An Educator’s Guide to Creating an Organized Play Space…

title“The point of simple living, for me has got to be: A soft place to land  *  A wide margin of error  *  Room to breath  *  Lots of places to find baseline happiness in each and every day”  ~Leo Babauta  

The time has come. It’s a brand new year, and with that, comes an urge to organize; to start fresh. Now, I’m not big on resolutions, in fact I don’t make any at all. But I do like to have a new space. A place that is not only clear of unnecessary clutter, functional, and open…but also pretty to look at.  If I have to spend my whole day in it, the space better be easy on the eyes, I tell you!

I have had many of you ask about our playroom here at Small Potatoes.  And many of you, after reading An Educator’s Guide to Creating Learning Spaces in Small Places, want more specifics. Well, here they are at long last.

For me, a happy, organized play space should be inviting, not intimidating.  It should be accessible, not limiting and frustrating. It should be comfortable, not sterile. I believe it is my responsibility to provide such an environment for the children in my care, as much as it is to feed them.  Children are no different from us when it comes to learning…if we are miserable in our environment, we will not progress.

And so I have designed our playroom not only for my own tastes, but for the needs and desires of the smalls who play here everyday.

Let’s start with making your room and inviting space. To me, inviting means bringing light and colour into the equation. Without colour, you are left with gloom and beige. Don’t be afraid to use all kinds of colours in your playroom! I chose to stick with the brilliant, rich colours, as opposed to the pastels, simply because I think it’s a more cheerful palette.

I use circle mats on the floor in bright colours, not only for that punch of colour, but for keeping separate, designated play spaces for children to bring their “jobs” to.  If a child brings their chosen toy or activity to a circle mat, they are to be left alone with that job. It is her space where she won’t be bothered. If she chooses to invite a friend, that is her prerogative. There can be up to 2 children per mat.

I use coloured bins, pillows, and labels elsewhere in the room to provide more colour.

As for light, I am blessed to have two great big floor to ceiling windows in our playroom. If you don’t have this luxury, bring in some pretty floor lamps with colourful shades on them, just to add a bit of fun to the typical ceiling lights and brighten up the corners of your room.

And please don’t be afraid to paint the walls. This is the one place you can get away with bright colours and not have someone say, “what the heck were you thinking?”

Just remember, that light and colour are just as important

Okay, now let’s move onto making the room accessible. 

My playroom needs to be accessible to babies and kindergarteners alike. This is tricky, but not impossible.

Here is how I do it.  All bins that are for babies AND older do not have lids and are lower down on the shelves.  All bins that are for older kids, have lids and are higher up. Simple.

I have the play room divided up into centres, or zones. First we will go through our sensory and small manipulative centre…smallmanipulativesThe top of this shelf is art supplies that I would like the children to ask for if they want to use them.artsupplies This is not so they are restricted to times when they can use them, it is simply so I know when to be more watchful of smalls with markers, scissors, or pens! This cuts down on coloured walls and snipped doll hair. I used a wall shelf meant for gardeners, but instead of potted plants, we have potted pencil crayons, gel pens, glue, pastels, wax crayons, tape, scissors, chalk, and dry erase crayons!   The little pots are from Ikea and the shelf was purchased at HomeSense.

The bottom shelf has paper bins. One fresh, one for recycling or re-using…art-scrappaper

The in between shelves are used for sensory bins and small manipulative toys…clearmanipulativebinsI use clear bins so the smalls can see what is inside without having to open them up. I tailor the shelf height to the size of the containers. Shallow containers are less frustrating for children who are searching for the “right” piece, and this also means less dumping of bins.shallow&stackableYou may think labelling containers for non-readers is sort of a waste of time, but I assure you, it’s not. Pre-readers will start to recognize the written words on their bins, as they see them every time they choose a container or clean one up. I suggest the Martha Stewart brand of label because they are cute AND repositionable. Our bins are changing constantly and I do NOT like to have to clean off the gooey crud left behind from a sticky label. Labels also help us teachers find the resource we are looking for without the headache. Remember, this learning space is for you, too.clearsensorybinsThere are some baby safe activities in our sensory/manipulative centre. They are on the 2 bottom shelves, where crawlers can access them without a fuss…nolidsmeansbabysafeOur sensory/water table stands in front of this shelving unit…sensorytableAnd we keep a rotating selection of sensory bins stored underneath it…sensorybinstorage

