Free Range Learning

The World is Our Classroom

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Organizing the Playroom

Love Does Not Equal "Stuff"

In our quest to show our children that they mean the world to us, we try to literally give them the entire world. Then we try to figure out how to fit the world into the play room!

The first problem with that is that our children enjoy our time and attention much more than an overflowing box of toys. It has been my observation that parents who have the least amount of time available for their children buy the most toys. Grandparents who see their grandchildren twice a year, often show up with a large number of very expensive toys. Why are we teaching our children that love equals "stuff?"

I'm of the opinion that many toys available now stifle creativity. How do children learn to use their imaginations with a toy that already walks, talks, reads, and writes? When you decide to purchase a new toy for your child, look for things they can use to create their own ideas. If there is a variety of building toys available you will soon see that your children learn to make whatever they want to play with! They will use building blocks to make monsters, dolls, and cars. See, already we have replaced three toys with one set of building blocks.

When the next birthday comes around, plan a lunch with friends and send out an invitation that states "No toys, only friends." Take a trip to a museum or the zoo. The time you spend together is much more valuable than a new toy and it will not over-stuff your play room.

Too Many Toys...Now What?

If you already have a mountain of toys that have taken over your home there are ways to involve your children in deciding what to keep, what to donate, what to pack away, and what to throw away. The first step is to sort! You need a space on one side of the room or even a different room depending on how much stuff you have. Make a place for the art supplies, the dolls, the trucks, the blocks, the movies, etc. Yes, you have to tackle this giant. There is no easy way so just pick a spot and start.

Once you get every last toy into its appropriate category you can invite your children to join you. Look for any toy that is broken or missing parts and put it in the trash. Nobody wants a broken toy or toy they can't play with, so stop telling yourself that someone can use it! Throw it away.

Next, look for any toys that are family heirlooms or special toys that are important enough to pack away and pass along to future generations. Place these toys into labeled plastic totes and store in a closet or attic, just make sure you have packed them appropriately for the area you will store them.

Now its time to look for toys that your children have outgrown. These toys will be donated or sold. There are countless shelters who offer toys to under-privileged children. During these hard economic times, every penny counts so you could also consider a yard sale, a consignment shop, or Ebay.

Still a room full of toys? This is the time when you bring in the large plastic totes. Label each tote with the name of its category...trucks, dolls, etc. You will put 2/3 to 3/4 of the toys in each category into its tote. Trust me, when you pack away most of the toys it will be like Christmas all over again. Your children will be able to see all of their toys again and they will play with them more. I promise!

Every couple of months you can rotate the toys. Take the toys off the shelves and replace them with others from your tote. Keep the number the same! If you put away 6 trucks, only get out 6 trucks.

Where Do They All Go?

A wonderful way to organize your play room is by using "centers." Use shelves, small tables, desks, create a private space for each group of toys. Centers are appropriate for all ages, just adjust the items you place in each one.


1. Science Center- this can include a microscope, magnifying glass, crystals, prisms, rocks, a scale, anything science related. If you take a nature walk together, pick leaves and view them with a magnifying glass. Record your observations. Compare it to another set of leaves you pick during a different time of the year!

2. Writing Center- make paper, pencils, colored pencils, stickers, markers, flash cards that show how to make letters available. Don't give your child assignments to do here, just leave them out at all times and see what happens. White boards or chalk boards are also fun in this center.

3. Math Center- have math manipulatives, flash cards, magnetic numbers with a magnet board, age appropriate math worksheets or books in this center. Again, the activities should not be forced, just available. When your child is ready to explore math, they will!

4. Sensory Center- the things in this center really vary according to age. For the little ones you can use small plastic containers and fill one with beans, one with rice, one with sand, etc...just make them big enough for their little hands to fit inside! If this seems too messy for you, you can also use latex gloves! Fill each glove with the items listed above and tie the end closed. You can squeeze and play with these to get another cool sensation. For older children you can have clay or play dough here. This center is especially helpful for children who have trouble controlling their emotions. Its very calming to sit quietly and use your hands!

5. Reading Center- find a comfortable pillow or bean bag chair and put a small book shelf next to it. This center is only for reading or puzzles. When its time to relax and enjoy quiet time. With younger children, they love when you curl up on the floor too! You can read to them or let them read to you. If your child hasn't yet learned to read, its a good idea to let them flip through the pages and make up a story based on the pictures they see.

6. Art Center- sketch pads, construction paper, markers, crayons, scissors, craft sticks, glue, the ideas here are truly endless! A child can turn anything into art. Try to avoid telling your child what to make. Leave the supplies out and see what they turn into.

7. Music Center- keyboards, drums, a recorder, etc. If you don't have instruments, make them! Empty water bottles make great shakers. Fill them with different items and see what sounds they make. Spoons, bowls...anything that makes a sound can become an instrument. Its important to prepare yourself for the use of this center, especially with young children. Let them play, but if it gets to be too much you can always redirect them to another center after you feel they've had enough time here.

8. Building Center- building blocks, Legos, trucks, are all great for this center. Any action figures work well here too. If you can't buy an elaborate set of building toys take a trip to your local hardware store. You can often get wood scraps and sand them to get rid of any splinters. PVC pipe is another great toy. Cut the pipes to various lengths and purchase the different connectors.

If you have more than one child, you may have to help plan the activities a little bit so there's not a music festival going on while another child is trying to read quietly. Otherwise, just add some adult supervision and become a playmate! The children will do the rest.

When its time to clean-up...make it fun. Your children will learn to work together with you after they see you cleaning up too. Over time, you won't have to help or tell them to clean up. It will be part of the playtime routine. Just be consistent! Don't get angry if they walk away without cleaning, help them.

The center's do not have to be large. If you have a small room, the music center can be as simple as a mat on the floor with 2 instruments out. Remember you have totes full of toys to rotate in and out!

What About New Toys?

If you have a birthday or holiday coming up you can always opt for a family trip instead of gifts. If you can't take a short trip, spend the day helping others. Take your children to a soup kitchen for the day. Spend the day baking cookies to pass out to homeless people. If you're not comfortable with that give your baked goodies to friends and neighbors.

When it is time for new toys, try this rule: For every one new toy, we donate two toys to charity. In no time, your play room will be under control!

Remember overstimulation creates frustration and chaos. Keep things to a minimum and let your child's creativity flourish!


Written by Stacey Becker


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