When you have preschoolers at home, its hard to know how to structure their days so you are not just following them around as they tear your home to pieces! This is frustrating and probably not the best way to manage your home - after all you have to live in this space too.
If this is you, then you are ready to think about the space your kids will be inhabiting. There are two elements in this: space and time. Space will be the actual place your children will spend their time. Time is how you break their day up so its not just a free-for-all. If you put some work into these two elements having your child home all day will mostly take care of itself without a lot of on-going interaction from you. All this space needs is for you to keep an eye on them while they are doing their thing. Your children can explore and learn to their heart's content and you keep your sanity - its a win win situation!
1. Establish your child’s play space. Use low shelving if you have it or furniture to separate the room/area into activity areas. Main areas would include an art area, a building area, a toy area, and a role play area. Start here and add areas as your child’s interests dictate. Finally a large open space for running (hopefully outside as the weather improves) or dancing or other kinds of “letting off steam” activities. It doesn’t need to be fancy but it does need to be pretty functional...and probably away from mom and dad's work space.
THE ART AREA: You will need a table that your child can stand or sit at. If you are lucky enough to have a child-sized table and chair set that’s great, but a coffee table also works (they can sit on the floor at a coffee table). Try not to use adult-sized tables and chairs though, as it encourages bad posture and can be unsafe. Near this table have a small shelf (or place them right on the table) with baskets of art supplies. A young child’s needs are simple: markers, crayons, colored pencils, paper cut into different sizes and shapes, construction paper, scissors and glue. Also have a basket of things your child can glue together such as sequins, colored paper shapes, or my favorite recycled things like paper rolls and boxes. If you have them children love stickers, beading, fuse beads. One more thing to think about is that this area gets really messy so add a waste paper bin and maybe a bucket of water and a sponge for cleaning up – and make your child clean up his/her own messes. I would not add paint to this area, but keep painting projects for something that you would do with your child, following some of my video lessons (coming up soon) or a book or an online program like Masterpiece Academy. Keep it simple and organized and I guarantee your child will not come up for air for at least an hour! Art is one of their favorite things to do at our school.
A BUILDING AREA: A rug on the floor can contain the spread of blocks or legos which is a good idea especially if your playspace is small. Only put out ONE TYPE of building activity at a time so they don’t get all mixed up. A tub or basket of something is a great way to go. The blocks, if they are contained on a rug, can be left out if there is an ongoing work in progress but my suggestion is that it be packed away at the end of the day (or when you want to put out something new).
TOYS: Again, you should limit the number of toys you put in the area and cycle through them. Use the shelving to arrange the toys so they are separated on the shelf and not all jumbled together and every toy has its own place to live. Train your child to put back toys they are done with – they do this at school following a cycle called the “work cycle”. That is – get it out, play with it, put it away, get it out, play with it, put it away. This way your playroom will not look like world war 3 or an earthquake has struck! I would mention here that this is NOT the space for puzzles, board games with loads of tiny pieces or card games. These types of activities are great for your living room area, as things you can do together as a family. Young children do not play well with complex games and really need an adult to teach rules, supervise those rules (no cheating) and to keep the pieces together (no jumbled up messes). Put toys in this space that children know how to play with.
ROLE PLAY: We all know how important imaginative play is for young children and so there should a place for your child to play like this. I would encourage you to think beyond the traditional “kitchen” into other areas they can role play. How about a post office? A bank? A vets office with stuffed animals? A hospital with baby dolls? A store? The possibilities are endless and you only need to give them a few things – forego the plastic food and fancy dress-ups - a restaurant just needs a tray, a notepad and maybe a few plates (and they’ll use blocks for food – watch and see). A bus just needs some chairs. A hospital needs some blankets and bandages and if you can swing it an empty medicine syringe. Scarves and hats make great multi-use dress up items. Let your imagination...and theirs go free! These are all things you have lying area, so put them to use for hours of imaginative fun!
Make sure this playspace has activities for all your children of varying ages – which may be a challenge if you have say, an eight year old and a two year old. Go ahead and put open-ended things in the shared space, things that can be done by all ages. An example of open-ended art would be paper and art supplies not a complicated craft for your eight year old that’s too hard for your two year old. Blocks, legos, playdough are all examples of things enjoyed by a large range of ages.
Older children who are expected to do school work during this time need a space for themselves (a table in their room might be perfect, or the dining room table possibly) that is separate from their playspace. This would be the place to put the materials for that complicated craft project that might be enjoyed by your either year old and not your two year old (I’m thinking here about model kits and such).
2. Establish a routine. This is important because young children thrive on order. The routine doesn’t necessarily have to be dictated by the clock - more like the order you do things. You can think of the day in blocks of time rather than points on a clock. For instance, your morning routine block of time includes getting up and dressed (yes do dress them so the day feels normal), having breakfast, cleaning teeth etc. The next block of time is an activity time – like our morning work time. This time can be when you get some work done (house cleaning, outside work, computer work whatever you do) while the children do “their work” that is for young children at least – play , in their own in their play-space. For older children this can be their academic time – doing assignments from their teacher, or computer work or what we in the homeschooling world called “seat time”. Then the next block of time would be preparing and eating lunch. Please do allow your child to help you with this as this living skill can incorporate lovely practical life skills which children love. The next block is a quiet afternoon block of time. This is the perfect time for watching a show or if you have an older child – reading a book. Younger children can take a nap or just look at books. The next block of time could be a long free play time outside if possible. The final block of the day is winding down, with dinner, family time, reading together, bath, and bed.
This is their day in a nutshell and as much as possible everyday should follow this basic routine so they know what to expect each day.
One final thought: notice that my play area and routine has very little room for screens. Screens mess with their motivation and will create a difficult scenario when school returns to normal. That being said, I’d say there is a wise use of screens that might be beneficial. Your older child will most likely use a screen for schoolwork, educational apps might be of some use (more on this in a future blogpost – stay tuned), and things like skyping grandparents or face-timing friends will be necessary to stay connected, and parent-child activities like looking things up to learn about them would be a fun thing to do. I am talking about the un-supervised, unregulated, free use of screens that will be a problem. You will find if you do the work of setting up a great space for your child to play, screens will mostly be unnecessary. Have fun!