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

An Educator’s Guide to Creating Learning Spaces in Small Places…

“If a seed of lettuce will not grow, we do not blame the lettuce. Instead, the fault lies with us for not having nourished the seed properly.”  ~Buddhist Proverb

I’ve been teaching and working with young children in some capacity for 21 years. But it wasn’t until just over a year ago that I set up to work professionally in my home. My home is tiny. Just one side of a little duplex in the middle of the city with a postage stamp-sized yard. Setting up a space to accommodate 6 young children within my living space has indeed, been a challenge. After a year of trial and error, I think I’ve about got it! Our days run smoothly, clean-up is relatively simple, and the kids are happy.

I’ve been asked a more than a few times to share my secret.

And so here it is.

I’ve broken it down into a few categories and I’ll go through them in order with you.


There is no rule that says a ball must be used for bouncing, a garden shelf must have plants on it, or a shoe rack is only for shoes. And I’ll tell you what, if there WAS a rule? Id’ break it. When you have a small space, you can’t always use things conventionally. You use what will work for your space.

Here are some “for examples”…

The busy bags. Ideas for these bags are all over the internet. They are fabulous! Especially at nap times or travelling, restaurants, or doctor’s appointments. But where do you store all these wonderful little kits? If I have to find a spot for one more plastic bin, I might just lose my mind. So I’m keeping what’s left of my mind and I’m hanging my bags on a towel rack instead!

That’s right. A towel rack. Add some binder rings and some little clips from the stationery store, and there you have it!

The smalls unclasp the bags when they feel inclined, and re-clip them when they are finished. Simple. And it doesn’t take up anymore precious shelf or floor space.

Here is another example of repurposing…where do I store all my craft paper, stickers, foam stamps, etc? Here on my landing in shoe racks, of course!

They are only inches deep and have a very small profile, but they hold so much. They can be bolted to the wall so they don’t tip.

Pretty slick, right? They can also be stacked one on top of the other if your space isn’t wide enough. See? A shoe rack isn’t always a just shoe rack!

Here are a couple more simple examples…

I think you get the idea. Just keep an open mind when you are out shopping…you’ll be surprised what might find its way in.


When you are setting up your space, try and imagine what you would like if you were 3 feet tall. Get down on your knees if you have to. Imagine the most comfortable, welcoming, easy access room with as little restrictions as possible, and start from there. There are a few spaces within your space that I think are essential.

One of them is a comfy reading and resting area. This area should be soft. It should be inviting. It should make you want to curl up and spend the afternoon there. This is what our comfy corner looks like…

This is our toddlers favourite area. Some come to snuggle and suck their thumbs. Some will bring their baby dolls and tuck them in the pillows. Some come to flop around and giggle when their hair gets static-y. And sometimes, they’ll grab a book and “read”.  It’s always a popular space.

Another space I think every learning environment needs, is a child-friendly art centre. In this space, materials should all be within reach. Yes, even the markers and paints AND glue.

If you feel like reading, you grab a book. If you want a glass of water, you get a cup and you get water. If you feel like writing in your notebook, you grab a pen and your book and away you go. How would it feel if you had to ask someone every time you wanted to do something? You’d certainly not feel empowered. I know I’d be cross. Children feel the same way. I’m not saying they should have access to the cooking knives and go off chopping veggies as they please. I’m simply saying that they should have the freedom to work safely in a space and engross themselves in the process of learning, without being hindered by their size.

Our art centre is open whenever we are in the play room. The children are welcome to work at whatever they find in the little bins, without restriction. If it’s there, it’s fair game.

I change the bins from time to time…the bits and bobs in the collage bins change the most. Playdough and all the tools are always there, as well as the clay and paper. The bottom blue bin is paper scraps from previous projects. The children can choose paper from the scrap bin and are encouraged to put the cuttings and scraps back in that bin so we minimize waste. The children are never left unsupervised in this area, which is why they can have access to the stapler, pencil sharpeners, glue, markers, and paints.

I also believe that every space should have a “show-off area“…a part of the room/home that features their accomplishments. We call our space the Wall of Fame…

I purchased white press board letters from Wal-Mart and painted them with my kids one saturday afternoon. I photographed each child and had their photos printed on laminated foam core. I hung them on the wall along with artwork from each child. It’s their very own feature wall and they are quite proud of it. I use the blue sticky tack to hang the artwork so it’s easy to swap out and I’m not making holes in the wall.

