ago when he started going to school.
We wanted to cultivate some independence in him for simple tasks, such as taking off his bag, taking off his jacket, wearing and removing his socks and shoes etc.
So we set up this little life skills learning corner! The hooks are from IKEA, and he usually hangs his cap, jacket, small bag, his lanyard (that contains a bus card), and his camera there.
His shoe rack is actually a bookshelf that we got from IKEA as well. He would place his slippers, sandals, shoes and socks there.
This learning corner has been working really well for us! Since the corner is set up right next to the main door, it's easy and convenient for him too. When he comes back from school or outside, he will remove his cap, bag and jacket, and hang them on the hooks. Then he sits down, and removes his shoes and socks and places them in his shoe rack.
I just love looking at him do all these! It's really great to be able to cultivate this kind of independence (though small) in a 2-3 year old.
So these are essentially the play spaces set up in our living room! Here's another view for your reference.
ALONG THE WALKWAY
In the guide under "Chapter 6: Tips for Small Apartments", I called out vertical spaces as one of the potential areas to incorporate play and learning. You can get a whiteboard or chalkboard or lean an easel stand against the walls. In our case, we went with the whiteboard (L size, mint color) from Momsboard (https://toppingskids.com).
This is placed along the walkway from our living room to the bedrooms. It's shown leaning against the wall here, but we eventually mounted it on the wall using strong industrial-standard 3M velcro tapes.
I love this whiteboard for so many reasons!
- You can use colored markers on the whiteboard, so that really allows the child to express creativity in multitude of colors.
- Yes you can do the same with colored chalks on a chalkboard. But a whiteboard is so much cleaner, easier to clean and fuss-free.
- The whiteboard we got is magnetic as well, so we can really play around with magnets to incorporate play and learning. Think magnetic people or animals or vehicles to carry out pretend play.
- It's huge and sturdy, we secured it to the wall with strong 3M velcro tapes which are industrial-standard and meant to hold up the weight of our whiteboard. Yes, no drilling required!
I share some different ways to incorporate play and learning into the whiteboard below.
In the above picture, we're doing sight words, or word recognition if you may.
This scene was created out of T's imagination, with the help of his dad. We used these magnets to create a scene of our family going to the zoo to visit the different kinds of animals there. This is pretend play at its best, I love it!
I set up the above simple activity literally in seconds. We were learning about uppercase and lowercase alphabets here. I bought the set of uppercase and lowercase alphabets from momsboard as well.
And my favorite (newly discovered) activity - using our Magnatiles to create puzzles!
We've gotten so much great mileage on this whiteboard, I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of investing in a good whiteboard sooner than this.
That's T and his playmates doodling away on the whiteboard, it's a hot favorite for them to play with too!
A magnetic whiteboard is truly versatile - the number of ways to incorporate play and learning is endless! I've also shared some of these ways on my instagram (@popsicles_play), so do check it out!
Let's now move into his bedroom. In our guide “Chapter 2: Intent of Different Play Spaces at Home", I talked about using different play areas around the house for different intents.
For his bedroom, we created learning corners which are less stimulating, so they set the right tone when we are preparing for bedtime (or naptime).
Library and Puzzles Learning Corners
We created a library learning corner and a puzzles learning corner.
His library learning corner is on the left. The bookshelf displays all the current books he's reading now. We do rotate some of the books here (similar concept as toy rotation). Though I honestly do think we can do with lesser number of books on display at any one time - the bookshelf is looking a bit too cluttered for my liking.
Pro-tip here: Get a bookshelf that displays the front covers of the books. It will look more appealing to the child, and hence entice him to reach for the books more.
On the right, is a wooden cart that we got from IKEA as his puzzles learning corner. In this, we place all his puzzles, board games and card games.
Pro-tip here: Put each board game or puzzle into a ziplock bag to save space. Board games and puzzles boxes can take up too much space!
Every night, my husband and I will spend about 1-2 hours with him in his bedroom before his bedtime - reading books, doing puzzles or playing board games with him. It's great family bonding, and we all look forward to this every night!
