crafting a meaningful little project at a time

Saturday, September 1, 2012

little playspaces, BIG IDEAS: Aesthetics of the Playspace

If you’re just joining in, we are in the midst of my five part playroom redesign series, {little playspaces} BIG IDEAS! You’ve spent some time dreaming and planning the perfect playspace to meet your child’s needs by Planning an Intentional Playspace and you’ve thought through your desires for the Atmosphere of the Playspace … Today’s focus is on the aesthetics of the playspace.


Aesthetics refers to the visual appeal of the playroom from an artistic standpoint. You may be envisioning your current playroom and snickering under your breath: “Artistic?!? Doesn’t she mean chaotic? Ha!”

This is a great place to stop and reassure you that I am not delusional or living in some sort of Stepford-child fantasy world of plastic-smiled mothers and perpetually tidy robot children: let me give you some background on mistakes we’ve made, lessons we’ve learned, what we believe, and how we came to the idea of the intentional playspace in the first place…the aesthetics follow that naturally!  J

I’m not unrealistic or pretending my kids are something they aren’t: my kids can be a hot mess, they make messes, and they make BIG, BIG messes sometimes. I have wrestled my way through the transition of the borderline OCD pre-mom days of lining up my canned goods from tallest to smallest to the post-mom anarchy that ended many days with me shoving a bunch of kid clutter into a basket and counting that an organizational victory. It hasn’t been an easy road, it will always be a work in progress, and I still miss my label maker sometimes…but I’ve come to grips with the messes that accompany our children, and I’ve divided them into two categories to keep us all sane: productive mess-making and unproductive mess-making.

Productive mess-making is not only tolerated in our house- it’s celebrated! (More so by me than the hubs, but that’s a different story!) What is “productive mess-making,” you ask? This is what happens when the kids are engaged in developmental, creative, or artistic play activities that inevitably result in a huge mess: think rice bins, finger paint, paper doll construction, figure & clay scenes, shaving cream painting, salt dough, birdseed ornament making (even I may never do that one again- eesh!),  water tables, pom-pom wars, etc.

Unproductive mess-making is the kind of mess-making that I have a hard time tolerating. This is the mess-making that happens when my kids are bored and overstimulated by access to too much stuff: dragging out random toys for no apparent reason but to make messes, dumping out a bin of toys to wallow around in it and then walk away, getting out and mixing up multiple puzzles and leaving them in a heap, walking away from a play area with everything everywhere and nothing in its place…agggghhhhhhhh!

We started off the kid years with nice little bins and organizers full of toys and books strategically placed all throughout the house…a basket of books here, a three-drawer organizer of blocks and cars there…this apparently blew their minds and made them into mess-making monsters. Everywhere they turned there was a bin full of stuff to dump out…dumping out bins is fun, fun, fun! Mommy following them around at the end of the day, refilling the bins is not, not, NOT!

It turns out that old saying, “less is more”…well, it’s true after all.

We put an end to the mayhem: over the course of about two months, we went through the whole house and performed The Great Purge of 2012. Every toy and kid item in our home was evaluated, organized, or abandoned: broken things went in the trash, outgrown/unneeded items went in two garage sales/ on Craig’s List/ to Goodwill, and the keepers were binned. The strategic storage for every nook and cranny? Gone. Bins of 100+ Matchbox cars in the living room? Bye bye. 25 Barbies in the study with only 14.5 outfits between them? See ya! All the toys were moved back to the kids’ rooms, and are housed in their active play bins, under their beds, or in the closet.

With the living areas of the home free from the kid stuff, we asked ourselves: what do we want to see when the kids are home with us, playing on their own or with us? What kind of play do we want to encourage? How can we be intentional about encouraging creative play and play-based learning in our home?

The intentional playspace was born.

Our goal was to redesign our little-used study into a functional space in which the children could play and work alongside us. Since our study is located just off the entryway from the front door in our open-floor plan home, we knew that we wanted the playspace to look “nice:” we wanted it to look like it was part of our home, and we wanted the area to be visually appealing to kids and grown-ups. As a teacher, I think I tend to look at my children’s home activities a little differently than some people. I don’t mean that I want to bombard them with school-like activities every waking minute of the day, but I do tend to focus on the educational value of where and how they’re spending their time.

