Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tot School / Playroom Tour

I found out I was pregnant with my firstborn the day we signed a one year lease for a one bedroom apartment. I took a test that night because I was so exhausted and couldn't figure out why. Coming off the heels of a really tough miscarriage, being pregnant was the farthest thing from my mind. But, lo and behold we had made a baby!

We ended up sticking it out until we found a place we were really comfortable with, we found it when I was about 6 months pregnant. Too close for my comfort, but at last we found it. I fell in love with this quaint townhouse in a desirable neighborhood. Quite possibly for the playroom opportunities, there was an awesome sized room right off of the kitchen, pretty centrally located in the home. I decided this was going to be a really "fun" room. Playroom planning began at about 4 months old (overachiever alert). I started to realize that everyone was willing to contribute to my madness and soon the toys just flowed in from friends and family members.

The problem with this is I didn't have much say-so on what toys made the cut or not, and before long my beloved playroom was looking like a toy graveyard! I always knew I wanted to keep things simple "toy-wise", and that less would be more. It just seemed to get out of control so quickly. Everything had batteries and lit up, was flashing and colorful and PLASTIC!!!! I get claustrophobic just thinking about it!

Reading up on plenty of research over the years about the importance of "true play" and how commercialized childhood has become, I was determined to make a drastic change. The theory is that there are different types of play, each inspired and driven by the toys that are offered to the child. "Imitation Play" is inspired by single-use toys such as Spiderman or any action figures, pistols from cowboy sets, swords from pirate play sets, etc.. These toys can only be used for a single purpose, so the opportunity for imaginative play is limited. A gun can only be a gun, a car that lights up only has one function and the fun can run out pretty quickly, therefore fostering a need for endless single-use toys to occupy a child's time (See how this can be attractive to the toy industry?). "Imitation Play" takes place when a child is acting out a scene from a cartoon or movie, they are only repeating what was seen or heard. This isn't pure creative play and doesn't require much imagination, therefore isn't exactly ideal for a developing brain. (Another reason screen time isn't really beneficial at this time, even the American Association of Pediatrics has recognized this and advised against any screen time whatsoever before the age of two years old.)
"True Play" is encouraged with open-ended toys, such as blocks, erector sets, play dough etc...
Open ended toys can be ANYTHING, therefore inspiring endless imagination and creativity. A stick could be used as a sword in an epic battle one moment, or as a Maestro's baton while composing a symphony another. Play Dough can be formed into a worm one moment and then change into a train or a ball. The possibilities are endless and completely up to the child. You see a battery operated toy that lights up and makes sounds already does the thinking for the child, not much imagination necessary. There are many parts of the brain not even being used because they don't have to be, all the work was done for them. I can't help but think of all the complaints I hear about kids these days. How lazy they seem, they never want to play outside (an entirely bigger can of worms there), lack of imagination, creativity or innovation.

Toys as a whole are believed to be an introduction to children as parts of the world and parts of themselves. The materials we surround them with at the earliest stages in life set the stage for the type of environment they accept, and build around them as adults. The types of material we offer to them at such an impressionable age sends a message and communicates values that we wish to instill as parents. If we surround a child with an endless supply of plastic, bright, shiny light up toys that require not much interaction from them and is completely disposable, can we really be upset with unmotivated, entitled children with no real sense of appreciation or responsibility? Hey, I didn't do the research (don't kill the messenger), but I have to say it all adds up for me and my family at least. I've definitely noticed a difference in the children of my generation and the technology driven - disconnected adolescence I see in schools and on television today. You couldn't get me to come back inside as a child, and it seems, kids can't seem to get outside enough. To the point where its a growing concern in the medical field, and there are articles written on doctors giving an old fashioned Rx of nature and the outdoors.

I personally feel as though our culture as a whole is lacking in originality, creativity and innovation. Every time I turn around there is a remix of some old song, or a remake to an old movie. There literally is nothing but sequels in the movie theater at times ("Robo-Cop", really???). Some souped up version of an old classic from when I was a child ("Transformers IV, really???). Where are all the creative geniuses of OUR generation? What happened to the George Lucas' or Steven Spielberg's of our time??? If it isn't the fifteenth installment of some demonic possession, or some classic being hacked to pieces that it barely resembles the original plot to begin with, the theaters would be out of business. Is that next? Like the music industry? Like CD's?? Can the movie industry go so bankrupt from lack of creativity?? I can just see it now... "Death By Imitation..". I've given up on the radio and taken to working on my vinyl collection, it keeps me musically sane for now.

Anyhow, I decided it was time for a change and I slowly but surely removed everything battery operated or mostly plastic. I started by watching what they no longer played with and removed it from the room to see if they would notice it even went missing. Then, I started removing toys that served only a single purpose (most not all at once) and kept it outside of the playroom. I kept the important things I knew they would miss like their train table (they would have lost it if that went), their work bench and kitchen. I slowly added back in the toys that they just couldn't let go of and picked up a few Montessori materials that could grow with them. My next job was to give the room some functionality and "flow". By observing the set up at a couple of my favorite play spaces at Sunflower Creative Arts or The Bees Knees in Boynton Beach, along with following a few of my favorite blogs for inspiration such as, or These are all women whom I admire and respect, they are incredible moms with wonderful blogs.

I get a lot of questions about our Tot School / Play Room area, so I'm going to give a tour / breakdown of this high traffic area of our home!