*Please note that our water table was purchased through a teacher’s store called Scholar’s Choice. It is over 14 years old now and has been repainted and refurbished. There are many models and sizes that can be purchased online or through a teacher’s store in your area. One thing to look for is a removable tub so that you can clean it out in your shower or with a hose. Also, it should have a drain in the bottom if you plan to use it for water. Oh, and a lid, if you have a cat…I speak from experience. Other than that, your only other concern is its price tag! Some of them are not cheap!

Now over to our play dough centre. It is simply stackable plastic drawers, tucked in at the end of the table. playdoughcentreI tucked the drawers in just far enough as to not stick out too far from the table, and yet leave enough space under the table for little legs…playdoughcentre2The drawers hold the dough and all the day-to-day tools the smalls might use in their play dough activities.playdoughdrawersI keep the play dough tools in drawers close to the table so the table space is not taken up by big bins of tools hauled over from the other shelves. The smalls can choose their dough and the tools they need from the drawers and keep the table clear for creating.

You may have noticed that I have white melamine boards on the floor. These are to keep my carpets safe from paint, ink, play dough, and coloured water stains. I purchased them at Home Depot. But this also means the floor is slippery. A table that slides around, drawers that won’t stay put, and carpets that go flying when you walk on them is dangerous and frustrating. I use the little circle “jar grippers” you can buy at the dollar store as non-slip furniture grippers. Yes, I could buy sheets of the non-slip mats, but they aren’t near as cute as the circles!jargrippersOur smocks are stored at child-height near the craft table…accessiblesmocksAnd our art is hung by clips on a string, or pinned to our new giant cork board…artwallAll of our basic toys and building materials are stored in bins on the big white shelf…thelittlethingsAll little Polly’s or Petshops are stored in their own bins and must be cleaned up before moving on to the next job. We also store toys in the Ikea toy towers, which are tethered to the wall so they won’t tip when small children pull their chosen bins out. I reach the tallest ones when the smalls ask for them, but otherwise they are quite capable of getting what they need. Sometimes they take the whole bin to their spot, sometimes just an item or two…toytowersOur dress ups are down at the end of the hallway, with a mirror close by for primping…dress-upsWe have a big fluffy carpeted area with all the baby-friendly toys on the other side of the room. I placed the biggest shelf in front of the furnace room closet door to block access, and also placed a safety lock on it…openbinsThe babies like to sit in front of this shelf and pull all the toys out onto the floor. It keeps them busy for a nice long stretch.

There is also another set of shelves close by for babies…babyshelvesthis area is also where we have Circle Time. We sing, dance and tell stories. The musical instruments and dancing scarves are hung on the wall in inexpensive plastic buckets…hangingbucketsThis is a great storage solution when you have run out of floor space and the wall is not big enough for another shelving unit.

And finally, we are getting around to comfort.

The room needs to have a soft place to land, a cozy place to read, and lots and lots of pillows! I added a child-friendly “fireplace” to our playroom to keep us warm in the cold winter…bookcentreIt blows heat, and the front glass does not get hot. the flames are just for looks…bookcentre2It makes a nice cozy place to curl up and read. We also have a big, comfy couch next to the fireplace if the smalls don’t feel like reading on the floor. And if you have a corner left over, just fill it up with pillows. They don’t have to match…they just have to be soft. Our toddlers love to bury themselves in the pillows and come up giggling with static in their hair!pillows

And so there you have it. The ins and outs of our play space here at Small Potatoes. It is always evolving, as sometimes we just don’t get it right the first time. The children grow, their interests change, and so does the space. And to be quite honest, sometimes I just get bored with looking at the same things day in and day out and so I move something!

Don’t be afraid to try something new in your space…if it doesn’t work, change it!

Oh, and let me know how it goes… I’d love to hear about your happy play space!

Thanks for stopping by!

