Ah, to be a child, to be free of responsibilities and toil. Or so we thought. Who knew as we rambled about in infancy through our preschool years that we were doing some of the most important work of our lives?
Yes, mashing our hands in macaroni, dumping cereal boxes and trying to walk in daddy’s shoes are what helped us to develop radically different and highly crucial skills, such as speaking, writing, performing math calculations and even organizing our closets. Parents are often surprised to learn that the development of many adult skills begins at birth or earlier. The simple, seemingly pointless behaviors in which children engage are precursor steps to lifelong skills. Likewise, the playroom and play-based activities are where and how these precursor skills develop. This makes the environment we design for our children as well as the toys and activities we select for our kids critical.
How to set up a play space? Let’s first identify what we are fostering in order to intelligently select items that best nurture development. Physical and intellectual development are most relevant for playroom design. Physical development regards structural and functional growth, including the body getting bigger, stronger and more coordinated. Physical development comprises sensory and motor skills. Sensory domains include touch, the vestibular system like balance, movement, proprioception like sense of body position, and auditory and visual perception. Motor skills include fine motor abilities like writing and gross motor abilities such as running and jumping.
Intellectual development regards an increasing understanding of and ability to manage the environment. Intellect is nonverbal and verbal. Nonverbal cognition involves attention, memory, executive functioning and visiospatial skills. Verbal development pertains to language. Language is a system of spoken, written or gestured symbols used to communicate wants and ideas. OK, enough of the boring stuff. Now that we know what we need to foster, let’s talk about the toys.
Designing the Playroom
It may help to think about the play space for a child through the early grade school years as four different areas. These include a literacy area, a fine motor sensory area, a gross motor sensory area and a dramatic play area.
The literacy area is especially relevant for developing language and other cognitive skills. Stock it with lots of age-appropriate books covering various themes. Define the area with carpet. This can help with organizational skills. Also provide a comfortable chair. Being comfortable helps us focus. Consider how you tend to select a cozy chair or couch when you read. Likewise, we want our kids to focus well in order to learn well. This is particularly important in an age of stimulus overload and noisy toys that talk (which I strongly recommend avoiding, but that’s for another article).
The fine motor sensory area is especially relevant for enhancing sensory and fine motor skills. Consider a section for manipulatives, such as lacing boards, puzzles, blocks and assembly toys. An arts and crafts center is a must. Art is an ideal medium for communication and learning. Also, a sensory station that has creative mediums like Play-doh and a water, sand or rice table is nice for calming our kids as they learn.
The gross motor sensory area is beneficial for promoting sensory and gross motor skills. There are many indoor activities that enhance gross motor tasks. Items to consider for these tasks include hopscotch mats, parachutes, small rocking and rolling toys, indoor bowling pins and beanbag tosses.
The sensory element is crucial. Children experience stress just as adults do, and no one functions well under stress. We adults decompress with a massage or a glass of wine. Children need an outlet to decompress, too. An indoor tent, crawl tunnel, and rocking or water toys could help here.
The dramatic play area is helpful for developing verbal and nonverbal cognitive skills. Include both realistic and representational toys. Realistic toys are objects that look and are sized much like the actual object. Great realistic playthings include a play kitchen, a toy lawn mower and dress-up clothes. These toys are particularly good for younger children still developing abstract thought and who may not realize that a plastic mobile phone cannot actually call grandma. Representational toys are smaller symbolic versions of real items. These largely benefit older children. Types of representational toys include a doll house, a miniature farm and action figures.
The final important consideration is furniture. Child-sized tables and chairs are essential. Ideally, children should have their feet on the ground. If feet are dangling, attention may be wasted balancing in a chair. This could compromise optimal learning. Accessible shelving and adequate storage is also necessary to decrease cleanup battles and foster organizational skills.
There is not a singular right way to design a playroom. It’s not even fundamental that all these areas be in one literal room. Consider overlap across the areas, like how fine motor skills improve while buttoning that cowboy belt at dress-up time. In fact, there should be a balance so all developmental areas are nurtured. Children, of course, should enjoy the environment and the activities the play space inspires. Remember, we don’t want our kids to know that they are actually working.