By Erin Christopoulos
Playtime at home is everything to your child. It’s their world! As parents and caregivers, there are very simple ways you can structure the play spaces you create for your child so that they are getting the very best through this foundational stage of their lives.
Why do we care about the best play for your child? This is where they explore and begin to understand life in the world. You’ll see kids trying to make sense of what they are observing in everyday life by exploring it further in their play. Think about how they may have conversations between dolls, organize their toys or pretend to cook in the kitchen. This is your child taking the busyness they see in life + attempting to organize it into structures + order.
One of the most popular philosophies in education right now is the Montessori Method. It celebrates this type of open-ended play in the toddler + preschool years. It emphasizes choice + exploration in order to build off of a child’s natural curiosity. The best news? This philosophy is rooted in the understanding that children accomplish most of their learning in the early years through their play, so there’s no need to also worry about creating an academic environment in your home to ensure a solid foundation. Let’s look at a few small changes you can make to the playspace that will make a big difference in setting your child up for success in play + learning!
Create a designated workspace for your child
Children naturally have periods of concentration + providing a designated space for them to work quietly with less clutter sets them up for success. You can opt for this to be separate or within your playroom, but I recommend committing to keeping this surface clear + accessible to your child for this purpose. Make sure that it also has an appropriate seating option made for their size, this is important both for physical development + their ability to focus comfortably for a longer period of time.
In our home, we use the Hannah Desk. My preschooler enjoys playing out the role of having a workspace like her brother + mom. It’s perfectly sized for her and is her go-to spot when she wants to complete puzzles or create art. We both love that it has a great storage compartment where she puts any unfinished work that she wants to come back to at a later time.
Offer an orderly environment
It’s tempting to fill the playspace to the brim with toys, it can be disorienting and distracting. While counterintuitive, simplifying the room and bringing organization to the space empowers your child to focus more intently on their play. Clear the playroom of toys that are no longer used and even pare back the ones that remain by storing them in another space. Many parents and teachers rotate toys to spark interest and keep the space more navigable to the child.
Consider organizing toys at their level so they’re easily accessible, either in open bins, low shelves, or bowls. Not only will this keep the toys top of mind but your child will be more likely to help during clean-up time–something many kids take great pride in!
Engage the senses
While sensory play may have a bad rap for being messy play, it has its benefits! Not only does it help the brain make new connections it also helps your child to create a more complete picture of the world around them. It can also be calming or soothing.
If you aren’t up for sensory play that involves tiny beans rolling all over the floor or slime getting into your furniture, you’re in luck. Remember that we have 5 senses, so try playing different genres of music, using essential oils in playdough, taste-safe mediums or water play outdoors.
If you choose something that could be messy, try using a large baking sheet to contain the mess, it helps your child structure some boundaries around the play. Most importantly, there’s no wrong way to do sensory play, just start with where you’re comfortable.
Remember that your child is an individual who is developing their sense of self and confidence. Honor their individuality whenever possible and watch them blossom. During playtime, don’t worry if your child has an unconventional use for a toy. Also honor the space as their own, there’s no need to direct their play as children naturally gravitate towards their interests.
When considering which toys to incorporate into the playspace, choose according to your child’s readiness. If they have mastered peg puzzles, consider replacing them with basic jigsaw puzzles. If your child shows an interest in self-care, put together a play space with clothes, a brush + a hat to practice these everyday skills on their own time.
A word of caution: your child may not always gravitate towards the options you offer and that’s okay. They just may not be ready for it. Put it away and try again in a few weeks!
Support early literacy + mathematics
When it comes to academic preparedness at home, you don’t have to worry about setting aside times to directly teach your child. Instead, focus on finding math and reading in everyday life. Your child is a sponge and is taking in everything about your home environment. As you casually bring attention to math and reading concepts as they fit into your child’s day, they will internalize these ideas and put the pieces together over time in a more meaningful way than memorizing them.
In math this could include counting the segments of an orange together, grouping toys by type or creating bead patterns. For reading, offer a continuous rotation of new books (head to the library), sing songs together that rhyme + practice retelling familiar stories through doll or dress-up play.
If nothing else, remember this:
You don’t need lots of toys or to tutor your child in order for them to be ready for preschool or kindergarten. Instead, focus on simplifying your space, bringing in high-quality resources that will last and following your child’s lead. It doesn’t take much to foster their curiosity and support their learning!