The final area I think a childcare space should have is a “baby/toddler-free zone“. Older children just need space. They need to be able to work with legos and marbles, and little army men, or count their coins and do a puzzle without having to worry about babies getting into it. I have 6 children of my own, and even before I opened my home up to others, I always made sure the older kids had a space to go where their projects weren’t in danger of being destroyed. In a small home, this isn’t always easy. Where do you put a baby-free zone where you, as a supervisor, can still see the children and the babies can’t just walk into?

The landing, of course…

We call this the landing zone. Children 5 and older have “landing privileges”. They can lose their landing privileges from time to time if they are not following the day home rules. This rarely happens, as they know how precious this space is when the toddlers take over the main floor in the mornings!


This is the toughest of all the guidelines. Where do I put everything?? Everyone who knows children, knows they come with stuff. Lots of it. And how will the children have space to work with all this stuff everywhere? Well, it takes time, and trial, and error. Here is how I’ve done it in my little house, starting at the front entry.

I have a chalkboard made from an old window frame and chalkboard paint for greetings, menu and activity plans. I pounded nails into the chalkboard frame and hung clips from them to hang the newsletters for parents to take home. Each child has their own coat hook which I also attached to the chalkboard to keep from making more holes in my wall, and their own bin for storage. The bins contain their extra set of clothing, diapers, wipes, change pads, etc. I have also added toys at the front door to help welcome the newbies who are more reluctant to be separated from their parents.

Next is the bathroom, where each child has their own towel…

Further into the main floor, I keep a desk for quiet activities and more toys…

(I’m still missing one of my kid’s photos on that wall, as it broke during a move, and looking at this is reminding me!!)

In the main room, I keep toys and the sensory table. They are strategically placed here so I can see the children playing while I’m prepping snacks and meals in the kitchen…

I also have an outdoor space that the children are free to access at anytime that we are using the main floor…

There is no way down from this patio and it’s in my view from the kitchen, so the children can play out in the sand if they need or want some fresh air.

I really, really, really wanted an easel in my home. Like, really. I have one outside, but couldn’t find one more inch of space in my little house…so I had to compromise. I made a chalk/water painting centre in my kitchen on the backside of the island. I posted about it a while back, you can take a look if you like.

When we go downstairs and the fun begins in earnest…

I keep the sensory bins under the table. Every other “job”, as we call our activities, has their own container or bin. You may notice that our table has no chairs. This is on purpose. Chairs take up space. Chairs get in the way. Toddlers fall off their chairs. We don’t need chairs. Hehehehehe. The bigger kids like to sit on the big bouncy balls when they are working at the table. This is so much better for their posture AND the balls can be played with when they are not acting as chairs!

I use circle carpets for the children to take their jobs to and work without being bothered. Once a child has claimed a spot, any other child must be invited to join. We have a limit of 2 children per work spot. The children also need to clean up their job before they can choose a different one. For the toddlers, this takes an awful lot of reminding, but they are learning! These carpets also serve as yoga mats in our practice, and hopping circles in playful games.

I placed 2 melamine boards (purchased at Home Depot) on the floor to protect my carpet from playdough crumbs, glue drips, and paint smears. I put a bit of non-slip padding under the table legs and under the circle carpets.

You probably noticed that I am a label freak. I can’t help myself, really. I get a marker and sticky labels in my hand and I can’t stop. Lord help me if I ever got a label maker! I say it’s to help foster reading skills in the smalls, but really, I just think it looks nice…like I’m actually organized or something!

Most of our artwork downstairs is hung with clothespins from a ribbon…

And upstairs, it’s hung from the patio window…

Our dress ups are down at the end of the hall in the last bit of space I could muster…

The children’s sleep time bins are stored waaaay up top the toy shelves…

I get the top shelf for my resources and lesson planning materials. I also have a storage room beside the dress-ups that I have lined from floor to ceiling with shelves! It holds playpens, rotated toys, more craft supplies, and ice cream buckets filled with sensory items that I rotate in and out of bins. I forgot to snap a photo of that room, though!

And I think that about does it! Even if you are not setting up for a care centre in your home, some of these ideas might help inspire you to create new spaces for your own children or grandchildren in your homes. When our children our happy, content, busy, and learning…well, so are we.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

~Arlee, Small Potatoes

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