Tot School is all about learning through play and immersion, it's framework lies somewhere between Montessori and arts and crafts. It's popular with our boys and really just gives us new fun and interesting ways for us to spend time being creative. I've acquired some additional shelving over time to accommodate the different activity trays / invitations to play. Here is an outside view of the room right off of the living/dining area and just past the kitchen.

The alphabet mural was a wonderful project that took quite a bit of time because I handpicked each letter separately and then had to paint them all. Pinterest has lots of different variations of this mural that I love. Pinterest can single-handedly end save my marriage depending on the week.

The work bench is a great place they practice motor skills and its all just made up of different pieces they can create /build with, definitely a keeper! The bin on the side is filled with balls and their fave throwback dinosaurs they can pretend to ride to their hearts content.

The chalkboard wall is always a hit, every couple of months I slap on a new coat for their blank canvas and see how it develops over time. I figured if I gave them a place they were allowed to draw on the walls, I would limit the accidents of them actually drawing all over my walls. This has worked, to some degree.. There were a few minor incidents, but hey it's part of the process! I also have their puzzle basket and the infamous Montessori Pink Tower. They absolutely love this tower and can play with it for hours.

I knew I had wanted a "Cozy Corner" where they could nestle up and "read" books. They have one at Sunflower that the kids love and I wanted to re-create that quiet space here at home. I found some on Pinterest called a "Book Nook", I keep it close to the books and some fun little touch and feel books in a basket as well.

Next up are the shelves...

Here I have some of the Montessori materials such as the Cylinder Sequence Blocks, Zipper Practice Board, Alphabet Box and Number set. These grow with the boys and they delve into new ways of approaching them each time. I added a globe for some of the matching trays I plan on tackling this year and of course STUFF, which is mostly finger paint. I keep the "class plant" here as well, it aides in teaching responsibility and the difference between "living" and "non-living" objects.

The middle shelves are where we keep books and some toys that are great for play like wooden blocks, lacing beads, art supplies like crayons, colored pencils, glue and paint brushes. All accessible to them as they need. As well as a few goodies like their fave truck and a basket with all of their dinosaurs and animals. Mostly Toobs from Safari Ltd. that are a hit with us! It's also home to our "class pets" Henry, & Maury (R.I.P. Percy), our hermit crabs.

The rest of the shelves hold Instruments and their Super Sorting Pie, along with another favorite truck and their erector set. These all get switched out as I put out trays for a new week of adventures. Up top is the Montessori inspired crayon sorter, these are actually Del Monte fruit cup cans that I was able to clean out and paint then screw onto a piece of 2x4. (Yes I did buy the fruit cups and dump out the sugary processed fruit, all in the name of a crafty project!)

They also have their own music corner (just like Mommy) next to their instrument basket, piano and record player. Many a jam sesh is enjoyed here!

Alas, the infamous train table! Where all the action goes down.. I love that their obsession at least requires them to use their imagination building new tracks every day and working together to create new scenarios.

Did I mention the wonderful storage options this provides? #ThriftyMomScore for $35!

Over on the Art wall, is the Kitchen Set. This beloved natural all wood kitchen is home to hours of creative play and plenty of "birthday pies" for Mommy. Don't even ask how long this took to build on Christmas Eve.

On this art wall we display any art or pictures that mean something to the boys, they do get to choose which makes this space even more special.

Here they've chosen their geometric tape art projects and Evan's Seedlings class picture. They also have an original painting by Daddy and a sweet picture of Evan on his beloved trike in his pajamas. (my favorite)
Throughout the space I've tried to help incorporate bits and pieces of themselves, personal touches that make it feel like its truly their space. The "Play" sign that they helped to paint, or the picture gallery of some of their play time together. The hanging art display where they dry their art or just proudly display which piece they wish that day. This space is constantly evolving, because they are constantly growing and changing.
I wanted a safe space at home where they could do so freely, creatively and expressively. In my research I've found plenty of articles supporting the theory that the window for the most creative and expressive time in a child's life is in the first six years, coincedentally the same time frame in which compassion and empathy are taking form in a childs development. I don't want to spend that time cramming facts, shapes, colors or even reading and writing techniques down their throat. I hope to instead provide a space where they can learn about themselves, strengthen their creative muscles, fall in love with life and hone their craft whatever that may be.
You only get one childhood, I intend on letting them have it. It's a sacred space that shouldn't be tainted with ulterior motives, adult agenda or coercion. The way I see it, they have the rest of their lives to feel the pressures of fitting in and doing what is expected of them. Even then, I hope they follow their dreams because they took the time to learn what those dreams were early on. Because they were allowed the time to truly be themselves and learn what it is that makes them shine.

If you would like some more information on the effects the toys you introduce may have on your child you can check out this article at:

You can also check out the following books:

"The Case for Make Believe" or "Consuming Kids" both written by Susan Linn
"Taking Back Childhood" by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
"The Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv

What would you like to change about your playroom? Tell me about it!

Essentially Yours,



  1. We've had a toy free household since Ethan was around 1 1/2 and it's been AWESOME. Best thing ever!

    We do have a couple bins of open ended toys: blocks, stacking toys, Toob animals, etc. But a lot of little cars, too. I actually always classify cars as more into the open-ended side of things, where they're usually excluded from. Ethan has a great time naming his cars, giving them personalities, making up fun scenarios where they are driving to -- his imagination always comes out full throttle with his cars! We have a few memory and matching games, too, and some musical instruments -- but that's it. AND IT IS THE BEST THING EVER.

    1. Yes! We do keep cars! Planes, trains and automobiles get piled into the train table, good on the go toys as well.