P is for Play.
March 10, 2011

Several months back, Donald and I decided that it was about time we began addressing our daughter’s play needs.  Which, let’s face it, sounds completely ridiculous.

It’s like saying you want to address your cat’s scratching needs.  I mean, THE CAT IS GOING TO SCRATCH, whether or not you buy a scratching post.  That’s what couches and cardboard boxes stacked with important tax documents are for.

Cats scratch.  Children play.  Ann Coulter hates Democrats.  These are facts of life.

My husband and I both believe that play is an incredibly important aspect of child development and we both want our house and yard to provide years of fun and challenging play experiences for our family.  So regardless of how ridiculous it sounds, we still feel the need to find ways to create an inviting play-rich (exploration-rich?) home environment for Charlotte.


ENDLESS SOURCE OF CHEAP-ASS ENTERTAINMENT, that’s what rocks are.

We have the space and we have able hands and we have plenty of friends with young children, so why not?

A few weeks ago, we finally began to reach some conclusions about how we plan to take over the world want to encourage different types of play, what we can do, what we are willing to do, and the like.  And although we have some great ideas and many of them are do-able on our tight budget with a little creativity, I can already tell that building a child-centric home with play-friendly environments is going to be a very slow process.  It is going to take ingenuity and elbow grease aplenty.

Our goal is to find fun ways to encourage unstructured physical play, sensory play, and imaginative play.  The hard part is really finding ways to create enticing play areas, little worlds of experience and entertainment, without overwhelming Charlotte and without subtracting the wild element of the natural world.  Or semi-natural in the case of our yard, which was landscaped like fifty years ago and hasn’t really been touched since.

Outdoors we are starting with a large hand-made wood sandbox, a hand-made tree swing, a few garden log toadstools (for the record, I am hopelessly addicted to that blog), a sun dial, and a two-tier pile of straw bales.  One day, I would love to add a play-house and a butterfly garden.  Donald is more interested in constructing a tree-fort complete with rope ladders and spider-web climbers.  In our garage, we are constructing a rock wall for traverse bouldering, adding yoga mats, and fixing up an old dresser and desk for use with art and science supplies and projects.  Indoors we are starting with a large bookcase in the playroom, a few insect terrariums, a large child-height wall-mounted chalkboard in the kitchen, a nature-exchange nook, and a make-believe cabinet.  We would also love to bring in a few carnivorous plants, some child-sized instruments, and a kid-sized table where Charlotte can wield crayons at will…but I think we have a couple years before we reach that point.

What do you do to encourage play at your home?  Do you go out of your way to create play space?


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  1. By on March 10, 2011

    Our family is very young, so we are just getting started on these things.  But when I was little, I had a play house in the back yard, a dress-up box (what you are calling a make-believe cabinet), a doll house, and a swing set.  I have so many joyous memories of playing in these environments.  The play house was elevated, but it wasn’t technically a tree house since it wasn’t in a tree.  My parents built it, and they’re not particularly handy—I wonder how they made sure it was safe!  We entered through a trap door in the floor after climbing a ladder.  It was so cool!

    Wow, carnivorous plants!  I’m impressed by your willingness to go the distance for play!

  2. By Alicia S. on March 10, 2011

    I can’t wait to hear what other moms have to say here. I’d love some inspiration for our home especially since Matthew is at the age where exploration is a giant part of his everyday, and he actually is old enough to really jump, climb, explore and ask questions.

  3. By Momiss on March 10, 2011

    I made my kids play outside when they were little.  later they were sucked into video games.  I felt it was safer than letting them watch tv.  All my kids LOVED a cheap little tent that we used to set up inside down in the basement.  They “camped” for quite a few years and the tent is no worse for wear.
    And without defending Ann Coulter (who I cannnot watch because she scares me) I think she just hates people who don’t think for themselves.  lol

  4. By on March 10, 2011

    As much as I would like to create a playroom for James (there’s a nice room in our new house that will accommodate such a thing), I worry he wouldn’t use it. Right now playtime is just walking around from one room to the next. He rarely plays with his toys (no matter how much we try to show him how fun and interesting they are). He mainly chases the cats, opens and closes our doors and looks out windows. Sometimes he throws a ball, rolls a car on the ground or stacks his cups, but mostly he just walks.

    Your suggestions are very interesting and I’m excited to try some of them out. Now it’s a matter of deciding whether to reserve a whole room for him and risk having the space unused, or put our office there….

  5. By erin on March 10, 2011

    One idea I thought that was really neat was Amy Karol’s (angry chicken) idea to paint 4x8’ pieces of plywood with chalkboard paint so her kids each had a GIANT chalkboard.  The idea was not only that it was huge, but that it was also portable.  They could lay it down or stand it up, put it under an eave for when it rains, drag it to a different part of the yard for “privacy” when creating their art, etc.

