My mother-in-law, a retired occupational therapist who spent thirty-some years working with young children, has always told me: "A child's occupation is to play." Purposeful play, that is. Ideally, there should be a purpose to every toy purchased, craft planned, and activity set up. I really like The Complete Resource Book for Preschoolers. It has great themed lesson plans that detail the goals of each activity (i.e. fine motor, math, language, etc.) This is also where I first learned how setting up play and learning zones can really help a child focus and play well. I am, by no means, an expert on this subject. But I have found my kids playing better and longer (improved attention span) by setting up simple zones around the house. Since some of my friends have been asking how I organize/ decorate/ set up my home, I thought I'd share a few of my ideas here (as organizing/ decorating/ setting up house primarily revolves around the kids right now).
Our playroom is located on the second level in a bonus room above the garage. (If we didn't have the bonus room, it would be located in the basement.) This is where I have my blocks, dramatic play, language, and technology zones.
Blocks zone houses blocks, duplos, trains, cars, train tracks, and stacking and sorting toys. It is supposed to encourage children to build things and learn how to put things together.
Dramatic play zone is where I put all the dress-up clothes and accessories, play food, stuffed animals, and figurines. It is supposed to encourage imagination and mimicking and practicing everyday living.
Language zone contains, what I like to call, "look books", or books that require more adult interaction (think "I Spy" or "Where's Waldo" type of material). By going through these books together, the parent can help develop the child's language skills.
Technology zone consists of electronic learning toys such as the Word Whammer, Leapster, and Leap Pad. This area also includes the computer where I've bookmarked, for the most part, educational sites, that Calvin can easily navigate to himself. I usually try to sit with him during his 30-minute computer session to walk him through some of the games and concepts. (By the way, we've found the Leapster to be a great educational toy when paired with The Letter Factory and The Word Factory games. With The Letter Factory, Calvin learned his letters and phonics in 24 hours, and within a week of The Word Factory, he's been sounding out simple words to spell.)
The playroom is also where I plan to host play dates and playgroups as these zones tend to get noisy :).
The Family Room
This is where I've set up my fine motor and games zones.
Fine motor zone includes beads and stringing activities, play tools and screws, and anything that will (hopefully) encourage development of the small muscles. (I also have coloring books and small crayons here. A therapist I once met told me that giving children thin and short crayons to work with will help kids graduate from the "fist grasp" to "proper pencil" grasp.)
Game zone houses age-appropriate puzzles and games (i.e. Memory and Bingo).
The Breakfast Room
Besides being the "dining zone", the breakfast room is also the art and "learning" zones (which incorporates activities that would technically fall into fine motor, math, discovery, etc.... Basically, anything that can get a bit messy and is better done over non-carpeted areas.) This is where we do all our crafts, painting, and workbook pages.
This is where I keep the children's books and any toys that are "special" or specific to them (e.g. legos and tiny figurines - things not appropriate for crawling babies - in Calvin's room, play jewelry and dollhouse in Charissa's room, and infant toys in the nursery.)
Another thing I've found to be crucial to making the zones work effectively is storing all the toys and activities at their height. This way, they can take out and put things back by themselves. Not only have setting up zones helped Calvin and Charissa play better, it's also helped me maintain my sanity (no need to sift through all their toys looking for missing puzzle pieces or finding a wad of dried play-doh two months later...)
And one last note, you don't have to spend a lot of money to provide good stimulation. With a little bit of imagination and things around the house, you can put together purposeful activity centers!
From left to right: A "piggy bank" made from a large yogurt container and buttons for number counting; A taped-to-a-cardboard-box angled paper towel tube, tupperware, and some small rolling objects to help kids experiment with very basic physics; Chopsticks, pompoms, and yogurt cups to practice color sorting and help hone those fine motor skills.