I set-up our first playroom when my son was 1.5 years old. I was excited to create a space that was just for him and yet when it was done, he rarely used it. At first I thought he was too young, then as he got older I thought he might be a child-anomaly who didn’t like to play in a designated space like that. Now I think it had more to do with how it was designed because at that point I had very little knowledge of early childhood development and practices. After my time with Early Childhood Educators at the daycare, I have a new appreciation for how much thought goes into designing an engaging playspace so when I decided to overhaul our playroom I approached it the same way they do.
Domains of Development
Bear with me as I put my Teacher Hat on for a bit because I think it’s important to first understand how children become coherent, engaged and cognizant little people. Let’s start with how children develop which occurs across several domains: cognitive, communication (language & literacy), social-emotional and physical (fine motor & gross motor).
As you might guess, this domain involves learning and thinking, how to reason, solve problems, and learning about cause and effect. Understanding how the world works and the foundation for mathematics and science are all formed through a child’s cognitive play.
Examples of play that support cognitive development: puzzles, blocks, peg games, card games, creating patterns, and scooping & pouring water or sand into different sized containers.
Communication, Language & Literacy
We often take it for granted that all children develop the ability to communicate in words and writing, but language and literacy have many different components. Receptive Language is the ability to understand words and other forms of communication such as sounds and gestures. Expressive Language is how a child produces the sounds of language and speaks with an increasingly complex vocabulary. It is made up of [phonology] the correct sounds to create the words, [semantics] the correct use of words, [syntax] grammatically correct language, [thought processing] the ability to link thoughts to maintain a topic of conversation and [pragmatic abilities] verbal and non verbal skills that help the exchange of ideas such as including the appropriate choice of language, tone, gestures and body language for a given situation. Literacy develops from an interest in print which includes engaging with print (letters that form words) in books and in the environment as well as learning the conventions of print (words are formed and read from left to right, books have pages that turn from right to left).
Examples of play that support language and literacy: reading books, re-enacting stories with puppets, creating stories with story stones, singing songs, talking about the sounds of letters and labeling your child’s environment with pictures and the corresponding words.
Being actively engaged with other people teaches children to share, take turns, accept differences, include others in play/ conversation. It develops the ability to understand the expressions of emotions, form attachments and handle peer pressure. Social-emotional development gives children the capacity to understand the feelings of others and control their own feelings. Social interaction demands that children are able to cooperate, follow directions, have moral reasoning and demonstrate self-control. Self-knowledge, which includes self-esteem and developing a sense of their own identity is integral to the formation a child’s personality.
Examples of play that support social-emotional development: dressing up and pretending to be someone else, using toys to re-enact difficult emotions or social situations, making faces in the mirror to show different emotions (mad, sad, angry, happy), taking care of toy babies or toy animals, playing games that help develop self control like ‘red light, green light’, ‘duck, duck, goose’ or ‘freeze tag’.
Physical Development falls into two categories – fine motor and gross motor skills.
Fine Motor skills are activities in which a child uses their fingers in coordination with their eyes, such as reaching, grasping, releasing, and turning the wrist. These small muscle movements develop with time and practice. Fine motor skills help us perform tasks for daily living, such as dressing, eating, toileting and washing and help children learn to be more independent. They are also integral to developing the hand strength necessary for writing as children get older. Activities to promote fine motor control include: putting together puzzles with small pieces, peg board games, painting, drawing, cutting, stringing and lacing activities, construction and building sets like Legos or Lincoln Logs, buttons, snaps, and tying.
Gross motor development involves the larger muscles in the arms, legs, and torso. Gross motor activities include walking, running, throwing, lifting, kicking, etc. These skills relate to body awareness, reaction speed, balance, and strength. Gross motor development allows your child to move and control his/her body in different ways. It promotes your child’s confidence and self-esteem wand allows the body to perform multiple demands beyond simple muscle movements.
I wish I’d known all of this when my son was little because I believe that a basic understanding of the different domains helps us make informed choices about the materials that provide our children with opportunities for high quality play at home.
Toy & Play Material Selection
Advertisers have led parents (and children!) to believe that toys are better if they are expensive, store-bought items. In reality, the best toys are those selected based on their appropriateness for a child’s age, development and interests. We’ve all experienced the child who, despite having a room full of store-bought toys, prefers the cardboard box or the pot and wooden spoon. The most engaging play is often a result of things you can easily find around the house such as fabric, bottles, cardboard boxes, yarn, cooking pans, pinecones etc. and research has shown that a combination of realistic (imagine a child making animal sounds as they play with animals figurines) and non-realistic (a long stick that a child pretends to use as a sword) materials is what truly enhances the quality of children’s play. Additionally, selecting open-ended materials such as playdough, art supplies, blocks and loose parts (ie. stones, wood discs, paper tubes) creates play opportunities that are appropriate for children at different ages and developmental levels. Children can use these toys in many different ways to spark their imagination because there are no rules or constraints imposed by their function or form.
