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12.16.2010

Why I Hate Toy Boxes, Part 2

Christmas is coming, and with it lots and lots of toys for those of us blessed enough to have small children (and overindulgent relatives!) in our homes. So, as I said in the last post, before Christmas each year I re-organize and weed out their play areas. In the previous post I covered (in a little more depth than I intended to) my children's art area. In this post I'll talk about the rest of the room, the overall floorplan, and general organizational considerations that you will hopefully be able to apply to your own home.

Next to the art area is the Language/Library area. The computer is our old one, and my kids don't use it much yet (there is one Sesame Street game on it). I have, up until recently, avoided allowing my children do anything on the computer. I think there are so many other things of value that children can spend their time doing (um, like art:). However, a good friend of mine, whose daughter is Izzy's age, made a good point a while back. Our children will be growing up in an age where computers are even more of a part of life than they are now. If they enter school without any knowledge of how to navigate a computer they may be at a disadvantage, perhaps even in Kindergarten. So I dug out our old computer and hooked it up in their play room. But other than putting the one game on it I don't really know how to move forward. It doesn't have internet access (and I don't want it to), and I don't want to spend a lot on computer games. Anyway- my point is at the moment it is taking up space, and I am open to suggestions as to how to utilize it. And the book shelf is self explanatory- it houses about half of their books (the rest are in their room for them to read in bed) as well as puzzles and games (and some paper that didn't fit in their art area). The only comment I have on organizing books- they do not have to be organized as I have mine, upright like a library. They need to be organized in a way that your child can maintain, and putting books back when upright like that is hard. Bins work well, especially for oddly sized board books. Or you could just stack them. There is no right way, as long as they are accessible. The couch is simply our old one- part of me wants to get rid of it because it takes up a lot of space. But when I am tempted I always remember the ECERS scale (Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale), and how the best learning environment for children includes both hard and soft. This is less of an issue in a home, because homes include lots of soft by nature (couches, chairs, beds, blankets, pillows, etc), but still feel like it's of value in the immediate play area, especially in my case when the play area is well separated from the rest of the house.
The above is the block area. It is not strictly for blocks, that's just what I call it (hold-over from child care). It's for blocks (duh), trains, cars, animals... toys that are generally played with on the floor. It's a little small, but that is both a function of the room (it's not a huge room) and my son's personality. Before I applied my knowledge to the arrangement of the room (when we were moving in and I just wanted things out of the box and put away), I just had everything pushed up against the wall, with a large open area in the middle. This was a dissaster. De. Zast. Er. The kitchen toys were too far from the kitchen and got strung all over, cars and trains were always dumped in the middle of the room, then add to all of that Izzy's cut up paper and tiny dollhouse pieces and... well, I already said it. Since I have rearranged the room it has been a massive improvement. Limiting the space were the super messy toys are played with means that they are more likely to limit the amount of toys they play with, and are more willing to clean up.

Also important about organizing this area (or any area that has several types of small toys) is the small bins. You know, those small, clear bins you can buy at big box or home improvement stores for like $1 apiece. They are far superior to any fancy toy box. You don't even need a shelf- you can just stack them on top of each other. They keep toys separate and organized by type, and children can see what's in each box.
And here is our dramatic play area. The colored bins on the left contain food, dishes, pots, pans, and other random home living paraphernalia (once upon a time they were organized by type and food group, but this was too difficult for Oliver to maintain, so now we just put it all in there willy nilly). The pink drawers on the right house doll clothes and dress up (there are also hooks on the wall for bags and dresses). The kitchen I got off Craigslist for $25 (it's the same one I had as a child...). The table and chairs I bought for Izzy years ago from JCPenney.com. And the blue at the bottom right corner is our sand/water table, also a second hand find (the sale!). Not a dramatic play item, but this is where it fits:) I'll do a post another time on sensory experiences and their importance for children.

Dramatic play, home living, "playing house..." whatever you call it, it is just as important as art for ALL children. I say all, because often this is overlooked for boys. Boys need dress up and other role playing devices just as much as girls do. It doesn't have to be princess dresses (although there's nothing wrong with that!)- there are lots of gender neutral dress up options, even if all you can afford is a few dollars at the Goodwill.
And lastly, here is a rough and very not to scale floor plan of the room. Yeah, I drew this a took a picture of it, let's all laugh at my lack of computer skills:) Notice how the space is broken up. As I said before, it's important to have some degree of separation between the areas, especially between areas like Dramatic Play and Blocks. Otherwise these areas tend to get co-mingled and make a holy mess. We have no express rules about toys being transferred from one area to the other, but since they are separate it just doesn't happen much. This also (ahem) slows kids down if you've got a runner. By the way, the same applies to the rest of your house. Strategic placement of a piece of furniture can slow down a runner:) Because some kids look at an open space (or a dining room table) and their gut reaction is "run in circles! run in circles! run in circles!"

Besides what is present in the toy room I also have a low drawer with small manipulatives (toys better to be played with at the table) in the dining room.

In summary, some basic principles:
  • Separation. Keep similar toys in separate areas.
  • Small, clear bins instead of a large toy box.
  • Accessible for small hands to both get out and put away independently.
  • Keep clean and organized so it appeals to the children (and of course they should do most of this).
If you have the space you could also include a small area for Science and Math (which would basically correlate with the manipulatives I keep in the dining room and my sensory table). And, of course, it doesn't have to look anything like what I have done- I provide these pictures merely as guides and suggestions. As long as you avoid the dreaded toy box (or, if you already have one, use it to store only one type of toy, like stuffed animals) and follow the basic principles I list above, you can easily create an environment that encourages your child to learn through play.

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