I know my limitations: I am neither thin of thigh nor mild of manner.
I also know my strengths: I can make a fantastic kids’ playroom. A playroom that my children use. A playroom that looks respectable. A playroom that earns me more compliments than my
amazing (not actually real) beige cardigan.
If you are struggling with toys underfoot, or a house that always looks like a tornado (or two-year old) just blew through, I have a few tips that might help.[hr]
Tip the First: Choose the Space That’s Right for You.
A playroom does not have to exist in the space where you’re house’s builder (or the prior owner) envisioned it. Many newly-built houses have those big upstairs flex spaces that I’m sure are fantastic when the minor residents are old enough to go unsupervised for long periods and want a place away from parents’ watchful eyes. Even if I had such a space, I probably would not outfit it as a playroom for my four-year old and almost-two-year old until they were closer to school age.
Many older or smaller houses don’t have square footage that naturally suggests itself as a play space. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t give up. With a little creative thinking, you can set up a nook that will serve you well.
Our house was built in the early 1960’s. It’s all bed/bath upstairs and dedicated-purpose rooms downstairs. Consistent with build-style of the time, it has a very large “formal living room” in front and a distinct “dining room” adjacent to the kitchen. We don’t regularly host European royalty, so we don’t need a lot of “formal living” space. And, I need a place for my kids to go crazy more than I need a dedicated dining room.
Rather than submit to the builder’s vision of what family living looks like, I put the rooms to uses that work better for us. The giant front room serves as both a formal dining room and seating area, for those occasions when we
entertain have people over and want a more grown-up vibe. By combining those two “sometimes needed” functions into one room, I was left with an empty room–right off the kitchen–where my kids can hang out and I can supervise while still going about my business. The room gets used every single day as a playroom rather than once in a blue moon as a dining room.
If you truly don’t have a room that you can devote to a playroom, I strongly suggest that you cordon off a dedicated play area (perhaps by arranging bookcases or other furniture to make partial walls and defining the space with an inexpensive area rug) to reinforce the notion that Toys Live Here (and not all over the house).[hr]
Tip the Second: Open Shelves.
The key to a successful playroom is organized, useable toys. You’ll never get there without a good storage system. In my opinion, open shelves are the best solution. They allow your child to see her toys, which tempts her to play and helps her find what she needs. They also make clean-up easy, because everything has an assigned spot. I’ve noticed that in playrooms that rely on toy bins, the toys on the bottom rarely get used. And, as children paw through the bins, individual pieces spill out of their respective containers, making certain toys unusable without their parts and making a mess of the bin.
We took the step of having a carpenter construct shelves right before we moved into our house. At the time, we were hemorrhaging so much money with cosmetic updates and moving expenses that the additional expense went almost unnoticed.
In for a penny, in for a pound and whatnot.
If you’re not in a position to make that kind of investment, consider purchasing stand-alone bookshelves. I’ve found that adjustable shelves are helpful as they can accommodate toys of various sizes.[hr]
Tip the Third: Be a Curator.
You might think I’m overstating it, but your child’s toy collection needs to be managed. Ideally, your child will have a good mix of toys that allow him to practice different skills and use different parts of his brain: blocks, counting toys/manipulatives, puzzles, sewing cards, balls, play sets (like the Fisher Price farm), dolls or other “care items,” and whatever else floats his little boat. Try to collect a variety and avoid wasting space with too many duplicative items. Having too many toys makes organization impossible and invites chaos.
Don’t let every toy into your house. Re-gift or donate presents that won’t be used. Keep an eye out for things that are sitting idle and help them find a new home where they will see more action.
Your child doesn’t need access to every toy all the time. If you have more good toys than you reasonably can display, store some away in a closet and bring them out for special exhibits on rainy days or when the usual collection needs to be goosed. I find this technique especially helpful with toys that require an adult’s involvement. (I’m looking at you, Chinese Checkers.) Use the display space for toys your child can use on her own and keep the other items out of reach until you are available to play with your child.
While we’re analogizing to museums, consider outfitting your playroom walls with sentimental pieces that don’t work with the décor in the rest of your home. For example, I’ve hung a circa-1979 watercolor a Birmingham-based artist painted of my family, and a whimsical print by a Savannah College of Art and Design student that I scored on a girls’ weekend in the Hostess City of the South (both pictured). The top of the shelves has turned into a place to display pieces I bought when they spoke to me but that couldn’t seem to find a resting spot in our home. (It’s also used to store the sensory tub of rice that was entrusted to the floor until Claudia and Thomas turned a play-session into an opportunity to fling handfuls of little tiny grains at one another. See “require an adult’s involvement,” above.)
A playroom also is a fantastic place to display the frame-worthy creations your children make. A scrapbook or refrigerator door is nice for run-of-the-mill creations, but every now and again, a child produces a show-stopper. Elevate those with frames, and give your child the pride of seeing them adorn his playroom. I have always loved the look of art-filled walls, and my goal is to have our playroom’s walls covered with pieces that have personal significance.
Either I need to start making Gaugin money, or my kids need to get crackin’.[hr]
Tip the Fourth: Have a Music Source
I’ve found that my children play on their own longer when music is playing. I think the music brightens up the atmosphere, keeps them energized, and provides company when an adult is not in the room with them. Your music solution can be as simple as your smart phone (including the model you have sitting around after your last upgrade) tuned to a Pandora station.[hr]
Tip the Fifth: Keep it Neat
This is my single most important tip, and it has the benefit of costing absolutely nothing. The playroom really needs to be kept neat, in a state of readiness for play. Puzzles with missing pieces are no fun, and some toys are semi- (or completely) unusable if they don’t have all their parts. Regardless of how much your child is able or required to clean up after herself, it makes a huge difference if an adult spends 5-10 minutes at the end of each day making sure each toy has all its pieces and that everything is put back in its proper place. It sounds like a pain, but your chances of recovering the lost Duplo humanoid are dramatically increased if you extract him out of the Sneaky Snacky Squirrel box soon after he lands there rather than after his misadventures take him further afield. The few minutes you spend each evening will pay off the next day: the room will occupy your child far longer–and far more productively–if it is neat, organized, and filled with play-ready toys.[hr]
“Nazi” is a strong word, but “zealot” I’ll own. I’ve found that this well-managed space helps keep the rest of our home livable for adults and lets my kids go about the important work of play.[hr]
Do you have tips for keeping your children’s toys organized? If so, post them in the comments below!