How to set up a playful home

From the other room, you hear “MooOOOm, I can’t find anything to play with!!” Then you walk into a playroom filled with toys and a 7 year old who has their cranky pants on.

How many times have you experienced something similar? Your children have all these toys and they just don’t play with anything. It’s mind boggling, really. Let’s break it down and try to make it a little easier.

In order for kids to play, they only need 3 things -  time, space and some open ended toys.

TIME

Providing time can be challenging when they want to do soccer, dance, gymnastics, swimming, etc. Having a couple of activities is fun, but at some point, it gets to be overwhelming and you’re spending all of your time in the car shuffling kids back and forth.

What really gets lost in that scheduled time is the ability to have down time. You can provide time by making sure they have one free afternoon a week, and some unscheduled time on the weekend to play. Be choosy about what planned activities they do during the week.

When you do set up this unscheduled time, it’s also okay for them to say that they are bored. Sometimes, from boredom can come great creativity.

SPACE

You can create a space in your home, either in their room or a main room in your home for play. You don’t have to have a gigantic elaborate playroom. I certainly don’t. My kids have a play area in each of the main rooms downstairs and in their own rooms.

Is it always perfect? No. Sometimes you have to move a cardboard fort a little so you can watch Sunday afternoon football. And we all know the excruciating pain of stepping on a lego. While I sometimes dream of having a play room, I also like being around to see and hear how they’re playing. It can be hilarious!!

Toy rotation can also be super helpful. The basic idea is to store some toys out of view and keep some in sight. You can start simply by just dividing your toy collection in half. After a period of time (a week, a month, a few months) then you rotate the toys, so different toys are now available. Toy rotation allows for old toys to feel like new again.

For some ideas of how to create and organize a playroom, check out this post and this post from Nurture and Thrive.

And for my Canadian friends, take a peek at the service Room to Play. If you need more help organizing your play space, that’s an awesome place to look!

OPEN ENDED TOYS

The last item children need is something to play with. But it doesn’t have to have fancy bells or whistles. Open ended toys work best. You may be asking - what is an open ended toy? A toy that can be played with in many different ways. Here are 15 ideas for fantastic versatile toys that are perfect for play.

ARTS AND CRAFTS

Basic Supplies - So many creative things can happen with just a few basic supplies. The basics that I always keep out include paper, scissors, tape or glue, markers and crayons. You can make flying fish with a pair of scissors and paper. Start from there and see what happens.

Recycling - Technically, this is not a toy you can buy. But it’s my children’s absolute favorite. Whatever you happen to have on hand, the kids can use. It could be empty egg cartons, milk jugs, newspaper, etc. Let them take stuff out of the recycling bin and start creating.

Cardboard & Duct Tape - I know that technically cardboard can fall under recycling, but it really needs to be recognized as it’s own category of crafting toys. There are so many different ways to play with just a plain cardboard box and a little duct tape. Recently, in my home, cardboard boxes have been airports, a home for shopkins, and a slide for mini figures.

Play-doh and accessories - What a versatile toy! They can make all kinds of things, roll it up, squish other items in it, etc. We have different items they can use with the play doh, like letter and number stamps and cutouts of different animals and characters. Plus, play-doh just smells good.

BUILDING TOYS

Connectagons - I love these! This is one of the few toys we took with us when we went to Toronto in the summer of 2014. They played shop, pretended they were cookies and played factory where they made designs. Very creative play! They remain a popular toy in our home. My son asked me to bring them up again recently. .

DUPLOS/LEGOS - To practice creative thinking, try doing a free build. Use the LEGO/DUPLO blocks you have and encourage them to make something they’ve never made before. If your children needs direction, try giving them a prompt - like make a town, or make a space station. This is good practice for them to think differently.

Wooden blocks - Do you remember playing with blocks when you were a child? Recently, my sister gave me our old wooden blocks from when we were growing up. I can’t believe she still had them! It’s been so cool to watch my kids play with the blocks I remember.

KEVA Blocks - We recently took a trip to the Boston Children’s Museum, and they had a room full of these. There were families scattered all over, playing, building and creating different structures. These are on my wish list this year for my own family.

Marble Maze - We got this last Christmas, and they played with it for hours the first day we opened it. They even set up their new dolls to watch the marbles go through. You can make the marbles go so many different ways, and can constantly rearrange the different pieces to create unique mazes. Fantastic!

Magna-tiles - There is something so cool about having a magnetized toy. They connect solidly and you can build in all sorts of ways. The colors are really neat too. I’ve never tried this, but I bet they would look awesome on a light table.

K’NEX - You can create so many different things with these. They snap together, they have wheels and spokes so you easily make vehicles or pulleys. This is also on my wish list for this year.

PRETEND PLAY

Figures - You can use the figures in a dollhouse, or a puppet theater, or use with other toys for more fun. Sometimes we put figures in the LEGO houses we build.

Dolls/Stuffed Animals - Dolls are great for pretend play. You can play hospital, play house or have a tea party with them.

Dress up Box - Having a small variety of items for dress up can be so much fun for the kids. Make sure to set it in a place that is accessible, so they’ll actually see things and use it.

Pretend Food - My kids play with their pretend food in a few different ways. They play restaurant, and they have little aprons and chef hats which they love to put on. They play grocery store, and we take turns shopping. They’ve also played chef, where they “cut” up the food to make the meals.

Cash Register - A great toy for pretending with anything having to do with money. They can play store, they can pretend to have a bakery, or have a car repair shop.

The SOCIAL CONNECTION

Why does play matter so much when it comes to social skills?

Play is the best way to learn anything, including social skills. In play, children have a chance to practice social interactions with others, including taking turns, give & take and problem solving. Play is the basis of social relationships with others, and how we, as humans, relate to each other. It’s vital that children have time, space and open ended toys to work on these important social skills.

2 minute action plan

  • Have one week night set aside with no schedule activities to allow for free play. See if a friend is available to come over for some fun.

  • Rotate your toys. See if you notice a difference with how long they play with the toys when you rotate in a different set.

  • Be intentional with gifts this holiday season. Can they play with this in a lot of different ways? Will it last them a while? Invest in a few good toys, rather than several less versatile toys.

By giving your children time, space and some open ended toys, hopefully they’ll be able to put on their happy pants and have a little fun!

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