~Arlee, Small Potatoes


72 thoughts on “An Educator’s Guide to Creating an Organized Play Space…

  1. I love the buckets on the wall idea, I plan on doing that when I paint a small area on the wall in chalk board paint in my boys room and put a small metal bucket for their chalk!! I can’ t wait to get the basement done so I can do something like this for my kids

    • The air blows warm…I love to sit right in front of it. It doesn’t get hot. I can’t find a brand name on it, and I don’t have the box anymore. The sticker on the inside the unit says “Electric Fireplace Model Number EF-ES-GB3W manufactured by NINGBO JIAQING MACHINERY CO.,LTD I hope that helps! I bought it at Home Depot.

  2. BEST ARTICLE EVER…along with the sensory bin one!!!!! youre unbelievable and such a valuable resource!!!!!

    teres (bobbi and erins friend from winnipeg) sent from my iphone

  3. LOVE this! I too am interested in your fireplace. I need one desperately as we are in the basement and it’s costing me a fortune to keep the whole house warm enough for us downstairs….

  4. Your space is heavenly. So organised and yet so inviting. I love it. Our room for goblin is also the living room so as well as all his stuff we also have the sofa, TV, dining room table (UK homes bring a whole new dimension to the term small spaces!), but we have done a similar set up to you using lots of shelves and boxes. Plus we rotate toys. I will certainly be stealing some of your great ideas.

  5. I LOVE your space!! My question though is how do you keep the kids from “dumping and running”? My son is the youngest at 15 months but I feel like im constantly pulling more toys out of the room because if there’s too much all they seem to do is make a mess!! Also….how do you keep your playdough and sensory areas from being destroyed? I want to make both of these areas that I keep out all of the time but when I seem to set up a sensory area all they do is take everything out and dump it on the floor. Help!!!!

    • Thank you, Lindsay. Consistently redirecting the smalls, with a firm and gently reminder that this is not how we treat our toys, is how I do it. “The play dough drawers are not for dumping, but you can certainly dump this bin of blocks, if you like”…and I pick the child up and take them to the bin of blocks. (This sort of thing can go on for a few weeks until the little one gets into the routine) The key is to be consistent…don’t give in and throw your hands up! Lol! Then they know they’ve got you! Hehehe! Provide other, more constructive activities that mimic the activity they WANT to be doing, but is not appropriate. If they are pouring out their water at snack time and smacking it around with their hands, tell them that is not ok, but they could play with this bin of water on the plastic sheet with cups and funnels. Does this make sense? Replace unacceptable with acceptable with a firm reminder that what they are doing is just not ok. I hope this helps you! I kinda rambled! ;p

      • Thanks!! I am having my hubby build me an indoor sensory table asap!! Looks like I will just have to start being more firm with them! Which is fine by me because im tired of such a mess!!!

    • The little ones help, for sure!! They cannot get another activity out until they have cleaned up the one they are working on. We don’t go for snacks, naps, or lunch until everything is in it’s place. I sweep every morning before we play and vacuum on Monday mornings. That’s it! It’s easy when everything has a place to belong! 🙂

  6. all I can say is WOW!!!!! I am setting up a preschool right now and have found EVERYTHING so inspirational. Thankyou for sharing the small potatoes world.

  7. This place is fantastic ! Warm, inspiring, tidy. Fantastic. Re: your earlier comment on redirection, a few weeks ago I was frustrated with a convo the hubs and I were having and I slung my cup into the sink. My two year old came and grabbed my hand and very ernestly told me ” mommy, if you want to throw something, we’ll go get the balls” they really are capable of understanding.

    • Lisa, I had the same issue with all our Thomas the Tank train stuff! Huge roundhouses and train stations…I finally put them in huge bins and stacked them in the storage closet!! We only get them out on occasion!

  8. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I found this cute little blog post about how to organize a play room. I really love the sensory table. It would be great to change out the contents every so often to keep it interesting for little learning minds. Great ideas, Small Potatoes!

  9. I love love love this room! I’ve been slowly trying to organize our tiny apartment in a similar fashion – grouping toys into activities. What is your source for bins? I find they can be very expensive. It looks like some of yours are ziploc?