    My mom encounters this daily with her preschool - how to create stimulating, “educational” play environments on a tight budget.  She and her teachers use things like old wire hangars to make mobiles (you can rearrange them in endless ways) and old pots and cans hanging from branches and such to make “music.“  They make waterfalls from all sorts of stuff - pipes and cans and anything else you can think of, so the kids can experience how water moves and makes things move.  And of course, lots of climbing things and bridges and balance beams and such.  (I am actually making Hannah a small balance beam today out of an old 4x4.)

    You could see if you could tour child development centers at your local JC for ideas.  They likely welcome visitors, and likely are working on as tight of a budget as my mom and have creative teachers.  Or see if there is a children’s art center near you that you could visit for ideas (and fun).  This one is near us http://www.artbeaststudio.com/ and is such a cool place, and if you come to visit we’ll go. :)

  6. By Sara @ The Football Wife on March 10, 2011

    So Ellie’s thing is sticks—she loves sticks & wants to keep them forever.  When I see the joy that sticks and sidewalk chalk bring her, it makes me feel *really* good about dropping toys off at the Goodwill.  Less is more.

  7. By erin on March 10, 2011

    Oh also, this is nothing new, but we rotate Hannah’s (indoor) toys as well.  I have 3 laundry baskets of toys (that makes it sound like there is a ridiculous amount, which there is, but not really) and we only have one of them out at any given time.  So all the Little People (which she adores) are spread out through the baskets so there are always some out, but different ones at different times.  We always have books out and a huge basket full of blocks, but with the rotating toy baskets it is like she always has new toys, and when she hasn’t seen them in a while she seems to come up with new uses for them when she sees them again.

  8. By Mary @ Parenthood on March 10, 2011

    We built a playhouse for Elizabeth under our deck, and a sandbox and playstructure (exterior http://parenthood.phibian.com/?ID=404, interior http://parenthood.phibian.com/?ID=382&ShowPhotos=1).

    My struggle is knowing when to stop - part of me wants to add a mailbox and a door knocker and curtains and better lights and and and…  We’ll get there eventually, but I want Elizabeth to be able to come up with her own ideas.  There’s value in forcing a little imagination I think.

    The sandbox is really messy but extremely fun, and I’d like to figure out a way to have a muddy area where it is okay to play with water.  Unlike you, we don’t have much space though!

    Inside one of our favourite things to do is to take the mattress off the spare bed and angle it like a slide.  Lots of climbing and hiding opportunities!

  9. By on March 10, 2011

    I like erin’s rotating toy basket idea. I might have to start doing that. We have so many toys that it’s kind of overwhelming (not to mention our family room looks like a daycare center), but I don’t want to put stuff away forever.

    We bought a house that already had a treehouse with a slide and a swing. These are too big for our 2 year-old Charlotte unless Daddy climbs up with her, but will be great before long. In the meantime I got a toddler slide off of Craigslist for $10 and Grandma bought her an outdoor swing.

    What I have noticed is that the toys don’t matter as much as our presence. The toy kitchen is great, but she would prefer to stand on a chair and play in the real sink while I do dishes or stand across the counter from me and help put the veggies I am cutting into a bowl for me. To that end, I just got a used basketball goal so she can play basketball with her brothers (now Daddy just needs to get the big basketball goal put up so they’ll play in our driveway instead of the neighbors!) and she has her own garden tools to help Mommy in the garden.

    I’m a big fan of pretend play after reading Nurtureshock, so we have a kitchen, grocery cart, play food, baby dolls. I plan to add more dress-up clothes this year.

    And of course we have blocks galore and an easel that is a chalkboard on one side and a dry-erase board on the other. My Charlotte loves all things art, so we started doing a lot of PlayDoh stuff recently. It is amazing how long her attention span for PlayDoh is.

    We also have a couple of instruments that came with our Kindermusik enrollment, some CDs she likes to listen to and she’s getting a keyboard for her birthday. She loves to dance!

  10. By on March 10, 2011

    I don’t have much to add here. My husband and I have not been as intentional as you and Donald although I do think we’ve done a decent job creating a good play space inside our house. If our snow ever melts, I’m inspired by this post to think about some of our outdoor area.

    Right now, my son (15 months) is really into cooking. We let him play with one of our pots (a lightweight safe one) and as many utensils as he’d like. I just took an old cardboard box and drew some burners on it and the kid has just been cooking up a storm! It’s fun to see how a simple thing like a box can be so much fun!

    You may already know about this, but you can buy magnetic and chalk paint. We painted a small area in my son’s room with magnetic paint to hang his art work, but he loves to play with the magnets most of all. I’ve read that you can paint the magnetic and chalk paint on top of each other and that is a pretty easy way to have a good magnet and chalk play space in a room.

  11. By on March 10, 2011

    We have some pretty massive trees in our backyard that my husband is just itching to get ahold of and turn into some sort of a series of tree houses for Jude linked with some rope tunnels (similar to your spider web thing). We have pretty limited yard space, so that’s about as far as we’ll go outside. He’s content for the most part just digging and playing in the dirt along side me.