Calm Down Corner
If you've followed my blog and my social media, you will know I'm a huge proponent of respectful and mindful parenting.
We don't have a naughty corner in our house, and I will never create or label a corner in the house as my child's naughty corner. It's a very negative label which doesn't do well in building up a child's self-esteem and self-confidence.
Let me try giving an analogy here.
If you make a mistake at work, which kind of treatment will you prefer?
Option 1: Your boss orders you into a room, leaves you there alone to reflect, somehow hoping that just because you're left alone, you would miraculously realize where your mistake is and how to rectify/avoid it in future.
Option 2: Your boss brings you into a room with you, talks you through what happened, and provides some inputs on where and why you had gone wrong. He gives you guidance on how to rectify it or avoid the same mistake in future.
Which option makes you feel better? Which option do you think you will learn more from? Which option do you think is more effective for your growth and development?
By ordering your child to a naughty corner, and leaving him there alone to "reflect" does not teach him anything at all. It only serves to leave him feeling lost, upset and possibly at times angrier.
Instead of a naughty corner, we created a calm down corner.
What's the intent of this calm down corner?
- To allow him to calm down from his tantrums or meltdowns
- To provide him a safe cozy corner to understand his emotions better
- To allow us to sit with him (only if he wants to) to talk him through what happened
How does the calm down corner work?
Whenever he has a tantrum, or when he does something wrong, we will ask him "Do you want to go to your calm down corner?". He would almost always say yes in situations like that.
He would then walk to his calm down corner by himself. We would stand at the bedroom door (a distance away, out of respect for his own space), and we would ask him "Do you want us to come in now? Or do you want some time alone first?". If he's ok with us entering his calm down corner, we would sit with him on the green mat, and we would talk him through what happened, and help him understand his emotions and why he should not have done what he did. Sometimes he wants to be left alone first, so we would exit the room, and he would call for us whenever he's ready for us to talk to him.
In creating the calm down corner, we tried to make it as cozy as possible (all his favorite soft toys and cushions!), and fill it with his favorite items. It's a corner that he's proud of, and makes him feel safe.
We have a few of his all-time favorite books in that small basket there. The Alphabet Magnatab helps to calm him down as well with the hypnotic feel of the magnet balls in the alphabets. I'm also considering putting bubble wraps in his calm down corner!
We got this colorful abacus from IKEA. He had used it multiple times to vent his frustrations by moving the beads from left to right and right to left haha. And it works great as a tool to teach numeracy as well.
On the side you will see characters from Pixar's Inside Out - that's Sadness and Anger. We placed these 2 characters there to help him identify his emotions whenever he's not feeling that great.
He's 3 years old, and he fully understands the concept of his calm down corner. It had worked wonders for us several times now in managing his tantrums. Truly one of the greatest parenting techniques we've ever implemented at home.
The balcony is where we created our sensory learning corner. This is where we carry out all messy play - sensory play, painting, water play, play dough etc.
Most of the times, when we are carrying out sensory play, I will have a canvas sheet placed over the grass turf as well, so that it's easier to clean up.
So these are our humble play spaces at home!
I hope I've provided some really good insights into the thought processes that went into creating our play spaces, and how we went about creating them. Our play spaces are definitely not the most insta-worthy around, but they serve their purposes in enabling effective and meaningful play for T, and at the end of the day, practicality will always trump aesthetics.
I would love to also one day create an art learning corner, and have a full-fledged IKEA play kitchen! We will probably need to work something out based on the limited space we have at home, let's see!
In the guide, I share a lot more on the 'why's and 'how's of creating effective and inspiring play spaces, as well as Montessori-inspired techniques to implement. In the guide, there are also printable checklists you can use to help you get started.
Do download the guide here, it's free and it's comprehensive so I truly hope it helps you in creating great play spaces for your child(ren)!
I would also love to hear your feedback and thoughts on the guide, so please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or direct message me on our Instagram (@popsicles_play) or Facebook (popsiclesandplay).