Are you setting up a new classroom and wondering how to arrange your play areas or are you a seasoned educator looking to change up or enhance your play areas? Hopefully this post can help you!
Please note this was written prior to school COVID-19 restrictions.
Common play areas
First let’s discuss the common play areas that an early childhood classroom should have.
Obviously, this is space permitting, but it’s really powerful when you can have a space for the children to leave up their buildings. This means that they will be able to continue to work on creations over several days and to tweak and improve on them. This has so many benefits – they have to learn to negotiate and plan with peers who might join a day or two later. They have to plan out their work and then the learn to fix mistakes and enhance their projects.
In the block area you want a few different building materials. You can switch them out every so often so that the area remains engaging to students. You also want little models of people, animals, and/or cars that you can take out at different times. This will enhance their play. You definitely want some blank paper and tape available here so that students can add signs to their area, make drawings of their creations, and add labels. We want to encourage authentic literacy development in every area of the classroom. I also like to have some samples of architecture or different block challenges to inspire my students.
I am a strong believer in dramatic play. I always start the year with it pretty blank and set up as a home, because that is what they children are used to experiencing. Then throughout the year I change it based on their interests and engagement. You can read about explore the world dramatic play centers for more specific information.
You definitely want a small table and a few chairs in this space. I love having a pretend kitchen here and a shelf that I can keep some basic supplies. I have some dress up and accessories here. I keep nametags and baby dolls and their supplies. I also keep bags and pretend money. These are really the essentials for a dramatic play center. I also have blank notebooks and pencils here, and always try and find a way to integrate literacy in whatever set-up I have here in dramatic play.
Every room really needs a sensory table or area. It is really beneficial for all students, but some students more than others really benefit from this sensory input. They also can make a lot of discoveries about our natural world in this small area (you can watch a short clip about all the learning that can happen in 5 minutes at the sensory table here). I start out with sand and a few simple materials to teach my students about the routines and expectations of this area. I want to make sure that they learn to keep the materials inside the table and to clean up after themselves if the materials accidentally fall out. Throughout the year I change it with water, water beads, pom poms and straws, and other materials. I also will add in or change the supporting materials – like if I keep the sand in the sensory table, maybe I take away the sand toys and add in dinosaurs or magnetic letters. I love to use soapy water to clean out materials at the end of the year and the students love it too!
Art and Writing
I recently added an easel to my classroom but if space is limited you really don’t need this. It’s just important to have a space in your classroom where your students can find the materials for creating. They want markers, crayons, colored pencils, tape, blank paper, coloring paper, scissors, and glue. I also include stickers, stamps, and other odds and ends like string, small paper shapes, and old magazines. I love to bring in recycled objects for students to create “beautiful stuff” with. They come up with the most creative ideas!
I don’t really have a designated writing area, because we have set time in our day when we teach and practice literacy as a whole class. However, I do have blank paper and lined paper for students to use during play times. I like to put out different materials throughout the year like comic book paper or make your own word searches. I also always have available alphabet charts, mini- word walls and picture dictionaries to support student in their writing, if they want.
Every classroom should have a library area. You want this area to be inviting to students and be cozy for them as they read. It is definitely more engaging when you can routinely change out the books here, but I just don’t have that kind of storage space in my classroom. So, I change out my books on display every month instead. If you want to see examples, I always post them to my instagram. In my library I like to keep our class books that we have made together. I also like the students to have access to fun pointers, big books, and stuffed animals. I love when I look over and see my students using the pointers to read a big book to their class of stuffed animals.
Every classroom should have a space for science inquiries and/or observations. You really only need a small amount of space for this – I use a part of my counter. It’s nice to have out different materials from our world that can spark curiosity and interest in our students. I like to have observation sheets and magnifying lenses nearby. And any non-fiction books that relate to the topic.
Think of your classroom
Every space is different. And almost every classroom isn’t big enough for all that we want inside of it. You have to be flexible with what works in your space. Try something out and if it’s not working, you can always change it! However, there are some key things you want to consider when setting up your play areas.
Think of Your Students
Loud areas vs quiet areas
When setting up your areas, you want to clump certain areas together. You want to keep loud areas away from quiet areas so that students who need a break from the over-stimulation of the louder areas can find one.
How many in each play area
Before the year starts you want to think about how many students would be too many in each area and how you want to handle that. It’s different for every teacher. I tend to have 3 or 4 in my areas, because they aren’t that big. However, as the year goes on and I watch how to students do in that space, I might ask the students how they feel the limit is going and if it should be raised. We talk about how if there are issues with this, then we might lower the limit again. It is important, in my opinion, to have your students help make decisions because then they will be more invested in following the expectations and understanding why we have the rules in the first place. I do think that as you are starting the year you should have a limit for each area so that students can really practice the expectations of that area.
You also need a system for what to do when someone wants to join an area that is full. I have a wait list (another sneaky opportunity to practice writing their name) and then I have them use a timer. Once the timer goes off, it’s time to switch up the participants.
When setting up your room, you want to think about the traffic flow. You want to make sure that students can go from area to area without bumping into each other. You also want to consider the traffic flow for things like morning jobs when everyone is coming in the room, and transitions between activities when everyone is turning in work and walking to the rug.
Visibility to play areas
Finally, you as the teacher need to be able to see into all areas of the classroom no matter where you are. After all, it is your number one priority to keep your students safe. So make sure that furniture or supplies are never too high so that you can’t see into other areas of the classroom. While those tents or little forts look very cute and cozy, if you can’t see into them, they could be a hazard.
Materials for Play Areas
Don’t worry about getting every single amazing play material you’ve ever seen for your first year of teaching. It takes years to build up a full classroom of play materials. You want a few staple materials that are open-ended so the students can use them in many different ways.
You can even find play items in your every day life – like these tops from snack containers. My students would save them instead of throwing them away after eating them!
Where to get them
I am lucky that I inherited many of my play materials. If I hadn’t, I was going to go to yard sales to look for old blocks, legos, games, and dress up that families didn’t need anymore. You also can always ask families in your classroom if anyone has any old toys they don’t want anymore.
Don’t have everything out
If you’re like me and have a lot of toys to choose from, you should try and not have everything out at once. It really helps with engagement to take out materials that haven’t been used in a long time – it instantly brings new excitement to an area. It also helps students to not have out too many choices – that can overstimulate them and make it hard to engage in deep and meaningful play.
When choosing toys, you should definitely be thinking of providing your students with “windows and mirrors”. You want dolls and other materials to mirror the families and traditions that they are used to, as well as windows into the lives of other families. For example, when I was in the market for a new baby doll, I sought out an Asian doll because my school has a large Asian population. It was not as easy to find, and I couldn’t find it used so it was a little more money, but it was very important to me that my dolls didn’t all look alike.
Looking for more information on setting up your play areas? I definitely recommend these books (linked to my Amazon store for your convenience).
Purposeful Play by Kristine Mraz
Choice Time by Renee Dinnerstein
There is a lot to think about when setting up a classroom for engaging and meaningful play. Hopefully these questions and ideas can help shape your planning and your classroom!
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