    • Thank you! And the bins are from the dollar store (the ones that look like ziplock ), and they were only $1.25 each! Most of the other ones are from Walmart and other dollar stores. 🙂

  10. Reblogged this on I sense, therefore I reflect and commented:
    We learn things from many but learn details from very few..This is one of the posts that taught me the details. I am working on my school children play space.. I found this really useful..:) Thank you Arlee!!!

    • Thank you, Ashley! I’m sorry, but I don’t know the square footage…I rent this little house and I don’t know the details. I know that 3 of those melamine boards fit on that side of the room, with about 12 inches of “leftover” border around them. I suppose one could figure out square footage if we knew how big those boards are! If I figure it out, I’ll get back to you 😉

  11. Awesome ideas! Need to buy more storage and label them. I can’t help it but noticed your coffee machine with Illy Coffee 😀 how practical is that when you are dealing with active children?! woohoo!

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  13. WOW! I can’t say enough good things about this space! It is my dream daycare space. I love your use of color, see through storage, and labels. I think your ‘royal decree’ is awesome. The melamine boards are a great idea. Are they attached together at all? Also do you find that you or the children slip on it often? How did you attach the clothline to the wall? Thanks for taking the time so show off your amazing space!!!

    • Thank you! Nope, the boards aren’t attached and they don’t slip on the floors. The carpets will slip in the melamine though, so I put no -slip pads underneath. The clothesline is tied to 2 small drywall screws…one on each end of the wall :):)

  14. I love your circle mats! I am just starting to do childcare in my home and came across your brilliant article! I was wondering if you know where you purchased them? I can not find anything similar and I have been scouring the internet and local stores. I just can’t say enough about your ideas, I will certainly be using this as a resource!

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  16. I would love your space…Well done its amazing. How do get round the children (if like my little lovelies) from getting EVERYTHING out at once and scattering the floor with it all? I am about to embark on my playroom swap around and decor change and Im so inspired by your space. Thankyou

    • The rule is one “job” at a time per child. And before a new job comes out, the previous one gets put away. I am always in the room, so I can supervise 😉 This system works really well for us! I hope that helps!

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  18. Hi,

    Just wanted to say that I find your daycare ideas and decor very inspiring for my own daycare opening. Looks very creative, and it makes me feel great to know that I am on the right path 🙂 also love the letters indicating different areas for kids to play and wondering did you make them yourself? Thanks and all the best!!!

  19. Where do the small (red, blue yellow and orange) containers in your art center come from? I’m looking for something narrow to hold diaper.

  20. Hello! my name is Veronica I loved what you do … I’m from Caracas Venezuela and educator’m just like you 🙂 I’m currently working in schools and I had a beautiful baby and I want to dedicate 100% to her). although I would love to have in my house something like you, I live in an apartment and I have only little extra quarter which will try to organize and make a little room to give tutorials (help children with their schoolwork and reinforce what they need). Your terms duraste to create this space? I imagine you spent a lot of money to accomplish something as wonderful as this! where you bought the colored boxes? and good your teaching materials and all you have? I await your prompt response Thanks kisses to your kids;)
    Note: use the google translator hahaha if there is a misspelled word or something …

  21. I absolutely love what you did with your space I have basically the same space. I was wondering did you stack your trofast Ikea storage bins? So glad I saw this I have been in a funk about my space and you have lit a fire in hubby and I to get our area spruced up.

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  23. arleegreenwood, the white floor under your sensory and play doh table, what is that? i think i read that it is melamine? i have never heard of that, it looks like it is easy to clean up from. can you tell me where you got it and some details about it? would you use a different material since you started using it?

    • They are 3/4 inch slabs of pressboard covered in melamine…like the coating on kitchen counters. They are from Home Depot.
      Would I use something different? Nope. I like the white, and I like how easy it is to clean. Just like cleaning your kitchen countertops. Non-slip material is needed underneath carpets if you are placing the carpets on the melamine, as it is very slippery. It’s not slippery to walk on, but things you put on top, like carpets or mats, slip and slide all over.

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