Every well intending parent knows what it’s like to plan, prepare, and set up an activity for your child, only to have them interested for exactly 20 seconds before they scamper off to do something else. The challenge is real.
Finding play that keeps them captivated, while meeting their developmental needs, and at the same time not having to spend three hours getting it all ready for them, becomes the holy grail of parenting.
As the mother of two very busy little boys, and a children’s occupational therapist, I’m fast learning the art of THE PLAY STATION - basically an area that you can set up and pretty much leave out for your children to play at independently.
Some ideas work better than others, some seem to get more traction, and some just don’t spark an interest at all!
It is dependent on your individual child’s likes and dislikes, interests and sensory preferences, as well as the environment you have to work with, but having a few of these set up at any given time in your home can make spontaneous independent play far more achievable.
Below are a few tried and tested ideas that work in my home with my boys. They are ten of the best - the one’s my boys have returned to time after time for hours of play and which also nail specific developmental areas.
Choose the ones you think will work for you. Tailor them to what your child likes. Start off simple and add things as your child shows an interest so that if it’s not a hit you can easily and quickly move onto something else.
Start off with one and add play areas as you become more confident in how to do it and as your children show more interest. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be coming up with pearlers of your own.
Also, you really don’t need ten stations (unless you are trying to turn your home into a school!). A couple at any given point should do the trick.
1. Creation Station
this is a permanent feature of our playroom. I have a big basket in the corner into which I’ve put pretty much all my recycling packaging, bits of old ribbon, tape, a few pairs of scissors, a couple of glue sticks, colourful stickers, elastic bands, hole punches, a stapler with staples and other bits and bobs.
I started off by making things with my children. They would want a rocket ship, or a dinosaur, and then we’d set about finding pieces that we could stick or tape or glue together to make the item they had chosen. Now they play quite happily on their own, making all sorts of things.
It’s a great way of working on motor planning as they come up with the idea of what they want and then plan and organise the different materials and how they are going to put them together in order to make what they want.
Add in a whole heap of imaginary play as they run off with their creations to play and you’ve got a very well-rounded developmental activity!
2. Prop box
Rather than having a dress up corner I suggest to parents they have a prop box. Dress up is fun and we certainly have a few dress up items in our box, but we’ve also got a whole lot of other objects that can be used in all sorts of pretend play.
We have toilet roll tubes made into binoculars, we have a toy stethoscope, we have a bag of old sports medals, we have a rubber glove, we have masks, and ropes, and whistles, and punching gloves.
Any time I come across something I think will be a winner, I pop it in. And the joy is that the children create endless hours of playing, using the props in all sorts of ways as their imaginations run wild.
Giving this space develops their creativity, ability to tell stories, to problem solve and to plan. It is a wonderful open-ended play option that keeps them busy for hours.
3. Book corner
Reading stories to your children is the absolute best. But what is nice too, is to encourage your children to look at and engage with books on their own, to start deciphering the pictures themselves and generating thoughts and language about the stories in their heads.
One of the best ways to do this is a story book corner. This can be in a little tent, or on a blanket or big puffy beanbag, your child can choose a few fluffy toy friends to read to, you can add a torch and a snuggly blanket, and this can be a place for quiet time and looking at books.
It’s a great sensory break in the full-on day and allows your child the opportunity to practice restful, quiet play while fostering more of a love for reading.
4. Potion Station
Our potion station has got to be the place that our boys spend the most of their independent play time.
It’s down at the bottom of my garden - because I could not face opening my back door onto all of their many potions and concoctions anymore!
It includes a little plastic play kitchen, an assortment of old yoghurt and ice-cream containers, some spades, some spoons, some old pepper grinders filled with colourful rice and seeds, and a few pairs of children’s scissors they use for cutting plants.
They spend hours concocting and cooking and blending and mixing; creating all sorts of George’s Marvellous Medicines.
It’s a wonderful opportunity for outdoor messy sensory play but one of the best things about it, is that it is a “yes” area.
Yes to the ideas, yes to experimenting, yes to feeling and mixing and touching and playing. As long as they are safe there, they are pretty much allowed to play as they please.
This natural, spontaneous, child-led play is wonderful for their sense of autonomy, for fostering their love of learning, and for their self-awareness and regulation as they seek out and learn to identify what they need and want.
5. Car garage
Our car garage is not set up all the time but I keep it in a box and pull it out when the boys want to play with it. It’s particularly useful on rainy days when we are stuck indoors.
