Mona Singhal, Oath’s Early Childhood Specialist, helps you to build your perfect play space.
You’ve scrolled through pages and pages of reviews and blogs on how to create the “perfect” playspace. You’ve read about the impact each color can have on your child’s brain development. You’ve thought about what color you should paint the walls and changed your mind twenty times along the way. You’ve started toy subscriptions when your child was three months old…
All this and you still question yourself if anything can hinder their development.
As a Toddler Expert and Early Childhood Specialist, I have seen more playspaces than you can imagine. I’ve worked in spaces that were created for Instagram as well as those that are truly dedicated to developmentally appropriate practices. Let me share with you a few tricks of the trade.
Lev Vygotsky, a leading psychologist in Child Development, constructed a theory called Zone of Proximal Development. The premise of this theory is that everything a child plays with needs to fall within the balance of things they can do independently or with peers, along with a few things they rely on adult support for. This is the space we want to recreate in a child’s play area. Find a balance between what they can do by themselves and add a few things you can support them with. For example, don’t remove the truck puzzle your child has completed 500 times, but add one that is slightly harder and start with connecting a few pieces for them. Having both experiences allows them to obtain mastery while still working towards building new skills.
In recent years, there has been a huge shift around the aesthetic of toys. We have gone from bright primary colored, almost circus tent themed toys, to now more of the natural and wooden feel for toys. It was Maria Montessori that first stumbled upon this shift. She believed children needed vibrant colored toys but later saw they gravitated towards “real” materials. The same way we see children can have so many toys in front of them but they may gravitate towards the spatula or empty box instead. Note, there isn’t a right or wrong way in choosing toys, but the more similar it is to the things you use around the house the more likely it is that children will engage with it. Test it out, put three toys and one kitchen or bathroom item in the mix and see which one your child picks up first.
Nurse Judy’s Tidbits: Super-brightly colored toys that are both manufactured and sold outside the USA can be tainted with lead. There are over-the-counter lead kits you can buy to test gifted toys from relatives in countries like Mexico and China.
Go ahead: walk into your child’s playspace. This can be their room, your living room, a dedicated playroom, the corner of your home office — wherever they end up playing the most. Now, sit on the floor to get as close to their level as possible. You may need to be on your hands and knees if they are crawling or lay on your belly for some tummy time. What do you see? Are the toys within reach to you? Do you see anything that can be dangerous? Ensure that most, if not all, the toys in the space can be reached independently. Keep things you don’t want them to reach out of sight. Trust me, they will ask for the one item you don’t want them to play with and that will lead to a tantrum or meltdown.
Nurse Judy’s Tidbits: Make sure anything that can topple is anchored to the wall, and keep an eye out for sharp corners. Other hazards include wires, plugs, and small choking hazards. Ideally, you have an area where you can take your eyes off your kid for a moment. Running to the bathroom shouldn’t be a matter of life and death!
Zones of Play
Next, think of zones of play. From my experience in classrooms and homes, an ideal playspace will have 4 crucial zones: a dramatic play area, an art area, an active area and a cozy corner. These areas can grow with your children and can always be adapted to include their interests. Please note, not all homes have lots of space. These zones are differentiated to foster separate kinds of play, but they don’t need to exist in four separate physical spaces: it can be as simple as having a bin loaded with all the things necessary to transform a small area.
🎭 Dramatic Play
The dramatic play area can have a pretend kitchen, workstation or even just some a basket with dress up clothes. These can be costumes or accessories you have at home such as gloves, hats and scarves.
Nurse Judy’s Tidbits: Make an effort to not stereotype based on gender norms: it’s perfectly fine for girls to play with trucks and boys to play with dolls.
An art area can have a rotation of different papers and color mediums. Use things available to you at home — foil paper, newspaper, wine corks, food coloring etc. Don’t think of this as an “art studio” but more so of an introduction to the process.
Nurse Judy’s Tidbits: For messier projects, lay down something protective; anything from newspaper to a splat mat. Read labels to make sure products are nontoxic.
The active area is an area where building and movement can happen. Your little one will need a little bit of space to stack toys and even encourage them to move to the toys they need (if they are walking or crawling). Some parents like to have a shelf where you have a selection of toys available.
Nurse Judy’s Tidbits: An area rug or carpet can cushion falls and help kids from slipping.
Lastly, but perhaps the most important is the cozy corner. This is meant to be a comfortable and safe place that is surrounded by calming reinforcements. Think of a cushion or my personal favorite, a dog bed with a bookshelf or book basket nearby. You can also put sensory bottles, essential oils rollers, breathing games in this basket. This is an area your child can use when they need a little quiet time or a moment to gather themselves. The reason this is the most important is because it provides a space for them to regulate their emotions. It’s incredibly difficult for a child to work through a tantrum or understand their body is tired if they are constantly stimulated by toys around them.
Don’t let this article feel like homework. We hope to add some science to direct you to optimize what you already have. Make this work for you! We promise, your child will not be left behind if they don’t have the perfect set of blocks or access to 5,000 books. Children are learning in more ways that we can understand. Think about what works for your family. If you loved trains growing up and want to see your child play with them — add it! If you are excited about playing your kids will be too. Take some time out of your day or week and play with them. For about 15 minutes let them be the leaders and you listen. Let them pick toys out for you to play with and ask them what you should make. Even little ones that can’t quite speak yet can direct your play, just give them a chance.
Nurse Judy’s Tidbits: Make sure you put down your phone and really engage with your child! Enjoy these wonder years while you can.