Whether you have a designated play room or not, you will likely find there are several places throughout the home where toys, crafts and games will live. These guidelines will keep you from feeling overwhelmed by the kids’ stuff while input from Shannon Booth Lipan, early childhood education expert and owner of The Wonder Studio, in St. Petersburg, FL, will allow you to maximze play for child development.
1. Sort Similar Items Together. Putting all the crayons together and placing with other art and craft supplies will make it easier to find and use when the creative mood strikes. Gathering all Legos, cars, dolls, Play Doh and other items and finding a home for each allows children to fully engage with an activity because they aren’t searching for all the parts but using their imaginations to create.
Shannon adds: Allowing and encouraging children to "mix" toys together is beneficial for creative thinking. Yes, Suzy can use Legos to build a home for her small dolls. Play Doh can be molded into pancakes or pizza in their play kitchen area. At the end of the day, 10 minutes before the bedtime routine begins, do a family clean up time. Put a timer on (so the children know it isn't going to last forever) and sort all the play items back into their special baskets or locations. Having your children help with clean up teaches them important skills including sorting and categorizing. After 10 minutes, move on to bedtime routine.
2. Containerize. Find containers for each category of toy that make sense for you. For example, art supplies might have small containers to keep markers, crayons and pencils separate but then a larger container to house them all together with paper, stickers, scissors and glue. Cars, building blocks and dolls might have open baskets for each. Books may have their own bookshelf (or several in different areas of the home) or sit with other items using bookends or bins. You can be as creative as you want as long as each toy has a home. Containers also allow play time to be mobile. Rather than having to carry all the blocks from the corner to the living room for a family tower contest, you need only carry the bin and then return it to its “home” when the fun is over.
Shannon adds: Children with books in their home learn to LOVE reading. Make it easy for kids to access their books. Have them in proximity to their play so they will look through them between activities. Forget alphabetizing or arranging by size or genre. If it is difficult to access the books, kids may be reluctant to read. Once, children begin to read on their own, you can start organizing them back in a special order. Read each night as part of your bedtime routine! The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease is a great resource on why it's so important to read with your children each day/night as well as offering many great recommendations for read-aloud books.
3. Give Everything a Home. Each toy, crayon, book and monster truck should have a home making cleanup a snap. This is not to say the home is the location where the fun must be contained. Use containers to bring the fun anywhere, just know it goes back home when you are finished.
Shannon adds: Often, children need multiple days to "not clean-up" their toys. If Joey has spent 45 minutes building a castle with his blocks and is just starting to use the construction in his imaginary play, don't ask him to clean it up. Children need to feel as though they are making meaning in their play and in their lives (just like adults!). That means allowing the "game" to continue into the next day or week. Have a special table or area that Joey can leave certain toys until the next day. Give him some notice when it's time to clean up that special area. "Joey, we have family coming over for dinner in 5 days. We will need to clean up your castle in 4 days." This allows him enough time to enjoy his creation and then it's time to clean up and have a fresh "canvas" for the day after the family dinner.
4. Don’t Forget to Leave Open Space. Kids need a bit of free space for creativity to flow. Whether they are building a prehistoric dinosaur robot village or adding sparkles to their favorite drawing, transport the items to provide enough space.
Shannon adds: Teach your child where this open space is. Place a special rug or carpet where they can freely play without being in the way of busy adults or older children. Creating "Yes" spaces can be a parent's best friend when you need some time to yourself. Janet Lansbury is one of my favorite resources for child-directed play spaces.
5. Make it Comfortable. Give yourself and your kids seating so it is comfortable to stay, create and play. Child and adult sized seating is important so everyone can enjoy. Seating too is of course mobile.
6. Miscellaneous Bin. It is OK to have a bin for toys that just don’t conform to a category. Mine contains special rocks, a tape measure, a tire pressure gage, the latest birthday goodie bag items and a few things I can’t even identify but are precious to the kids.
7. Provide Access. Use open bins and low shelves for items kids can access on their own. Use higher shelves for things that should have adult supervision. Mid-level shelves might contain things like puzzles and games that are OK if kids reach up and get but are a little more time consuming to pick up.
8. It’s Not About Perfection. The spaces don’t need to look like they belong in Parenting Magazine if they work for you and your kids. You should feel you have an appropriate amount of adult space for your comfort level.
9. Get Outside. Certain toys can be stored outside and others can come out for maximum enjoyment. I contain most of the toys that stay outside in a large basket on the porch but you could use a small shed or shelves in the garage, especially for more creative items like sand or water tables.
10. Keep Your Home Stocked and Updated. Every couple of months it is important to go through the kids’ stuff and donate toys that are no longer used or age appropriate. Get rid of dried out markers, broken crayons, used papers and broken toys. Your kids can be a part of this process to learn the importance of giving to others and keeping your own space in order.