    Inside, we have a tent, a basketball hoop on the wall (and plans to draw a scaled-down key/three point line on the floor), an easel and have plans to build Jude a train table for his birthday in May. All of this is available to him to play with whenever he wants… and then we have a ton of arts and crafts/learning supplies that we pull out when it’s time for some observed or guided play.

    I LOVE the make believe cabinet idea! I’ve thought of doing something similar before.

  12. By Mary @ Parenthood on March 10, 2011

    Love both the magnetic and chalkboard paint (and you can now get chalkboard paint in all sorts of colours!) 

    A note of caution about putting one over the other.  We wanted to do that at our church a couple of years back and found that the spray paint version was not magnetic enough to go under the chalkboard paint.  Later we discovered magetic wall paint (WAY cheaper!) but it does its magnetism by way of small pieces of magnetic metal in the paint, which did NOT result in a surface that is very nice for drawing on.  So my advice is to buy a small amount of paint first and do a test.

  13. By Sarah Christensen on March 10, 2011

    Mary - What is the magnetic paint?  I’ve never heard of that and am a little confused!

    Sara - We’re not big toy people either.  Charlotte has one small drawer of toys, a stack of wood puzzles, and the toys that are in-rotation right now.  We limit in-rotation to six toys at a time - three in her playroom, one in the kitchen, and two in the bedroom because if there are more then she gets overwhelmed and won’t play with any of them.  The fact that we are not toy people is part of the reason that we want to make sure we focus on encouraging different types of play in our home.  We do not want to overlook her need for and desire to play in different ways; we want to encourage her to find creative ways to play that do not always include toys.  An easy way for us to do that is to build micro-playscapes around our home that are focused on creativity, sensation, and physical activity instead of toys.

  14. By twigandtoadstool on March 10, 2011

    Hey there Mama…thank you for linking to our outdoor toadstools…I’ll tell you, every kids that came over to our house last year commented on them, (so I knew I was onto something).  Here are some other things in our yard…we built a sandbox out of logs.  All of the logs are cut into various lengths, and are various widths, so the kids can walk all around it on the logs, (which they love).  My partner Keith also built a huge teepee in our garden out of fallen tree branches, (I’m talkin’ loooong branches), in the summer we plant runner beans,  morning glories…whatever will climb, and leave an opening for the door…this is a much loved secret hideaway.  We also attached ropes to our trees…Ruby uses them as a swing, a pulley, and also as a tree climbing “helper”. We also usually have a 2x4 sitting on logs to be used as a simple balance beam. One of my goals last year was to naturalize our yard a bit…we still have the plastic cars and scooters in the driveway, but the yard part looks pretty and magical and just inspires play.
    This year we’re adding a hammock, (because this mama longs to relax in the shade while the kiddies run rampant!!!).
    As for inside, I have baskets for everything…we also in a cabinet with doors…this holds art supplies, games, puzzles, resource books.  Our house is really small, so I have to use the space I have very well.  I love that I can put my house back in order in a matter of minutes, (because everything has a place).
    Good luck!!  I hope you share some pictures of your yard…your ideas sound wonderful!
    xo maureen

  15. By on March 10, 2011

    Oh how I love the simple toys!  Rocks, sand boxes, pots and pans, wood blocks, make-believe….and you are headed in the soooo right direction!  The simpler the better in my book. The second ingredient is parent participation….and what a treasure that is!  Some of my happiest, most treasured memories come from the hours and hours of make-believe we had in the sandbox….little stories and adventures we had. The best. Enjoy!!!

  16. By Sarah Christensen on March 10, 2011

    Maureen - A friend of mine used to be a preschool director and we recently visited her preschool to see what it was like.  They had a sandbox like what you’re describing with logs all around.  It was well-shaded too and the kids were using tons of cups and pots and bowls, having a blast.  We’ve been toying with that idea, but we aren’t certain we have enough logs - and my husband wants a cover.  He’s worried about the chickens pooping in the sandbox.

  17. By Alicia S. on March 11, 2011

    Oh Magnetic paint is the best! It’s literally paint that is magnetic. Once it dries, you have a magnetic/chalkboard surface. The boys I nannied for had this paint, and their parents had me use it to paint murals on their walls.

  18. By erin on March 11, 2011

    You could search on YHL (younghouselove.com) about magnetic paint.  I remember they used it in their old house.

  19. By dandy on March 12, 2011

    I love this!  I can look to you for all kinds of info and really put it to good use now :)

  20. By h on February 10, 2012

    You have some amazing ideas.. and yes I love the simple toys idea as well. We can forget how much fun a bucket of rocks can be, or burying our toes in the sand.

  21. By patrik podo on September 05, 2013

    Great ideas there. For us winter is comming, I have to come up with some plans too…


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