Friday, April 25, 2014

Free Play: Creating low-cost play environments for babies and toddlers

Originally published in NPN/Neighborhood Parents Network's newsletter Parent to Parent, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2014.

With the help of Pinterest, fanciful playrooms for young children across America have taken center stage.  However, through my education and work, I’ve learned that I don’t need to have the perfect color scheme or designer furniture to create an inspiring place to play!  I’ve found that these simple steps are all that it takes to create a safe and engaging space that any child can freely explore, without spending a dime.

Materials: Score!  I already have the perfect play materials in my house!   Children love exploring real life, everyday materials.  I may find a Tupperware lid boring, but my baby can’t wait to get her hands on it.  When scavenging for materials, SAFETY FIRST.

I discovered that these household items are perfect for play!

   Lids (pan, pasta and salsa lids are shiny!) - Measuring spoons and cups - coffee canisters - tea towels - plastic soda bottles - bowls - wooden spoons - muffin tins - silicon cupcake liners – tupperware containers.   

Tip:  I like to collect and display items in multiples to add an extra ‘wow’ factor.

Get Organized:
Since I don’t keep all my belongings in one box, why would I expect my baby to?  Little ones need an organized space so that they can get to work without feeling overwhelmed.  Instead of a toy chest, I prefer open shelving that neatly displays materials.  I enjoy organizing the materials by shape, color, or type in fun baskets or containers.  Everyday objects always look more intriguing in a pretty container so am I frequently scouring area thrift stores. 

I know that babies and toddlers like to put stuff in and out of other stuff, so I pair materials with this in mind.  Here are some examples:

  • Muffin tins and rocks
  • Coffee canisters and balls
  • Plastic soda bottles and popsicle sticks.

Less is more!  I frequently rotate materials to keep my play areas fresh and uncluttered.  Children focus better when there are less options and an open floor space. 

Use ordinary objects in extraordinary ways:
The toddlers I’ve worked with love little surprises.  For example, hanging wind chimes in arms reach.  Other fun tricks that inspire play are adding colored water or rice to a soda bottle (secure the lid) or stuffing scarves in an empty Kleenex box. It’s fun to tap into my inner baby and see objects for the first time.  The possibilities for play are truly endless.

Make it a YES environment:
Since I don’t want children playing in the potting soil, I cover the base with cardboard.  If I don’t want something to go in the mouth, it doesn’t belong in the play space.  Get the idea?

I love that I don’t need a large space or big budget for play.  By following these simple steps, I am able to sit back and enjoy observing my baby as she brings the materials and environment to life!

Creative Toys to Engage Babies; Janet Lansbury

Simple Toys Make Things Happen; Nicole Vigliotti


  1. Scarves in a kleenex box! My 19 month old loved it :) Thanks so much.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment! I'm glad your 19month old enjoyed the activity. I sometimes (re)post fun activities from other sources on my facebook page.

    Thanks again!