I’m a believer in the idea that parents are a child’s first teacher in every sense of the word, and I am a firm believer in the certainty that children learn through play…in fact, I feel that they learn much, much more through creative-play-based activities and experiential learning than they do sitting at a desk…but I digress…  Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio principles drive my approach to living and learning with my children, though we do balance this approach with a healthy sprinkling of more mainstream kid-activities and, of course, that chipper yellow sponge that shall remain unnamed…  J

When it came to giving the children a space of their own, I knew I wanted to create the feel and function of a Waldorf-inspired classroom right here in our study. The two big concepts I focused on to enhance the aesthetics of our space were artistic displays and a comfortable feeling of home.

Artistic Displays

Displaying the children’s artwork in this space was a must for me: I love the look of matting and framing young children’s art, like you see here in this gorgeous display from Echoes of Laughter. Now as a mother, I love every little crayoned and painted masterpiece that comes out of my two, but as an artist- and as a human- I recognize the fact that some of the paintings they make just look like scribbles and mistakes. (Shh- don’t tell the littles!) I went through their artwork files and picked out three pieces that I loved, that had that artsy-feel, and that matched pretty well with our paint scheme and general home décor. I placed them in cream mattes within bold, black frames (just like the rest of the art and photographs in our home). Two of them went up on the wall above the desk, but I’m still working on convincing the hubs that the third- the mixed media horse- needs to be up there too. I think it’s the one wandering eye of the horst that’s bugging him…I’m working on him…  J

n addition to the kids’ art, I also wanted to display some grown-up art as well. I’m on the lookout for the perfect piece of subway art, but I’m trying to be patient: there are so many out there to choose from, and I don’t want to rush into anything pricey without making sure it speaks to what we really believe…Imagination by naokosstoop  is a beautiful art print at the top of the list at the moment, as is this subway art from AlexanderCreative, but I’m still deliberating…

Photographs are another must-have for the playspace. Last Christmas I laminated five 8.5x11 collages with family photos from the previous year. These travel around with the kids, and I wanted to give them a more permanent home in the playspace. A couple mini-albums and small scrapbooks from our adventures sit on the desk, and the baby books and family albums are on low shelves within grabbing distance. Little Lady likes to flip through our wedding album to get ideas for playing dress up, and Little Man loves to pull out his Yo Gabba Gabba birthday album and point out all the characters of the show. I’ve also taken to setting out a rotating display of small framed photos featuring the kids in action: they love to rearrange the photos to retell stories of the places we’ve been and the adventures we’ve had. I’m in the process of matting and framing some recent professional photos of the kiddos too, but the frames are a little spendy so I’m pacing myself on those…

Comfortable Feeling of Home

One obstacle to creating a playspace in what is effectively the entryway of our home has been how to make it kid-friendly without sacrificing the continuity of our home décor scheme. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m no decorating snob. But have you noticed that much of the affordable kid and playroom furniture is either painted in primary colors, made of plastic, or splashed with cartoon characters? This is my own preference, of course, but I wince at the thought of that being the first thing you’d see when you enter my home. On the other hand, there’s just no way that I would spend the hundreds of dollars it would take to give the space that natural, distressed, contemporary feel I love from Pottery Barn Kids…or from Target, for that matter! I had an image in my mind, some sort of cross between a Waldorf classroom (check out these amazing learning environments from Let the Children Play) and an extension of my living room…books, low shelves, nature, manipulatives, small chairs and tables, a grown-up chair to suggle up in with a good book…neutral tones, black accents, dark wood grain, baskets… It took some creativity, thrifting, and patience to pull together the furniture we wanted, (more on thrifted furniture and refinished pieces to come tomorrow in Workspace) but it’s coming together, and it looks like it belongs with the rest of our home.

I’ve taken you through my thought-processes in trying to bring beauty and continuity into our playspace…now it’s your turn! Look over your Dreaming and Planning Sheets and your Atmosphere Sheet. What do you want to see when you look at your new playroom? What color scheme will you use? What will be on the walls? What’s “the look” and “the feel” you’re going for…and what does that tell you about yourself and your children? I’ll see you back here tomorrow to talk about the Workspaces you’ll focus on in your new playroom!

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