We have an assortment of toy cars and the boys’ play toolsets. I’ve also thrown in one or two real tools that I feel are safe for the boys to use.
The play is that they are the mechanics fixing the cars. They spend hours tinkering and hammering and screwing and unscrewing.
It’s a wonderful error-free way of practicing fine motor control, grips and grasp on tools, and developing hand strength.
Admittedly, sometimes there are toy car casualties, but this teaches the boys about their power and force regulation and what to do when you make a mistake and break something accidentally.
And actually, they tend to want to keep the broken cars in the box because these all play a part in the garage game, making their “fixing” role as mechanics more plausible.
6. Feeling box
This idea come from the amazing Shanley Schaefer from Heart Matters Academy and has changed the way we deal with meltdowns, tantrums and big feelings at home.
We have a wall full of feelings posters, showing images of children expressing a range of different feelings. In front of this we have a big plastic tub, lined with snuggly cushions.
The idea is that the children climb into the safe contained tub and from there are able to use the posters on the wall to help identify and talk about how they are feeling; naming their emotion, identifying how it feels in their body, and finding a way, with you, to move forwards through the big feeling.
Self-awareness is the first pillar of emotional intelligence and helping your child do this process regularly from a young age sets them up so well for a lifetime of being able to self-identify and regulate their feelings.
Shanley has wonderful ideas that you can add onto this as your child uses the corner more regularly: cutting out magazine pictures of different faces and trying to identify the feelings of the characters, using coloured ribbon to represent each of the feelings so they have a tangible way of expressing themselves.
She recommends giving them face templates and stick-on features so they can build different expressions showing their feelings.
7. Sand pit
Most kids love a sand pit and having one in your garden is an absolute win. I alternate the toys I put in the sand pit, giving them a chance to explore different themes and learning.
Sometimes we have construction toys and they turn it into a pretend construction site, using their diggers and tip tricks to play. Sometimes it is a prehistoric world with dinosaurs, tree fronds, boulders and volcanoes.
And sometimes I just throw in a few pipes, funnels and plastic spades I picked up cheaply at the hardware store so that they can experiment with pouring, mass and volume.
8. Gardening Box
I come from a long line of green-fingered gardeners and I love how much children generally enjoy being outdoors and in the garden.
Even if you only have window boxes or a small courtyard, you can create a space where your children can learn about growing things.
Having some planters, flower pots or a garden bed for your children to plant seeds and seedlings and then helping them learn to water them, to weed, and to turn the soil as part of their daily routine.
This automatically introduces sensory play into their day while also teaching them early on about care and responsibility.
Make it easy for yourself and for them by having a little garden box with a few packets of seeds, a small trowel, and a watering can on hand so that they can garden easily everyday.
9. Trampoline play
this piece of equipment is possibly worth its weight in gold in our home and has saved my sanity on many an occasion.
I have particularly busy little boys and from a young age, the trampoline has been a standard part of our daily play.
As the boys have played on it, they have learnt to expand and grow their play and so we now have a box of chalk, ropes, pool noodles and a bunch of different balls next to the trampoline which they use in all sorts of games on it.
Sometimes I come up with a fun game for them. Sometimes they come up with their own games.
Either way, it is a whole heap of body awareness and sensory input as well as great energy expenditure. So, after a good old bounce, we are all just a lot happier and more regulated.
10. Play dough
I cannot recommend this popular play activity enough!
I think parents often think that it is a little boring because it is done so much, but almost all of the time they get offered it, kids will love it.
It is great for developing hand strength, tactile discrimination in the hands, in-hand manipulation and dexterity, force regulation and so many more skills your child will need to learn and practice before holding a pencil and writing one day.
The more they can get of this kind of play (even once they have started writing), the better.
To keep them interested you can add some variations. I find toothpicks are fun to give them to play with, with the dough. Sometimes I give them small plastic jewels which they hide and then search for again.
Giving them plastic cutlery is a fun way of getting them to practice using a knife and a fork in a playful way. Cutting play dough sausages with scissors is always fun and offers a whole heap of sensory feedback from the hands to the brain.
So mix it up, but definitely keep offering it as a play station they can access easily and explore and play at on their own.
This is a list of suggestions but you know your children best. Think of what motivates them, what they like, the kind of play they get excited for, and you’ll know the theme of your own play station!
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