So now that I’ve bombarded you with information on how children develop and a what types of play materials are best for little people, how do we use this in your playroom at home? It all comes together in how your room is organized. In a childcare environment rooms need to be more than just beautiful, they need be functional as well. The Reggio Emilia Approach (one of my favourite early childhood education philosophies) describes the environment as ‘the third teacher’, meaning that if a space is arranged properly it will help guide a child’s behaviour within it. I had a hard time wrapping my head around that concept at first. I mean, can a room set-up really make that much of a difference? It turns out the answer is yes.
I’ve watched ECEs at the daycare arrange and re-arrange their rooms to figure out what works best. However, no matter where they move things, the idea of creating activity centres remains at the core of their room design. Activity centres group related play materials together in a way that encourages children to engage in specific types of play. The most common activity centres in a daycare are: Library, Dramatic, Science/Discovery, Sensory, Blocks and Creative.
I have a pretty large playroom but I’m not able to fit all those in. Instead, I focused on creating Home/Dramatic areas, a Creative area, a Cognitive area and included Language/Literacy elements throughout.
Home & Dramatic Area
In our Home space I adhered fabric to the walls in the shape of a house using Heat’n Bond Iron-on Adhesive. In went a play kitchen, pots & pans, play food and some cute little metal shopping baskets and we were ready to go. I plan to add a chalkboard or whiteboard where my monkeys can write a shopping list, create today’s menu for afternoon tea, or the prices for the fruit they’re selling instead of them taping these things to playroom walls. We sometimes bring the doll bed down from my daughter’s room to change the set-up a little bit. I love how the space transforms into anything their hearts desire while they build skills in all four domains of development.
On the other side of the room, I set-up a dramatic area. Here the kids have shelves for various types of dress-up accessories, a place to hang costumes on the wall and a big mirror that’s just their height so they can see themselves pretending to be someone else. Dramatic play mostly focuses on building social-emotional and communication skills but it can also spill over into other domains, for example they strengthen their fine motor skills in undoing clasps on a necklace or using the zipper on a bag and builds cognitive skills when they create their own games with rules that have to be fair and make sense to their playmates.
If you’re tight on space, you could easily combine the home and dramatic play materials together by using command hooks for costumes and putting a mirror nearby.
We have a creative corner set-up with crayons, markers, scissors, glue, tape, water colours and other craft-related materials in the playroom. My monkeys will often choose the supplies and then use the table we have in the centre of the playroom to do their work. Ideally, I’d like to have a bigger space for the creative area but we make up for it by having another set of art supplies in the kitchen and my middle daughter has a craft table in her room so they always have access when the desire strikes.
As my children get older, I love watching them come up with ideas and seek out the necessary materials to bring them to life. At one point they were creating pinatas every week, which requires a lot of thinking about how to construct a container that holds something inside but can also be hung after it’s finished. Creative problem-solving is such an amazing cognitive skill. Learning to deal with disappointment and choosing to persevere and try to find another way to make something work is a social-emotional skill they’ll take with them into adulthood. Their creative supplies are always accessible so they don’t have to ask, they exercise their independence and create things on their own.
I put our puzzles, games, and blocks on open shelves in the playroom that are easy to see, easy to access and easy to put away. I find these are the toys/play materials that are used the least in our house. Some children love to build, but mine seem more interested in other types of play. I do encourage them to pull out their puzzles and play games, which they’ll do when I suggest it. We’ll also sit down and build with blocks but it never lasts long, and that’s ok. They have access to this area when they feel like it and build cognitive skills through other forms of play.
Our playroom has books in baskets all over the place. I’ve been thinking that it might be better to add a couple shelves to the home area to display books rather than keep them in the baskets we’re using. To encourage my monkeys to relax with a book, we have a comfy couch and floor cushions they can use in the playroom.
This space will continue to evolve as my littles get bigger. I still find that it gets clogged up with toys every now and again so I end up purging or storing things in the basement. If I was really organized, I’d set up a rotation system and rotate play materials in and out every month or so. That’s also something the ECEs do in the daycare to make sure things stay fresh and engaging. Like everything else, our playroom is a work in progress so don’t worry too much if your space isn’t exactly the way you’d like it. Move things around, set-up activity centres and see what does and doesn’t work. Simply changing how the room is arranged is sometimes enough to spark your child’s imagination and change the way they play with what they’ve got.
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